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Sketch - London Design Festival 2023

5 top highlights from 2023’s London Design Festival

The London Design Festival (LDF) is back once again. This citywide event was founded in 2003, one of its goals being to engage the general public, not just members of the creative industries. LDF events are predominantly free, making it accessible and inclusive – it attracted over 360,000 visitors last year.

By 2009, LDF had grown to the point where it was unwieldy, so the idea of ‘design districts’ was introduced to help orientate people. It now boasts 13 design districts, including four new ones – Dalston to Stokey, Battersea, Chelsea and Fitzrovia. These play host to engaging gallery exhibitions, eye-catching public installations and talks programmes, among other events.

Kaldewei’s Avocado Dreams collection, created by Bethan Laura Wood, featured in the Southwark Design District at London Design Festival 2023 - Effect Magazine
Kaldewei’s Avocado Dreams collection, created by Bethan Laura Wood, featured in the Southwark Design District at London Design Festival 2023

According to Ben Evans, LDF co-founder and director, the city is opening up more to the public as its street layouts evolve. “Car ownership is in decline and streets are being pedestrianised and relandscaped, so we’re seeing new oases emerging. This year there are around 300 events. It’s impossible to see them all but you can walk easily from one to another within each district. It’s always rewarding if you can find something new.”

There are around 300 events. It’s impossible to see them all but… it’s always rewarding if you can find something new.

Ben Evans, LDF co-founder and director

Indeed, LDF, which runs until September 24 (although some events are open for longer), also provides an opportunity for design buffs to discover new trends. Evans flags up the following recurring themes evident this year: “The circular economy, sustainability, and gigantic advances in technology”.

Here are some of the most striking and memorable highlights from five of London Design Festival’s districts:

Brompton Design District

This elegant enclave of LDF is the festival’s oldest district. The local showrooms of titanic Italian brands such as Cassina and B&B Italia mount exhibitions and hold ultra-glam, fizz-fuelled openings as the week progresses. But for many, the main draw here is the conceptual, reliably probing themed shows curated by Jane Withers Studio, founded by Jane Withers – primarily held in the urbane setting of Cromwell Place, a Grade II-listed Victorian townhouse. Behind its wedding-cake facade, cutting-edge designers showcase new designs.

This year, the district’s overarching theme is Conviviality – The Art of Living Together. One jumping-off point for this is Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich’s 1973 book, Tools of Conviviality. Illich believed that institutions and fields, from medicine to education, were authoritarian, depriving people of independent thinking. He proposed ways to empower people in the face of these shibboleths. “We are interested in exploring design’s role as a catalyst to conviviality, from friendships formed around a table with a glass of wine to collaborative design, a major facet of our theme,” says Withers.

Tables and seating, connoting entertaining and hospitality, are key elements of many of the exhibits this year. These range from Japanese, London-based designer Rio Kobayashi’s idiosyncratic fish-shaped table Fish Table (Fatty Tuna), its top painted by James Hague, to a modular sofa co-created by Kobayashi and designer Flavia Brändle. The latter is covered with a fabric designed by Peter Pilotto and Christopher de Vos. “Rather than having a solo exhibition, I would like to show how my work connects me to other creatives and how design can bring people together,” says Kobayashi.

At the gallery of The New Craftsmen, social gatherings are evoked by Matthew Raw’s Welcome Drinks Cabinet, a tile-clad bar, as does Jochen Holz’s ethereal, iridescent glassware.

At 209 Brompton Road, Fels gallery is showing The Farm Shop, a collaborative project curated by Marco Campardo, Guan Lee and Luca Lo Pinto, comprising seating and tableware intended for dining, produced at Grymsdyke Farm, Buckinghamshire last summer.

Mayfair Design District

Mayfair dining institution Sketch – a magnet both for design aficionados and the fashion pack attending London Fashion Week – is hosting a three-room installation, Crafted Wonder, this year. A celebration of hand-crafted design, its star attraction is its immersive, dazzling display of Idylle rugs and textiles lining walls and covering furniture, manufactured by French rug maker La Manufacture Cogolin. The rugs’ motifs are plucked from the atelier’s archive – specifically gouches, created in the 1930s by fashion illustrator and designer Christian Bérard for Jean Michel-Frank when the latter was hired to design the New York apartment of Nelson Rockefeller.

“The Idylle collection, which brings a bright pop of colour an energy to Sketch’s reception area, feels timeless,” says Sarah Henry, managing and artistic director at La Manufacture Cogolin. “Bérard was at the centre of the Parisian art world of the 1930s and 1940s, collaborating with Jean Cocteau, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. The current Chanel exhibition at the V&A adds a lovely layer to this story. There’s also been a renewed interest in the Idylle rugs in the UK as these are found in several suites at nearby hotel Claridge’s.”

