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LDF15: Delving deeper into the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum was once again the “hub” for the London Design Festival with a series of site-specific installations by big-name designers helping to engage visitors to the V&A with design, and visitors to the festival with the V&A. It’s a now a tried and tested formula that works well. Even so, Director Ben Evans said, “I still have to pinch myself that the V&A lets us do the projects that we get to do here.” The Mexican Pavilion by Frida Escobedo entitled “You know you cannot see yourself so well as by reflection” (above – photo by V&A) took over the John Madejski Garden from May until October.

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My favorite installations are always those that go beyond simply using the V&A as inspiration or even just as a backdrop, and encourage visitors to engage with the exhibitions they are situated within. The Cloakroom by Faye Toogood was one such installation. Visitors were encouraged to borrow one of 150 compressed foam Kvadrat coats, each of which had a hand illustrated map sewn into the pocket. “Each coat has been hand-painted emphasizing the seam and the pattern and the pattern cutting,” said Toogood, who launched her first fashion collection with sister Erica Toogood two years ago. “But we’re not asking everyone to look exactly the same because on the backs of the coats are faces, so you can pick your little face.”

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Maps led visitors to 10 different coats throughout the museum, each of which had been designed in response to its surroundings, encouraging you to delve a little deeper into the exhibition pieces surrounding them. The coats, which were made by British manufacturers and craftspeople and each named after a trade, include the stone mason made from marble (reflecting the V&A’s lobby) and the wood carver, hand-carved from wood (matching the wooden panelling in the 16th century gallery). “One of the main ambitions for me on this project was to get people to visit parts of the museum they might not normally go to – not just to put a piece within a space, but to really engage with the exhibitions,” said Toogood.

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Laetitia de Allegri and Matteo Fogale’s Mise-en-Abyme (literally ‘placed into abyss’) is a series of colored acrylic panels placed over a bridge with ever decreasing (or increasing depending on which way you cross the bridge) holes to pass through, the smallest of which require you to stoop. The piece was created in collaboration with Johnson Tiles, and the lines between tiles on the floor represent the perspective lines found in the Renaissance drawing that inspired the piece. Each tile was cast and made specifically for the installation – with a 3% difference in color from one tile to the next taking the color from bright blue at one end to white at the other.

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“Our main concern is that people experience the installation, rather than just looking at it. The more you see different angles, the more you lose yourself in the space.” said de Allegri. “We wanted people to feel a little bit lost,” added Fogale. “We wanted to contrast with the heavy statues downstairs. We wanted create something very light and a little bit uplifting.”

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Inspired by the Irish Ogham alphabet, Stirling Prize nominated Grafton Architects and concrete experts Graphic Relief created a series of standing stones in the V&A’s Tapestry Room. The 23 three-meter-high cast concrete ‘fins’ had polished faces imprinted with abstract tree bark patterns to represent the species of tree each letter in the Ogham alphabet references, while the backs had been left unfinished to reveal something of the casting process.

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Zotem by Kim Thomé was a 18-metre monolith that rose from the V&A’s Grand Entrance to the Contemporary Ceramics Gallery on the sixth floor. Taking its title from the words “totem” and “zeotrope” after the 19th century animation technique, the installation featured a strip of colours and patterns that rose slowly behind 600 bespoke Swarovski crytals, creating a dynamic effect that lifted the eye upwards.

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Barnaby Barford cycled 1,000 miles through every London postcode photographing the capital’s shops. The result is the Tower of Babel – 3,000 unique bone china shops stacked in order of value from derelict buildings at the bottom to exclusive boutiques at the top. In keeping with the theme of the piece, every shop will be sold at the end of the exhibition. “This is holding a mirror up to London. It is a critique on a city which has some of the world’s richest people and definitely the country’s poorest people, and a critique on endless consumption and whether the constant quest for economic growth is sustainable,” said Barford. “But at the same time, London is an amazing city built on trade, and this is a celebration of that. In a reversal of the Tower of Babel you have people from all over the world, speaking hundreds of different languages, living their hopes and dreams side by side. Chicken Lickin’ is somebody’s business, somebody’s hopes and dreams, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

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Curiosity Cloud by mischer’traxler was another one of the highlights of the V&A. 250 mouth-blown glass globes were filled with hand-fabricated insects from 25 species categorized into extinct, common and newly discovered. From a distance, the insects are still, but as you approach, motion sensors detect your movement and set the insects into motion too – the sound as they crash against the glass walls of their tiny worlds is almost deafening.

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Finally, Works in Wood celebrated Robin Day’s love of wood to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the British designer’s birth. More well-known for his ubiquitous 1960s Polypropylene Chair, he grew up among the beech woods and timber furniture of High Wycombe and made things from wood throughout his life both professionally and personally – the exhibition includes artifacts and drawings from daughter Paula Day’s personal collection, on show for the first time.

Katie Treggiden is a purpose-driven journalist, author and, podcaster championing a circular approach to design – because Planet Earth needs better stories. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a program and membership community for designer-makers who want to join the circular economy. With 20 years' experience in the creative industries, she regularly contributes to publications such as The Guardian, Crafts Magazine and Monocle24 – as well as being Editor at Large for Design Milk. She is currently exploring the question ‘can craft save the world?’ through an emerging body of work that includes her fifth book, Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure (Ludion, 2020), and a podcast, Circular with Katie Treggiden.