London’s first ‘Design Biennale‘ took place at Somerset House from 07 to 27 September, overlapping conveniently with the capital’s annual celebration of all things design, the London Design Festival. 37 countries and territories from six continents responded to the theme ‘Utopia by Design’ in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. Britain’s contribution (above) was Forecast by London-based designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. “Forecast calls to mind a romantic image of Britain’s great maritime history, with tall ships, towering masts and fluttering sails, simultaneously evoking wind turbines and weather stations,” say the designers. “It also reflects the necessity to respond imaginatively to the need for environmental action in the face of the precarious state of the planet. The UK is at the forefront of the development in wind energy, with as much offshore capacity already installed as the rest of the world combined.”
Cadavre Exquis: an Anatomy of Utopia by designer Maria Jeglinska and art historian and critic Klara Czerniewska was Poland’s response to the theme. Inspired more by the imaginary journey that leads to Thomas More’s island than the destination itself, the three-dimensional version of the Surrealist game invited visitors to journey towards their own utopia (or dystopia) according to their answers to a series of questions.
Italy’s contribution comprised a series of 20 white flags, each one “a utopian emblem of global truce”. On each day of the biennale, one of the designers was invited to replace their flag with an object of their choice, resulting in an ever-changing exhibition that reflected on the possibility of utopia in an all-too-often war-torn world. “The intention is to instill a sense of urgency, even emergency, for the chosen places marked on the map. In the end there will be only a landscape of objects, as an offertory brought about in a time of truce,” say curators Silvana Annicchiarico and Giorgio Camuffo.
Designer Porky Hefer created Otium and Acedia for South Africa as a celebration of “liberation and playfulness as fitting statements of a country reborn from a convoluted, visceral history.” The furry, cartoon-like rendition of animals, such as lions and killer whales, belied their ferocious reputations. “For a country ’emerging’ from its past struggles, a pervading sense of liberation and innocence takes on an emboldened meaning alongside the theme of utopia,” say curators Trevyn McGowan and Julian McGowan.
“India’s utopias articulate the intersections between ancient myth and modern design”, says curator Rajshree Pathy. “Like the seven chakras, our visions of utopia are simultaneously spiritual and progressive. Like More’s Utopia, our installation is a narrative of India’s diverse religious, social and political journeys and a constantly metamorphosing churn of all the above”.
Britain might have shied away from the subject of the European Union in the wake of the ‘Brexit’ referendum result in June, but other European nations did not. Taking as its starting point the map of the fictional island in the shape of a human skull published alongside Thomas More’s Utopia in the Belgian city of Leuven 500 years ago, Belgium’s contribution to the biennale by Benoît van Innis reconsidered the role of Brussels as Europe’s capital as the 50-year dream of a united Europe starts to unravel.
Pulse Diagram by architect Chacha Atallah and artist Haythem Zakaria comprises 54 pylons representing the 54 cities in More’s Utopia, linked by charred beams, created using an ancient Japanese technique that scorches the wood to extend its lifespan. It is a reflection on the “fragile foundations of so-called utopias”.
Using data visualization techniques, Fernando Romero’s Border City was a proposal for a multi-national city at the border of Mexico and the United States of America that uses shared skills and resources to address shared problems – a refreshing idea in the light of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s alternative suggestion to build a wall between the two countries.
Austria’s contribution, LeveL by mischer’traxler studio, was another reflection on the instability of Utopia. The kinetic sculpture lit up only when perfectly still – the slightest movement, inevitably caused by the presence of humans, caused the lights to dim. “The delicate and ever-changing sculpture reflects on the precariousness of the utopian ideal, and its potential to unravel when subjected to the reality of everyday life,” says curator Thomas Geisler of MAK Vienna.
Water Machine by Basma Bouzo and Noura Bouzo for Saudi Arabia was a giant gumball machine which distributed water in exchange for money to highlight the scarcity of water in many parts of the world, not least Saudi Arabia, and the need for a more sustainable approach towards the consumption of vital resources.
The star of the show was Mezzing In Lebanon curated by Annabel Karim Kassar, who recreated “a slice of Beirut street life” on the terrace outside Somerset House, including falafel and coffee stalls, a lounge cinema, street signs, carts, and even an authentic barber shop, celebrating the utopia that already exists in the country. “The street is where design is created,” says Annabel Karim Kassar. “The people are our designers.”