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What To See At This Year's London Design Festival

Marking its 15th anniversary this month, The London Design Festival will transform the capital’s landscape over its ten-day run, with several events taking place within the Brompton Design District

You may remember the late Zaha Hadid’s impressive polished-concrete sculptural piece Urban Nebula, all 30 tonnes of which temporarily transformed the façade of the Southbank Centre. Or perhaps Tom Dixon’s riotous Chair Grab springs to mind, when 500 polystyrene chairs were given away in Trafalgar Square, resulting in what can only be described as pure middle-class mayhem. From Audi robots (Outrace by Kram/Weisshaar) to the first-ever opening of the Dean’s Staircase at St Paul’s Cathedral (John Pawson’s Perspectives installation), The London Design Festival has become a key calendar moment in the capital’s autumnal creative season, alongside Fashion Week, Frieze London and the London Film Festival. For the past 15 years, it has provided a well-established platform for industry stars to ascend, and shine. 

As well as setting the stage for a number of major trade shows including 100% Design, Decorex International, designjunction, Focus/17 and The London Design Fair, the Festival will incorporate eight official Design Districts across the capital, including the Brompton Design District. Pioneering an alternative perspective on design with its Other Stories theme, the District’s curator Jane Withers will be building on the reputation of the zone, which launched just over a decade ago, by focusing on the people behind the products. The theme, and indeed the sentiment, is reflected through a cluster of projects that reveal the impact of “engaged design” and explore the “non-design perspectives” contributing to this process.

“Design festivals and fairs tend to focus on finished products or projects, but we are interested in exploring the process of design development and exposing its inner workings,” Withers says. “Brompton has always had an experimental approach and been interested in expanding the remit of design. With the Other Stories theme, we wanted to showcase designers who are rethinking both how we make and consume products.”

Easily filling its biggest temporary space yet, taking over three adjoining four-storey townhouses on Cromwell Place, the zone will give visitors the opportunity to encounter work that “reflects alternative narratives” and triggers the imagination.  Located within the townhouses is a multitude of treasures, such as contemporary brass pieces made by Carl Auböck, as well as coffee and pepper mills by Michael Anastassiades and a series of eggs that open into bowls by Jacqueline Rabun. 

Meanwhile, furniture designer Faye Toogood will be presenting The Trade Show at the garage at North Terrace, for which she has cast 50 special editions of her Spade Chairs in aluminium. Famed for her skilful sculptural works, all of which are handmade by small-scale, traditional artisans, Toogood’s chairs will be traded for works by other British-based contemporaries, including artists, fashion designers, sculptors, photographers and jewellers. And furniture doyens of a totally different nature, Molteni&C|Dada will present Amare Gio Ponti, a documentary film on the famed Italian designer and artist Gio Ponti, alongside a reinterpretation of some of his greatest work. Presented by Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen, these pieces will be upholstered in fabrics from the Kvadrat/Raf Simons collection in collaboration with the Gio Ponti Archives to pay tribute to the architect’s aesthetic. 

Shedding a little light on the fluidity of design, ShadeVolume by Marc Trotereau and Merel Karhof will display a modern deconstruction of the classic lampshade by linking a number of models together, to create endless combinations of lamps in the process. The duo has created a three-metre-tall totem for the District, which will be installed within an historic Victorian wooden staircase, linking one floor to another. “There’s so much going on in Brompton this year that it is hard to choose a must-see,” Withers says. “I am keen to see Okolo’s photographic atlas of 20th-century buildings documenting the custom-made details in modernist buildings – design gems that are usually overlooked. A dresser in the kitchen of a Barragán house or a sculptural doorknob in Casa Mollino.” 

One of the most intriguing stories told this year is perhaps that of the Fogo Islanders. Ingenious design has become essential to surviving and thriving through centuries of geographic isolation, forcing the islanders of the remote community, situated off the north-east coast of Newfoundland, to become masters of recycling and making things by hand. For the past seven years, international artists and designers have been making pilgrimages to the island in order to learn more about its culture, resulting in a number of furniture and textile projects. The assortment of distinctive pieces includes The Long Bench by Ineke Hans, The Bertha Chair by Donna Wilson, and Nick Herder’s Puppy Table trilogy. 

As part of a cluster of social design projects that explores how design can help communities and regeneration, the island even has its own economic nutrition labelling system. "Zita Cobb, the business brain behind the development of this remote island in Newfoundland has come up with a system that shows where the money goes when a piece of furniture is sold and its local and global impact,” says Withers. “Ideas like this would really inform consumers about the impact of their purchasing decisions, and could well become standard practice in the future.”

Within walking distance of the District is, of course, the Victoria & Albert Museum, which hosts many of the Festival’s 2017 landmark projects. Standout installations include British designer Ross Lovegrove’s Transmission tapestry, a spectacular 25-metre-long, three-dimensional artwork inspired by the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries; and While We Wait, a stone construction by Palestinian architects Elias and Yousef Anastas inspired by the scenic Cremisan Valley located on the seam between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, which explores the cultural claim of nature in the region.

Over on the high street, local shops will also be doing their bit. You’ll find exhibitions at Boffi, B&B Italia, Cassina, The Conran Shop, Divertimenti, Harrods, Kartell, Mint, Poltrona Frau, Se, Skandium and Smallbone of Devizes throughout the week. 

“I think it’s fair to say Brompton has the most expansive and varied programme among the districts,” Withers concludes. “As well as the pop-ups, Brompton has many of the best design showrooms in London.” 

London Design Festival, 16-24 September, www.londondesignfestival.com; www.bromptondesigndistrict.com