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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.

London Design Festival Day 4: Young, Hip & Happening

Text & photographs by Zahira Asmal

A refreshing and fun day across London commenced with a casual breakfast presentation by It’s Nice That, whose work is very nice indeed. Founded in 2007, It’s Nice That is a publishing platform that encompasses several different online, print and events offerings as part of its mission of championing creativity across the art and design world.

We met with Will Hudson (Founder & Director) and Alex Bec who took us through their work and projects. The website – which is updated daily with at least nine new articles – attracts a loyal, international readership of around 350,000 unique users a month. I see a collaboration with It’s Nice That and 2050 in Cape Town.

We then went to the OKAY Studio to see the Loose Thread exhibition at the Ben Sherman Mod_ular Blanc Space. OKAY Studio is a collective of individual designers sharing a workspace and design ethos. Each has broken their own ground, with some also working for leading design studios while others work on consultancy projects. As a collective, they create projects that they exhibit both locally and globally – in line with their cosmopolitan make up. They also produce work with their own clients and exhibit in galleries and museums internationally. All designers at OKAY Studio met while studying on the Royal College of Art’s Design Products course, and have continued to work alongside each other, sharing resources and sometimes collaborating on client work and exhibitions.

A considered, multidimensional exhibition and sensory experience, Perfume, sir?, in Shoreditch with Jerome Rigaud and Alex Bettler – is a journey through taste, smell and visual delights with design. For LDF13 DesignMarketo specially commissioned objects revolving around the peppercorn and scents, designed objects inviting a range of designers, scents, flavours, workshops and cocktails inspired by and infused with pepper.

Around the corner from Perfume, sir?, we had a quick and very delicious pasta lunch at Burro e Salvia before an onsite meeting with the UK Crafts Council at Design Junction – a busy trade fair full of quirky and beautiful items. The concept that interested me was the NOT ANOTHER BILL. The packaging and concept are fun and delightful. You can subscribe from £17,50 per month including P&P to have gifts sent to yourself or a friend. The subscriber gets a surprise present in the post and it makes the letterbox a more interesting place – their promise – “We’ll help you discover great artists, designers and brands”

We went on to Somerset House – the home of London Fashion Week for the British Council round up of 10 Emerging Talent. There was such good work presented, too many to mention in a humble blog, check out:

Code Club
Launched in September 2012, this organisation helps teach kids how to programme. It is a volunteer led organisation for 9-11 years old. They already have 1,146 clubs in the UK comprising of 40% girls and 1,213 clubs worldwide – particularly impressive considering the programming industry. Check out their fun videos featuring top geek celebrities and royalty.

That evening I popped in at the Graphic Africa exhibition at the Habitat Store organised by Trevyn and Julian McGowan – a showcase of 20 pieces of new contemporary furniture by 16 designers from 10 countries in East, West and Southern Africa. The designers represented did very well with many selling out on the opening night.

Then on to the V&A party where I joined Neville Brody, Daljit Singh and Lynda Relph-Knight for a good catch up and chat about future projects.

Today’s designers reminded me that design work can be beautiful, informative and fun.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter as I will be tweeting everyday as well as sharing our journey on Facebook. Twitter hashtags include #ConnectZA and #LDF13. Make sure to also visit British Council’s Back of the Envelope.

London Design Festival Day 3: Design of Dreams

Photography & Text by Zahira Asmal

The third day of our programme carried the WOW factor having visited both the Zaha Hadid Gallery and the Heatherwick Studios. But first, we commenced the day with a trip to the Design Museum and a tour of the The Future is Here and Designers in Residence exhibitions. I had a technical malfunction so was unfortunately unable to take photographs with my camera so instead used the camera on my phone. I am not sure these are great quality but I think you will get the essence of the amazing things we saw. After the Design Museum, we popped over to Made by Works and then to Aram Store to meet the colourful, award winning designer Bethan Laura Wood to see the exhibition: ZigZag: Crisscrosswhich shows a new collection of work inspired by London and Mexico City. Her work is research intensive and is influenced primarily by her travels and the small, local details that she finds fascinating in these two cities. We had a filling lunch at Mishkin where I learned about the challenges facing cultural and design intuitions in Russia from Sasha Sankova, the director of the Moscow Design Museum. This chat further highlighted that there are many countries across the world facing awful bureaucracy and are desperately searching for great political and social leadership. The International Design Connections programme further highlights the importance of solidarity and if opportunities exist – we ought to assist each other with information and sharing. After lunch we visited the gallery of the world-renowned architect, Zaha Hadid. We had the privilege of a guided tour of the firm’s private model archive and gallery. It is no wonder that this architect is one of the greatest of her time in the world. Thereafter, we visited the studio of Thomas Heatherwick. Sadly we were not permitted to take photographs as there were projects and some competitions that we would not be permitted to share. The tour of the studio and works was particularly focused on the subject of their exhibitions and how they go about the process of exhibition and story telling through these platforms. The work of Heatherwick’s studio is spectacular. Designer Neil Hubard was our tour guide of the works and the studio. Both Hadid and Heatherwick push boundaries and the limits of conventional architecture and design creating a signature and spirit of their own. Deniz Ova, director of the Istanbul Design Biennial, and I popped over to Wonderland & Re-imagined on 19 Greek Street in Soho to see some fantastic items of furniture design and art. I ended my day at the Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom tribute at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre. It was a wonderful way to end the day – in reflection of the great icon – his life and his achievements – a colourful homage in music, poetry and literature. I was invited by John Battersby, the UK country manager for Brand South Africa who was also one of the contributors alongside Ben Okri and Gillian Slovo – to name a few. A day well spent reflecting on the life of a great designer of a nation… And great designers of the world. Be sure to follow us on Twitter as I will be tweeting everyday as well as sharing our journey on Facebook. Twitter hashtags include #ConnectZA and #LDF13. Make sure to also visit British Council’s Back of the Envelope.

