Wednesday. 9/6/2021

The Monocle Minute
On Design


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London’s design pulse is racing again: crowds are gathering at the London Design Biennale (see below) and Johannesburg-based practice Counterspace’s Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens will open to the public on Friday. It’s lively on the streets too, with many restaurants operating at the right level of rowdiness and retailers doing a decent trade as the early summer sunshine coaxes shoppers back onto the streets.

It’s not all peachy in the British capital, though: many high street windows remain boarded up and some restaurateurs say that they’re struggling to find smart young service staff to run the floor as they strive to bounce back. The city’s council should be helping them more and I can see at least one easy win for them, which could be aided by London designers.

Beyond the city’s centre, its iconic double-decker buses roll around its interesting eastern and southern neighbourhoods with their exteriors stripped bare of advertising. Is it the case that big brands choose not to display on less busy routes? Perhaps smaller companies simply can’t afford the space. Out-of-date posters across the city from before the pandemic aren’t helping either.

Surely it wouldn’t take too much effort to support ailing independent businesses in these pockets of London by giving this ad space over to them. Signage on buses most definitely works and I’m sure that the city’s creative community could produce some pretty striking designs.


Communal thinking

In-person design events are often the first major public gatherings held in cities as they reopen, which begs the question, “Why are they important?” It’s a query best answered by Richard Curtis, founder of non-profit Project Everyone, who worked alongside London Design Biennale artistic director Es Devlin (see below) on the event’s flagship installation, “Forest for Change”. Speaking at the biennale’s opening last week, Curtis explained that, “In order to make things happen, you have to make things.”

And in London, things are certainly happening. Devlin and Curtis have helped to fill the courtyard of Somerset House with 400 trees (pictured, top), in the hope of making the profile of the UN’s Sustainability Goals more prominent.

Image: Rama Knight
Image: Rama Knight
Image: Rama Knight
Image: Rama Knight

Other works at the biennale, such as Naomi McIntosh’s Quiet Garden (pictured, second from bottom) and Chile’s national pavilion (pictured, bottom), call for people to examine their relationships with the natural world. Meanwhile, Ini Archibong’s Pavilion of the African Diaspora (pictured, second from top), celebrates the far-reaching contributions of people with African heritage.

All of these pavilions and designers are – in Curtis’s words – calling for “things to happen”. But their installations are also actively encouraging and inspiring visitors to engage with the works and take their own ideas from them – they are making things happen. Visiting the biennale, then, is an experience far more powerful than any digital event or online call to action. That’s why the return of such events is important to designers – and the broader public too.


Build to rebuild

When the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami ripped through northeastern Japan in 2011, towns and villages along the Tohoku coast were destroyed. Architects have been contributing their time and design skills to the reconstruction effort ever since. The Japan Institute of Architects (JIA) is now acknowledging that work with its first JIA Tohoku prize. Among the inaugural winners is the Sukagawa Community Centre in Fukushima, designed by Tokyo-based Unemori Architects with Ishimoto Architectural & Engineering Firm.

Image: 1 & 3 Kai Nakamura, 2 Kawasumi/Kobayashi Kenji
Image: 1 & 3 Kai Nakamura, 2 Kawasumi/Kobayashi Kenji
Image: 1 & 3 Kai Nakamura, 2 Kawasumi/Kobayashi Kenji

The five-storey multi-purpose building – which includes a library, museum, lecture hall, study rooms and childcare facilities – was designed with input from the public via a series of workshops. Known as Tette, the building is staggered and terraced to avoid dominating the neighbourhood and the airy interior accommodates plenty of open space as well as quiet rooms for those who need them. Parents clearly had their say: there’s an indoor playground for children and a line-up of classes from yoga to hula dancing. Communities such as Sukagawa were hit hard by the earthquake but architecture is helping to rebuild them.

Image: Alfonso Duran


Leaf of faith

Artist and stage designer Es Devlin is best known for creating large-scale multimedia sculptures and environments. So it should come as no surprise that when selected as artistic director of this year’s London Design Biennale, her major contribution would be a major installation. Taking the form of a forest in the courtyard of London’s Somerset House, the aptly named “Forest for Change” explores the UN Sustainable Development Goals through planted trees surrounding a central clearing containing colourful, informative and interactive pillars. Speaking to Monocle for this week’s episode of ‘Monocle On Design’ Devlin discusses the project’s background and explains what she hopes guests can take away from a visit.

