From giant leathery fish with soft plush jaws to climb inside and lose oneself to a smart idea for recycling the microplastic particles polluting the oceans, the inaugural London Design Biennale showcased creative visions from six Commonwealth member states among the 37 countries featured in the neo-classical surroundings of Somerset House. With a theme that took the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia as its launchpad, the exhibits varied widely, featuring both hard-edged innovative solutions for global problems and playful creations that explored the whimsy implicit in utopian visions.
The august courtyard was the setting for the entries of two of the Commonwealth members, Nigeria and Britain. Dominating the space, the UK’s offering was ‘Forecast’, a 14-metre-high kinetic sculpture by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum that looks like a giant collection of meteorological instruments. It seemed sluggish in the gentle breeze on the day this writer visited and perhaps needed a strong nautical gale to evoke both the British seafaring tradition and the huge renewable energy potential it was meant to symbolise. The installation’s nod to the wind turbines that are populating the wilder upland spots of Britain and its coastline seemed to be unconsciously echoed in siting the installation’s functional brutalism in a picturesque tourist spot such as this grand riverside palazzo.
‘It’s like a machine that doesn’t actually do anything. Utopia is an island that doesn’t exist—this is a utopian object,’ Barber told the Financial Times. ‘I guess we’re trying to represent the country in a physical way. It’s all quite abstract.’ His design partner, Osgerby, took up the theme: ‘Looking back at our history as an island nation, we relied on wind power to discover new places, to explore the world. In this object is this idea of the elements, which is a national preoccupation, and the discovery of new places, of seeking cultural enlightenment from travel.’
Nigeria’s design team, led by software engineer turned fashion designer Gozi Ochonogor, aimed to highlight the ambiguous benefits of the Niger Delta’s oil riches, featuring ‘a contemporary take on a typical home in the region … raised on stilts elevated above an oil trough’. It was a supposed to include ‘objects made from recycled petroleum products, an interactive light installation about gas flares, and a survival raincoat designed to deal with flash floods’. None of these were apparent because the oil trough, which according to the designer hinted at ‘a utopian future where oil is perceived in alternate ramifications’, also suggested a dystopian health and safety nightmare for the biennale’s organisers and the stand was dismantled and fenced off at midnight half-way through the show.
Someone involved in setting up the exhibition said the Nigerian structure had been deemed unsafe for public access by Somerset House and thus had to protected by barriers. A combination of inexperienced fabricators (who were first-year architecture students) and working drawings that did not take into account the camber of the courtyard did not help. ‘Essentially, the Nigerian government would not give the designer any money and she had to fund it entirely by herself.’ Strangely, the installation, fenced off and ignored in a corner of the courtyard, inadvertently became far more analogous to Nigeria’s Delta: a woebegone metaphor for a disregarded corner of that country, with a hint of what might have been.
The best entries used design to address grave social, economic or environmental problems. One example was an Israeli project that took as its inspiration the gyroscopic function of a sycamore seed to imagine a cardboard box that could be used to safely drop small amounts of aid in disaster zones. Similarly, Australia’s entry, ‘Plastic Effects’, proposes a functional and even attractive use for the microplastic debris swirling around the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans in huge vortexes of petrochemical particles. The designers, Brodie Neill, ‘harvested’ this lethal rubbish and transformed it into a mosaic plastic composite table top. This highlights the problem of marine microplastics but also cannily suggests a commercial answer, accepting that environmental initiatives fails unless they can be seen to turn a profit for someone.
Much like the country itself, India’s display overwhelmed the senses. ‘Chakraview’ was all about giving context to design in a country of such vast contrasts, focusing on where myth and modernity meet. Rajshree Pathy, curator of the exhibit and founder of the India Design Forum, called it ‘a narrative of India’s diverse religious, social, and political journeys and a churn of all the above’. Never mind the depth, feel the diversity. Appropriately for an industrialist, Pathy’s vision came across like a sales pitch for foreign investment in modern India, even if there was a monochrome video showing a yoga guru in tortuous poses and a hand-powered washing machine.
South Africa turned to an exuberant ad man turned designer, Porky Hefer, for its series of sculptural suspended chairs, which consume you as much as provide you with a seat. The nest-like mouth may belong to a leathery orca, piranha or crocodile, all with soft-plush teeth bared, but offering a cocoon to retreat into. These childlike creations are the opposite of the scarred South Africa the outside world imagines, abandoning gritty social realities for an imagined realm, according to Porky Hefer, of ‘art installation and sensory asylum’.
Pakistan’s entry—‘Daalaan’ by the Karachi-based Coalesce Design Studio—also looked back to childhood as a utopia. The work was undeniably attractive, featuring beautifully-made revolving wooden stools based on traditional children’s spinning tops (lattu in Urdu), set off by silkscreen hangings with henna designs. However, surrounded by exhibits that tried to grapple with ‘big questions and ideas about sustainability, migration, pollution, energy, cities and social equality’, it felt like the most underpowered installation of the Commonwealth entries. While it aspired to ‘break down social barriers and invite interaction between strangers’, visitors seemed reluctant to interact much with each other or the installation (unlike, for example, the sci-fi pneumatic tubes of the Turkish entry).
The New York Times called London ‘the design capital of the world’ in 2012, declaring: ‘Britain produces better designers and design impresarios than anywhere else.’ Part of that is surely down to the wealth of talent that the country attracts from around the world, not least from Commonwealth countries. At a time when an isolationist-minded Britain looks to be turning in on itself as it withdraws from Europe, it is heartening to see design act as a bridge between countries and cultures.