London Design Festival Day 2: Ideas Are Fragile

Text & photographs by Zahira Asmal

Endless Stair: From Forest to Festival

Our day commenced with a visit to the Endless Stair at the Tate Modern. A very fun and striking sculpture made from American tulipwood cross-laminated timber located on the lawn in front of the gallery. We were invited to climb and explore the structure whilst enjoying views along the River Thames.

The complex construction is designed by dRMM Architects and engineered by Arup. Alex de Rijke, Co-Founder of dRMM Architects and Dean of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, has described timber as ‘the new concrete’, advocating its role as a high quality and sustainable material for the future of construction.

Global Design Forum

This edition of the Global Design Forum was riveting with great facilitation all round with ideas so exciting and thought provoking. There were four sessions in total.

  1. Imagination, innovation, application; a journey of ideas
  2. Five by Five: ideas to shake the world
  3. Creative city, smart city, successful city
  4. Designer or Brand – chicken or egg

For me there seemed to be a disconnect with the “idea generators” and the “idea implementers” where the former considered themselves cooler than the latter. However, I think the so called “suits” had stressed the importance of taking ideas to market which is highly relevant to growing a business, but also to make products, services and technologies available to customers and clients. There is still a very strong notion of “us and them.” For great ideas to be realised all types of expertise are required, especially in our highly globalised world where numerous cultural reference points need to be considered.

In the first session, Lee Shuneman, Head of Studio at Lift London / Microsoft suggests that we ought to “be better, not perfect“ stressing also that service is more important than the technology. He urged people to be available to their customers and start at good quality.

Designer, artist and writer, Daisy Ginsberg, commenced her presentation with a provocation about the purpose of design – making a better life for all – she questions: What is better? Who defines this? And how is ‘better’ defined?

She says that we assume that design and technology will make life better. Daisy suggests that we should use design to question what we are making and why we are making. “If we ask better questions, we will have better problems to solve”

In Five by Five: Ideas to shake the world, Daniel Charney presented Fixperts. It was one of many presentations at the forum that made reference to returning to a time and place of “making”. Daniel also suggested that design and communication should work together. I couldn’t agree more.

The final session was of great interest to me and was very well facilitated by the delightful Peter York, who held the session playfully. I am a great fan of Jaime Hayon and Ross Lovegrove, however, I was disappointed in the bashing of clients on this forum (this was also a common practice by Peter Saville). Perhaps they were jaded after years of working with big corporate companies, but I had hoped that being designers of this caliber (and age) that they would offer insight to the young and cosmopolitan audience at the Global Design Forum. Also, this forum made me reflect on design in South Africa. Big name architects and designers (and their respective iconic designs) vs building for social circumstance – where designers are not recognized, but they get on with the work in improving situations and making significant change. Work by 26’10 architects comes to mind.

But I guess the setting was London and not Marlboro South. Ross Lovegrove suggests that “if you want to be somebody you must be readable” and that you must have passion in making to be a good designer. He says that all this design though needs to be motivated by money that would feedback into the system.

Jaime Hayon offered the following for his work and philosophy:

  • Design an experience
  • Explore tradition
  • Bring back emotions
  • Keep tradition alive
  • Explore the process
  • Challenge companies
  • Exchange knowledge
  • Create fantasy for the consumer
  • Its all about telling a story

Carmel Allen – the Brand Champion of Heal’s says that it is all well that we debate the importance of the designer vs the brand, but what about the customer – suggesting that sometimes designers are arrogant and often don’t care to engage with customers. And finally Alexei Orlov summed up the session and the forum suggesting that what we should aim for is not a brave client but an enlightened one. This is true, but only comes from a one to one engagement with clients. People / clients will make better, more informed decisions when they are informed.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter as I will be tweeting everyday as well as sharing our journey on Facebook. Twitter hashtags include #ConnectZA and #LDF13. Make sure to also visit British Council’s Back of the Envelope.

