London's Design Biennale

Posted on October 07, 2016

by Andy Van Meter, Design Ideas' President

This September, London held its first ever Design Biennale organized around the theme of “Utopia,” the famous stop on Gulliver’s Travels in Sir Thomas Moore’s famous satire. Apparently, this theme includes Sustainability, Migration, Pollution, Energy, Cities, Social Inequality and just about anything else that is currently in fashion, or should be.

I had always understood that “Utopia” translates as “no where.” But the Germans, God bless them, just won’t give up and insisted on translating the Latin as “elsewhere.” Their exhibit consisted of some very comfy chairs by Konstantin Grcic and a movie about a flame that, if you stared at it long enough, would take you to Utopia. I think an assist of some medication would have helped.

The French realized this. Their exhibit consisted of some mattresses on the floor and a movie. It was a tragedy about the mess in Syria (mostly caused by the Americans, of course). But the French knew to provide medication. They had a vending machine with these little pink Syrian candies that looked like they could be very helpful.


The Turks had a wonderful exhibit using a vacuum tube system for sending a message. I had a good idea of the message I wanted to send, but the problem always is, where to send it. Who is going to listen and do something about it? The Turks hadn’t had time to work this out. So they sent the messages in a tube running all over the museum space and eventually to a locked closet. I hope someone important checks that closet.


The Israelies focused on a practical problem in an entirely magical way. Their plan is to create giant seed pods to drop emergency supplies to modern Distopias we have created with bombs. It really didn’t look like it would work, but it certainly would be magical to see all of these giant seed pods descending from the sky.


The Belgians misspelled “Utopia” as “Eutopia” with themselves at the center. This seemed like an apt illustration of the problem in EU right now.

The Swiss tried to illustrate “neutrality” with a giant galvanized shelving unit and some stuff on the shelves. I think “neutrality” is hard to illustrate.

The Indonesians wanted to tell everyone about this conference that they had with Africa during which they signed an agreement approving of World Peace. This was illustrated by about 300 hairy balls made from vines turning on sticks. Some of the hairy balls had fallen off. I really didn’t get it. But, hey, they tried.


The Greeks somehow translated Utopia into entropy. The exact connection was hard to understand, but the illustration was wonderful. They mounted a giant box using marble from the same quarry as which supplied the builders of the Parthenon, and then they left it, unfinished with tools laying about. Brilliant.


The Japanese; never underestimate the Japanese. They created this giant transparent blow up doll that represented the designer and somehow related to a number of wonderful objects and concepts that were on his mind. The extended metaphor converted the entire room into a kind of crypt with those of us scurrying around looking at the exhibits acting something like maggots inspecting the detritus of the designer’s life. If that sounds morose, it really wasn’t. As we scurried from object to object we encountered metal compasses in the shape of Japan floating in water, spinning lights, childrens’ games. It was all thought provoking and, I suppose, utopic.


The Tunisians, too, had an interesting idea to play with: The fragility of utopic visions. They illustrated this with a series of black wooden posts that, I think, were supposed to be held together with string, but it looks like that made them too fragile and they had to add wooden braces. Still, it was an interesting perspective on the concept of utopia.


Austria had an interesting idea as well, a kind of variation on this theme of the delicate nature of utopic visions. The Austrians developed a giant mobile using the motif of clouds that filled the room. The clouds were actually paper spheres in a traditional cloud shape electrified with LEDs. In the darkened room, the supporting mechanism of the mobile disappeared leaving only the softly glowing clouds floating in the space. The clouds floated in a kind of static equilibrium that was only disrupted by the slight wind turbulence of a passing visitor, as if to suggest that man disrupts the utopic vision.


If one is going to consider the topic of utopic visions and their consequences, perhaps the world’s experts are the Russians. To illustrate their understanding the designers from the world’s largest country dug through their archive of design concepts that were never realized. The explanatory notes indicated that the utopic Soviets “brought together, designers, sociologists, philosophers, cultural and art historians, working at the forefront of design theory and research” who, in the end, produced nothing. The exhibit included this gem of a photograph from the Workers’ Paradise: three designers clutching forlornly to their product concepts, prospective material possessions that they seemed to know would never be realized in midst of the world’s most tragic utopian experiment.


The host country constructed a massive metal structure rising thirty feet in the center of outdoor court of the Summerset House Complex. This structure looked more than anything like instruments for measuring or perhaps altering the weather. Perhaps the message was that Great Britian is Utopia except for the weather. Or perhaps the giant whirligigs were, in fact, improving the infamous British climate. It was a beautiful, balmy day.


Good day or bad, the British are always wonderful hosts. The first London Biennale was, all in all, an auspicious beginning. Creative and thought provoking. At turns, entertaining and enlightening.

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