What to see at the 2021 London Design Biennale


If you are looking to avoid Venice this year, London may be your best bet. While not the OG Architecture Biennale, the 2021 London Design Biennale (LDB), held at Somerset House, offers equally beautiful weather this year, as well as a feast of performances by design and architecture to be savored among nations and representative geographic regions. Postponed last year after the COVID-19 pandemic caused lockdowns around the world, the third LDB now ends until the end of June – here’s what to check for 2021.

Forest for change

This year, the artistic director of LDB, the artist and set designer Es Devlin, invited participants to respond to the theme of “resonance”. “Everything we design and everything we produce resonates” mentionned Devlin. “Every idea we generate has the power to reach a mass digital audience unsuspected by previous generations, while the lifespan of the physical products we create often lasts far beyond our own. Whether in the social media feeds of millions of people or in the wombs of marine animals, our ideas and our objects persist.

When he took over as artistic director of the Biennale, Devlin was told that trees were originally prohibited in the courtyard of Somerset House, the 250-year-old neoclassical building that has housed the LDB since its inception in 2016 So naturally, Devlin filled the space with a forest.

This is the first time that the courtyard has seen such flora – 400 trees in all – and it is quite a spectacle; birds and insects have already made their home there. The purpose of the forest, according to Devlin, is to “counteract [the] attitude of human domination over nature, allowing [it] to go beyond the whole yard. As the shift to green cities gains ground, Forest for change alludes to the green potential of urban environments, especially in places where such vegetation is (or in this case, was not) welcome.

Canada: DUCK

Who thought air ducts could be so cool, so glamorous? The Vancouver-based Dream architecture and Canadian designers Venelin Kokalov, Mark Melnichuk and Kimberley Glauber certainly think so. (And they are not the first either if you remember the giant of PUP Architects H-VAC from 2017). The Canadian facility, much like PUP, invites Londoners to think about what ductwork can do for them. On a planet of increasingly drastic weather conditions, they help us stay cool and warm when we need them, but emit billions of tons of CO2 in the process. Also, as the population of our planet increases, more and more people will need thermal comfort, creating a kind of feedback loop.

However, the devices that appease our temperature demands are rarely seen, often hidden despite their impact on the planet so great. Here, that is not the case as the public is confronted with two oversized conduits that run through a gallery inside Somerset House. As the conduits go, they’re pretty lavish, crafted from shiny gold-tone aluminum metal. Visitors cannot ignore them either, as they have to hide under them and in doing so, hear and smell them too.

Through DUCK, its designers ask the following questions: Are we prepared to accept varying indoor temperatures that respond to seasonal changes? Can architecture fundamentally move away from its reliance on mechanical systems and the vast energy currently required to make buildings habitable? Should we continue to rely on these systems to create comfortable but inefficient internal micro-climates to the detriment of our planet?

Germany: Archeology Spoon

Archeology Spoon (Courtesy of Helena Reinsch)

The spoon has been the subject of fascination for more than you might think. Legendary character creator Adrian Frutiger mentionned in 1990, “If you can remember the shape of your lunch spoon, it must be the wrong shape.” Critic Reyner Banham also weighed on the spoon with a little more confidence: “There’s almost nothing a designer can do with a spoon except fuck it up.” Both reviewers were right, but apparently the spoon designers were not deterred and subsequently produced millions of spoons. The problem today, however, is that many of them are plastic, plastic that ends up either in landfills or in the sea.

Taking control where designers did not, the EU stepped in to ban single-use plastics, like the spoon, effective this year. To designers Peter Eckart and Kai Linke, this represents the end of an era and Archeology Spoon presents disposable spoons as archaeological artifacts worthy of display. Here there are spoons of all shapes, sizes and colors, and together they make a pretty aesthetic display.

The spoon showcase is also countered by videos that show alternatives and how different cultures avoid the spoon while eating, using their hands for example.

The creators of the environment: Flow of Consciousness

a round sculpture made up of different circles
Da’irah is both a sculpture and a play landscape (courtesy Designers in the Middle)

Participants from the Middle East, including Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine and Qatar, gathered to Flow of consciousness, an exhibition where each participant produced a wooden object – be it a piece of furniture or other home accessories – to highlight different cultural norms and forms while being a nod to the how the pandemic has forced many people to work from home, to create a room full of captivating objects.

Found inside Flow of Consciousness is ‘Da’irah‘(meaning circle) – a play landscape featuring circular shapes sampled at gypsum extrusion factories in Kuwait, all chosen by local manufacturers as the factories strive to meet demand for Western luxury itself – saying exotic. Another design sees a ping pong table doubling as a space divider and even a door, with the ping pong net using a pattern similar to a moucharabieh, an Islamic architectural motif typical of the heavily modeled trellis. Visitors can also find a Rujum (pile of stone) something that those in the ancient Arab civilization of the Nabataeans once used for navigation purposes, but which here can be used for standing, sitting and climbing.

New York City: Charging room

Inside a green relaxation room at the 2021 London Design Biennale
Charging room (Courtesy of Studio Ailleurs)

Last year, New York City became the hotspot for the pandemic as scenes of refrigerated trucks lining up outside hospitals as makeshift morgues horrified many. This experience not only haunted audiences, first responders had to contend with it as well, something New York-based Studio Elsewhere addresses with Charging room. The studio worked with scientific and clinical partners at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City to develop multisensory healing environments, which draw on research elsewhere in mental wellness for medical workers and primary caregivers. line.


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