London Design Festival Day 5: Championing Great Design to Improve Lives

Text & photographs by Zahira Asmal

We had an early start at the Design Council in Angel, Islington – a short distance from my old home. This is my second visit to the Design Council, and I am particularly interested in learning about the systems and policies on design in the UK. South Africa does not have an all-encompassing body representing design and certainly no design institution that I am aware of that is backed by the government in quite the same way it is done in the UK. The absence of a design institution such as the Design Council proves to be an impediment to developing coherent, quality structures, products and services in a country that needs it so desperately – in business, healthcare, education and housing. This is not to say that South Africa does not have good design – however the absence of a government supported body representing and championing design is certainly felt.

I wished to learn more about the structure of the Design Council, the programme, the funding and how the council benefits the UK and countries working with the UK.

For lunch we went to the WRONG FOR HAY pop restaurant at the critically acclaimed Peckham Refreshment Rooms especially created for the London Design Festival.

Thereafter, we went on a guided visit of the Sustain Exhibition at the Royal College of Art (RCA). Clare Brass, Head of Sustain RCA and Dejan Mitrovic, the Sustain Global Director met us. The exhibition comprised of a selection of work by students across various disciplines at the RCA. The facilitation workshops follow a ‘problem-as-opportunities’ approach, encouraging participants to develop systemic solutions that are socially and environmentally beneficial as well as economically viable. The projects were well researched and well demonstrated at the exhibition. There were some highlights for me from Brazil, South Africa and India – projects that I would like to connect to our Designing Democracy programme. It was clear in these cases that students drew inspiration from their native countries. There was a strong sense of improving the social situations there. In some cases such as the project by Shruti Grove – called Gu Bank – it could easily be cross-pollinated in South Africa. I believe that students are encouraged to share their work with other countries through the RCA platform.

To conclude the very educational day and week’s activities, I joined the representatives from Thailand Creative & Design Centre (TCDC) – Nunnaree Panichkul and Nuttawee Tangnoi – for a sweet stroll to the Serpentine Gallery to visit the annual pavilion installation adjacent to the gallery. Multi award-winning Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto designed the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2013. He is the thirteenth and, at 41, youngest architect to accept the invitation to design a temporary structure for the Serpentine Gallery. The most ambitious architectural programme of its kind worldwide, the Serpentine’s annual Pavilion commission is one of the most anticipated events on the cultural calendar. Past Pavilions have included designs by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei (2012), Frank Gehry (2008), the late Oscar Niemeyer (2003) and Zaha Hadid, who designed the inaugural structure in 2000.

Occupying some 350 square-metres of lawn in front of the Serpentine Gallery, Sou Fujimoto’s delicate, latticed structure of 20mm steel poles have a lightweight and semi-transparent appearance that allows it to blend, cloud-like, into the landscape and against the classical backdrop of the Gallery’s colonnaded East wing. Designed as a flexible, multi-purpose social space – with a café sited inside – visitors were encouraged to enter and interact with the Pavilion in different ways throughout its four-month tenure in London’s Kensington Gardens. We were fortunate to catch it during LDF2013 – as September marks its last month.

WRAP UP: Design can be serious. Design can be fun.

This short and intense trip to the London Design Festival with the International Design Connections programme has been a rewarding experience for me and am looking forward to connecting and collaborating with the designers, design institutions and curators that we met as well as applying the insights and lessons that I have learned along the way in my work in South Africa and Brazil.

I would have liked to connect more with the other invited guests from Thailand, India, Russia, Turkey and Hong Kong – it would have been good for us to have seen brief presentations of the work from the other programme participants. We did manage, however, to chat during our delicious lunches each day and I am hopeful this will lead to positive collaborations.

Evonne Mackenzie and Niamh Tuft were our generous, ever smiling and accommodating hosts and tour guides. Sarah Mann, Tom Porter and Lois Anguria facilitated my visit to London. I am very grateful for the opportunity and look forward to more fun collaborations with the British Council.

Thank you for joining me on this journey with Design Connections at the London Design Festival 2013. Be sure to stay connected and in touch by following us on Twitter and on Facebook. You can also subscribe to our newsletter here.