London Design Festival Day 1: Fusion of Cultures

Text & photographs by Zahira Asmal

The International Design Connections programme at the London Design Festival commenced with lots of sunshine. Max Fraser, Deputy Director of the London Design Festival, made the introduction to the festival – now in its 11th edition. LDF13 highlights that design is not confined to objects on pedestals at museums and exhibitions but it was, mainly, about the mundane. Design is about the everyday – the objects and services that we use on a daily basis.

Max stressed that the festival was also primarily about engaging with the public and the focus was on furniture, product design, graphics and illustration, digital and social design.

It was interesting to see that a city like London faced similar challenges as South Africa, even considering its level of design development, with regards to accessibility of design information and misconceptions of its role in society. The measure of success in media terms is for design to be included in the main media newspaper rather than in a designated design supplement making the festival easily accessible to the general public.

Also faced by London design institutions organising a citywide event –are issues of bureaucracy and accessibility, and so planning an event of this scale becomes about designing systems and partnerships as much as developing content. The accessibility of a design focused festival makes events like the London Design Festival an even greater success a result of fascinating content, strong partnerships and the navigation through bureaucratic systems. And with London being the ultimate global city, it is also no surprise that the festival is so international.

We went on an insightful studio visit at Barber Osgerby – the duo that design for Knoll, Flos, Vitra and Capellini to name a few. They presented two key projects; a Tip Ton chair for “Building Schools for the Future” where they highlighted that movement is a part of learning. They have researched that even slight body movements make a difference to blood circulation, which is vital to learning. They also believe in cross disciplinary design work stating that “we are increasingly finding that design skill is transferable: architecture, graphic, product – so we are happy to work across disciplines.” 40,000 units of the Tip Ton product are sold annually

Ed & Jay also presented the remarkable process of design and development of the Olympic Torch for the event in London last year, where 11,000 units were made and 15 million people took to the streets to watch the Olympic Torch relay in 2012 – the largest public gathering in the UK since World War II.

Kieran Long, former journalist at the Guardian and now newly appointed Senior Curator of architecture, design and digital at the V&A, welcomed us to the museum and introduced us to the work done by the respective design curators. A particularly intriguing exhibition is the upcoming “Disobedient Objects” curated by Gavin Grindon who mentioned that the exhibition will explore the main themes: “What is culture for?” and “Who produces culture?”

Kieran says that the design department at the V&A worked on educating the world through what designers do. I asked him for his professional opinion – what is the purpose of a museum? He says that a museum is where the conversations are always about the objects and where the communication is constantly a part of a public record.

The Global Design Forum kicked off at 6pm with a conversation between music journalist Paul Morley and Peter Saville, famous for record covers for Joy Division 25 years ago. The 1 hour 45 minute ramble about himself not being the “It” designer, but a brand was not the most interesting aspect of the programme. However, he did make a few good points, which I’ve highlighted below:

“People enter visual arts because they like the surface look of things”

“You can do mediocre work for a great album – and it becomes iconic”

“A city that makes a place logo is not a good idea – it states ‘We have not made it’ – society wants leadership not logos. When there is well being – people are usually happy … when it is not the case – they look to leadership for direction”

Be sure to follow us on Twitter as I will be tweeting everyday as well as sharing our journey on Facebook. Twitter hashtags include #ConnectZA and #LDF13. Make sure to also visit British Council’s Back of the Envelope.

London Design Festival 2013: Before it all Begins…

It is with great delight that I have accepted the task of writing daily for the British Council Connect/ZA blog on my trip to London for the London Design Festival and in particular the Design Connections programme. The London Design Festival is one of the most established design festivals in the world and Design Connections offers an inspiring and immersive programme and introduces the best design, designers and design organisations. It provides opportunities for networking, learning and sharing with international counterparts. I will represent our social organisation DESIGNING_SOUTHAFRICA within the international delegation, which will also welcome delegates from India, Russia, China, Thailand and Turkey. I will be sharing the ideas and insights we’ve gained in the coming week.

I met with Sarah Mann and Evonne Mackenzie today at the British Council HQ where I was taken through our programme commencing Sunday evening, 15 September 2013. I was invited particularly to make connections for our current Designing Democracy programme – where we are currently exploring ways in which considered design may better serve our fledgling democracy in South Africa.

With my work I have the privilege of meeting and collaborating with architects and designers that work beyond the “fancy things for fancy people” design realm and are challenging notions of identity, public space, city making, healthcare and education. While I am invited to explore the work of the designers included in the programme, I also challenged the British Council team to connect me to designers that are truly interested in serving people that live on the periphery of societies and that would benefit the most from the technical skill and insights of good design. I have also requested that they introduce me to the UK Design Council to learn more about the structures that make up this noteworthy institution as well as the programmes that they engage in. There is a lot we can learn from institutions such as these – especially considering that a governmental policy on design is practically non existent in South Africa.

We have an exciting schedule ahead – Be sure to follow us on Twitter as I will be tweeting everyday as well as sharing our journey on Facebook. Twitter hashtags include #ConnectZA and #LDF13. Make sure to also visit British Council’s Back of the Envelope.