Can you tell us about the inspiration for the ‘Forest for Change’?
It all began two years ago, when I was invited to take on the role of artistic director. As a formality, Jonathan Reekie, the head of Somerset House, showed me all of the spaces, and said, “This courtyard space, you can do anything you want in it. The only thing you can't do is put any trees in it.” He explained that it was written into the building’s covenant – the Enlightenment principles on which it was designed – which specifies that the courtyard must never house any trees. So, of course, instinctively, I said, “Well, we’ll build a forest.” It’s apt that over the past two years, trees, wildlife and nature have become more present as we've turned our attention to them.

What’s the experience for a visitor to the Forest? And what do you hope they take away from it?
When entering through the dark of any forest, you go through a process of questioning and challenging yourself before emerging enlightened. In the case of the “Forest for Change”, there’s a clearing and when you reach it you’ll come across 17 brightly coloured pillars. Each represents one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which were signed up to by every country in the UN. The idea is that each pillar takes on huge global problems but does it in a way that is a little less overwhelming, a little bit more approachable, thanks to simple, brightly coloured graphics. My hope is that if you can accept that there’s a forest in the middle of Somerset House, hopefully, you’re a little bit more open to accepting that there might be ways to approach these 17 challenges and to finding solutions.

Like many events, the London Design Biennale was delayed. Were there any benefits for the designers to the delay or extra associated parameters?
The good thing about designers is that we’re used to working to parameters. That’s what we do. We’re told, “This is the size of the courtyard; this is the size of the budget; this is the time that we have to load in.” And we work to those parameters. If you give us a few extra, we will work to those too. More broadly, as designers we’ve been waiting for parameters, especially sustainability parameters such as carbon budgets, to be somehow imposed on us from on high but it hasn’t happened. What we’ve realised over the past year is that we need to start self-imposing these parameters.

To hear more about the London Design Biennale, listen to this week’s edition of ‘Monocle on Design’ on Monocle 24.


Corner the market

French mid-century design is highly collectible and few pieces are more sought-after than those by Jean Royère. Best known for the iconic curved and fuzzy Polar Bear sofa, the interior decorator undertook more than 1,000 commissions during his career but none of his designs were mass-produced. Today, authentic Royère pieces fetch eye-watering sums: this unassuming corner coatstand from the 1950s recently sold for $15,000 (€12,321).

The exclusivity certainly adds to Royère’s charm – we wouldn’t advocate for a reissue of the more familiar Polar Bear – but it is a pity that his creations will only ever be used by a lucky few. As in the elegant, undulating steel wiring of this coat hanger, the designer had a subtle playfulness that was all his own. Putting this practical piece into production would allow ordinary design-lovers to delight in the French master’s oeuvre, even if it’s just nestled in a corner.


Grill seeker

If you’re keen to impress your guests when hosting a barbecue this summer, the Kiwi Gozney Dome is a safe bet. This easy-to-use, wood-fired outdoor oven sports a stone floor and heats up to a whopping 500C, making it possible to cook perfectly seared steaks and Italian-approved pizzas in your own back garden. And with its handsome design and white or olive-green ceramic finish, the oven looks far smarter on the patio than the average standing grill.

Priced at €1,099, the Dome is definitely an investment. But having been deprived of good gatherings for so long, many hosts are eager to put in extra effort – especially if it involves showing off those cooking skills acquired over lockdown. A case in point: having faced overwhelming initial demand, buyers of the Gozney Dome now have to wait patiently for production to catch up with its order sheet.


Small print

Tom Ising, co-founder of Munich design agency Herburg Weiland, says that he keeps his company small so that it can focus on doing quality work for a select number of clients rather than falling into the trap of growing into a large studio that’s constantly chasing business. This tactic has paid off over the years with the firm’s portfolio remaining top-drawer and its offering highly desirable to a range of smart brands.

Herburg Weiland’s ongoing art direction for German architecture title Baumeister, which has become recognised globally, is one such example. “Once a year an architecture firm curates the magazine,” says Ising. “So we’ve been able to work with names such as David Adjaye and David Chipperfield.” For this year’s June issue it was Norwegian firm Snøhetta that took on the task. And thanks to pared-back art direction from Herburg Weiland’s Daniel Ober and a series of playful illustrations from Austria’s Andrea Lüth, the collaboration is particularly strong.

“Designer Stefan Sagmeister once said about running his business, ‘The hardest part is to stay small’,” says Ising. “If you’re doing good work you tend to grow and grow. But deliberately staying small is working fine for us.”


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