Fictitious Landscapes

Inaugurating this September, a prescient international event offers a solution to one of the greatest design deficiencies of the English capital.

Design biennales are abundant, with the Istanbul Design Biennial, Biennale Interieur, Belgium, and the Gwangju Design Biennale, South Korea, being but a few examples – but there are only a scattering that use the Venice Biennale model: an open invitation issued to countries to submit a proposal based on a speci c connecting theme or concept. However, the director of London’s debut event, Christopher Turner, clearly favours the Venice model, and with more than 35 countries participating, it appears the design world is ready for another great international event of vast scope.

Timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s classic text Utopia, the event requires each entrant to create a site-specific installation on the chosen theme, Utopia by Design. The international responses demonstrate developments, both culturally and semantically, in the understanding of the term since it was coined for More’s fictional island society. Although rather abstract in theory, the topics manifested in the exhibition works include prescient and pressing issues – migration, social equality, pollution, environmental sustainability.

The venue for the event, Somerset House on the south bank of the River Thames in Central London, has its own rich design history dating back to 1547 and an illustrious past. More himself, who strived against the “conspiracy of the rich”, might not have chosen such a building – a palatial home for Edward Seymour, who created for himself the role of Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset in 1547 after the death of King Henry VIII. However, the Neoclassical building as it stands today will be the temporary home to a multitude of bespoke installations, which gives credence to More’s idea of a theoretical place. Ranging from concrete tents to contemporary film and performances, the exhibits will, for just three weeks, ignite their own visions of the future.

In a recent interview with Dezeen Magazine, Turner explains the thinking behind the exhibition’s theme: “More’s fictional island of Utopia (which means ‘no place’) is entirely man- made, and this triumph of design and technology contributes to the apparent happiness of its population. Indeed, many utopias – and dystopias – rely on the transformative power of technology to drive their plots. These fictions are a place where futuristic designs and ideas are often trialled.”

One of the examples that espouses a psychological narrative comes from Germany’s design team, Olivia Herms and Konstantin Grcic. Having been developers of furniture, products and lighting for leading companies in the design field, the duo plan to interpret the given theme as a conceptual state of mind and have created two rooms in which the audience can reflect upon it. One, starkly painted white, will contain only an easel with the words of John Malkovich written on it: “Utopia means elsewhere.” The second, a more sombre, blackened space, is transformed into a living area of sorts – replete with a fire and chairs – offering an invitation to its audience to sit and think. Grcic says of their contribution: “it does not reference More’s book but instead describes Utopia as an expression of desire, or a criticism of existing conditions. My installation alludes to the fact that Utopia is a very subjective and individual concept, and that its meaning therefore differs from one person to another.”

Herms and Grcic’s presentation blurs the lines between design and architecture: a boundary that has always been present, but since Assemble, a collective of architects and designers, won 2015’s Turner Prize, the gap between art, architecture and design is rapidly diminishing. Each eld is increasingly reliant on the other in order to sculpt new, alternative futures. Their submitted design is reminiscent of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s House of Dreams, an installation shown in 2005 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. As an intrinsic part of this architectural construction, resembling a white mausoleum, visitors were encouraged to remove their shoes and lay down to rest in the screened-off spaces.

Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones argued at the time that “this utopian rotunda is only partially carried out in the installation, and yet the gap between plan and practice is significant – all utopias fail.” It is an interesting comment in relation to the Design Biennale’s theme, as it raises the inherent problem of a conceived place: one that is imagined but is not really functional or attainable. The designers and architects involved might not be searching for a fully realised subject matter, but they should be commended for their part in creating, in some way at least, a temporary better world.

Palestine is also explored in the first London Biennale, represented by Decolonizing Architecture, who directly address issues surrounding migration and displacement. An architectural collective founded in 2007 founded by Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman, they rst worked together at the 2003 Venice Biennale, creating Stateless Nation, an installation in the Giardini, made of enlarged travel documents and passports of Palestinian refugees. For the London edition they have created a concrete tent, similar to the ones used in Campus for Camps, their programme of continuing education in refugee camps on the West Bank. Any theoretical notions of a space, whether defined or undefined, are rendered insignificant when faced with the stark reality of finding homes for displaced migrants.

