London Design Biennale – immersive storytelling with purpose

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The inaugural London Design Biennale opened at Somerset House on 7th September. It’s an exhibition that’s hard to place, combining art, product design, and architecture. 37 countries are exhibiting and each has made a response on the theme of Utopia. But what and who is it all for?

The term Biennale sounds lofty. I expected serious propositions for future place-making and living. In fact, these are pieces expressing singular ideas, sometimes elegantly, sometimes ambiguously. It’s more poetry than design. But certainly entertaining.

Making your way through the labyrinth of Somerset House chambers you are immersed in one world after the next. The installations work best when they have a clear purpose and deliver a delightful experience too. The first without the second is too dry while the second without the first seems pointless.

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Israel

Israel displays one of the few practical designs on show, Yaniv Kadosh’s AIDrop. The self-rotating packs can be used to drop 3kg of aid in disaster zones. An impressive concept that’s also charming in the space.

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France
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France

France’s exhibit is a powerful piece of storytelling. Benjamin Loyaute’s work ‘le bruit des bonbons – The Astounding Eyes of Syria’ provides a very human portrait of refugees through their emotive memories of sweets from back home. The installation combines a beautiful film, evocative words, and a machine that vends packets of the soft pink sweets described in the film. It’s clever and poignant. And raises money for its cause.

These exhibits make the hefty ticket price worthwhile.

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Austria
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The Netherlands

Other displays, such as this blue foam room of objects from The Netherlands, and Austria’s LeveL kinetic light sculpture, which moves and dims in response to visitors, are enjoyably theatrical. They are fun.

For me, the whole event is a demonstration of the use of ‘installation’ as a medium, a medium well-used by brands in retail and leisure environments today. In fact, the maturity of environment design as a discipline means that this exhibition lacks impact. It lacks awe. It’s hard to use spectacle to make lofty statements, when we see it done so well across the stores, restaurants and theatres of London every day.

The overall impression is that of shop windows, not unlike walking the length of Regent Street before Christmas. But if these exhibits are simply a way of ‘merchandising’ meaningful discussions on social issues, which I hope are taking place behind closed doors at the many scheduled talks, then that is valid purpose enough.

The London Design Biennale is at Somerset House 7 – 27 September 2016.