The Mayfair gallery of New York and LA-based Apparatus participated in London Design Festival. Pictured is their “luxe speakeasy”-style space (Photo: Matthew Placek)

At Mount Street, two American galleries, Apparatus and BDDW, are participating in LDF. Apparatus is a New York and Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary studio, which opened its Mayfair gallery last May. Its two-storey interior feels diurnal upstairs, with its pale plaster and marble finishes as the backdrop to exquisite, slimline furniture. A sweeping staircase descends to a space that feels a bit like a Prohibition-era speakeasy, albeit a fabulously luxe one.

London is the centre for design in the UK and a window into the rest of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Gabriel Hendifar, founder, Apparatus

Its founder, Gabriel Hendifar, who studied theatre costume and set design, says of his decision to open the London gallery: “London is the centre for design in the UK and a window into the rest of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Our street-level presence allows us to present a seductive, compelling story to a broad, international audience.”

BDDW Gallery unveiled a striking bas-relief fireplace for London Design Festival 2023 - Effect Magazine
BDDW Gallery unveiled a striking bas-relief fireplace for London Design Festival 2023

There’s a retro, slightly surreal vibe at nearby BDDW, established by Tyler Hays, although one more redolent of mid-century American design. Here you’ll find button-back, wingback armchairs and wood sideboards with a slightly raw finish, although the piece-de-resistance during LDF is its enormous tiled fireplace surround made of blue and white tiles, featuring bas-relief human figures and animals.

Bankside Design District

Textiles by Tanja Kirst at Material Matters during London Design Festival 2023 (Photo: Nanna Navntoft)

Sizeable fair Material Matters returns this year to the Oxo Tower Wharf building near Blackfriars Bridge – a space that feels like a rough-and-ready warehouse compared with the aforementioned Mayfair venues. As the exhibition’s name suggests, participating brands and designers try to broaden the repertoire of materials at their disposal in inventive ways. They often advocate sustainable design practices: “If designers and consumers understand the provenance of the stuff they use they might be less willing to throw things away so readily,” says Grant Gibson, co-founder of Material Matters. “There’s a panoply of materials being explored at this year’s fair, from Tanja Kirst weaving extraordinary textiles from hemp and citrus peel to Make Relief creating furniture from cork and recycled plastic supplied by Smile Plastics.” Meanwhile, the indigo seats and backrests of Dutch brand Planq’s chairs are made of recycled, second-hand denim.

Southwark Design District

Also south of the river is this district showing German bathroom company Kaldewei’s Avocado Dreams collection, created by Bethan Laura Wood (pictured in article intro) – a figure as colourful and gregarious as Rio Kobayashi. Wood has magicked utilitarian bathroom products into a funky bathtub and sink animated by trippy psychedelic patterns – all on display at the CP Hart showroom in Waterloo. No fan of minimalism, her inspiration has been 1970s avocado bathrooms suites.

In stark contrast is Peckham space Staffordshire Street’s exhibition 11:11, curated by Woolwich-based furniture-maker Jan Hendzel. Its aim is to support work by emerging designers (shown alongside pieces by established designers, such as Hendzel). The work here is determinedly organic and at times studiedly raw, with the exception of Danish-born designer Silje Loa’s finely detailed trompe l’oeil rendition of fabric crafted from limewood, apparently draped over a monolithic limestone block.

Shoreditch Design Triangle

An abundance of shows fill this manageably compact, ultra-urban catchment area. Hay, the forward-looking Danish brand, recently opened its East London office on Underwood Street and during LDF it can be visited by the public. On show are Belgian duo Muller van Severen’s Arcs trolley and mirror – and a new iteration of Hay’s Matin table lamp designed by Inga Sempé, a collaboration with Liberty. Its pleated paper shade bears Liberty’s signature floral prints, an effect also redolent of pointilliste paintings.

Round the corner, hip rug brand Floor Story is showcasing its boldly patterned, playfully shaped designs by Gill Thorpe, whose geometric motifs are inspired by humble paint markings seen on pavements or manholes, as well as Amechi Mandi’s ice cream-inspired rugs and runners with rippling, undulating outlines. Autumn might beckon but Mandi is one designer apparently determined to keep winter at bay with his cheerful, baroque creations.

London Design Festival 2023 runs 16 –24 September

Read more:  Design Fairs | Design  | Art | Interior Designers | Interiors | Sustainability | London