This is the focus of many of the collective’s projects: the borders that divide up the West Bank into parcels of land controlled by Israel or the Palestinian authorities, a topic more relevant than ever, and one that is also the focus of Mexico, represented by Fernando Romero, and Greece, represented by On·entropy. Formed of two sisters, Niki and Zoe Moskofoglou, the company is an atelier based in London and Greece, more widely known for their use of marble. In contrast, for the biennale they have turned away from a purely design focus and instead have portrayed the migrants who arrive by boat on Greece’s many islands.

The issue of relocation is present again in the proposal by Nigeria’s team of designers (Gozi Ochonogor, Efunshola Orekoya, and Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman), who consider the topic from a quite literal standpoint with their proposal for floating cities that could help combat the scourge of flooding in Nigeria. With 2.1 million people displaced as a result of the 2012 ood disaster, and over 100,000 people three years later as a result of the recurring crisis, it is a global problem that is of much concern to a country without the adequate infrastructure to provide support to those a ected. The London Design Biennale as a whole not only seeks to highlight new techniques and innovations in functional design but strives to help make the world a better place, encouraging us to adapt to it, rather than it to us.

This can be taken quite literally through the use of objects, as with Switzerland’s collaborative contribution, which takes as its inspiration the idea of “neutrality”, a concept key to Switzerland’s political identity. A design team consisting of Dimitri Bähler, Mathieu Rivier, Adrien Rovero, Jörg Boner, Sarah Kueng and Lovis Caputo, Stéphanie Baechler, Sybille Stoeckli, Dominic Plueer and Oliver Smitt have collaborated with seven specialist manufacturers, each with detailed expertise in their field, to create designs that are functional, enduring and discreet, reflecting the Swiss design tradition.

Curator Giovanna Lisignoli relates “neutrality” in design to both Switzerland’s historical political inertia as well as to Thomas More’s own imagined landscape. “It epitomises a ‘neutral’ space, where tensions between fiction and reality are allowed to play out against each other, thus creating an in-between space for experiment, debate and movement.”

On a functional level, this can be seen in the design of Jörg Boner’s SIDAR Schätti lamp, for example, which merges functional material – concrete, sheet metal, and steel cable – with a fluid modernist aesthetic: the neutral language of its design favours functionality and restraint over amboyance and excess. This is seen again in the work of Dimitri Bähler, whose pared-down designs use colour and innovative coatings to explore materiality and tactility – again referencing the “in-between space.” The Swiss team both contribute to and draw upon a long lineage of design in Switzerland, a country well known for its modern design heritage as epitomised by Le Corbusier, the International Typographic Style, Josef Müller-Brockmann and Vitra.

In a time of environmental instability, many more of the contributions make reference to the potential dissolution of the planet’s ecosystems. Brodie Neill from the Austrian team (who was born and raised in Tasmania), takes his home as inspiration – a place in which the coastline is increasingly polluted by toxic plastic waste that is being circulated by the networks of oceanic currents originating in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Contributing to an intriguing commercial portfolio, Neill’s solutions are reminiscent of Pierre Paulin, with bold, rounded shapes that address functionality with sleek, imaginative lines. For his biennale submission, Neill will combine years of industrial design experience with ideas from 19th century specimen table tops – ingrained with rare and unusual stones and marbles. The creation will involve a terrazzo-like table with more common specimens of plastic composites, which manifest guratively as a view on society’s neglect of the environment and the repercussions of man-made materials pervading the landscape. Neill, who has used recyclable material as a focus in earlier works such as the starburst-shaped recycled aluminium Supernova trestle, will focus for this event on how such waste can be transformed into a functional material.

There is, of course, a similarity between the Design Biennale and the Design Festival, and indeed they occur at the same time. However, there are differences in the practices represented, and it is hoped the former will equally become a highlight of the cultural calendar. As Grcic says: “Design is a form of thinking and that implies searching, asking questions. It is more about asking the right questions than giving the right answers.” The upcoming London Biennale rises to its brief of showcasing the talents of contemporary practitioners and for its major inauguration, prompts them to ask the right questions about utopian ideas for our times. As an audience, we, in turn, look forward to the answers.

Words Niamh Coghlan

London Design Biennale. Somerset House. 7-27 September.