The Brilliant Design Biennale at Somerset House

Speaking at the opening of the London Design Biennale this week Richard Curtis asked a question about the future: if the NHS was the legacy built in the aftermath of the Second World War, what legacy might we hope to build after this pandemic? Walking around the exhibits from over 30 countries across six continents, it feels as though the design world is brimming with ideas.

Image: Ed Reeve

Let’s start with the Forest for Change that fills the courtyard at Somerset House with over 400 trees. Conceived by the brilliant Es Devlin in partnership with Richard Curtis’ charity, Project Everyone that aims to promote awareness and engagement with the UN Global Goals, the forest is a joy to behold. Who over the past year hasn’t become obsessed with trees? We’ve all stopped to notice the tiny buds unfurl into blossom, into zingy leaf. Here you can walk amongst the different species, listening to the sound of birdsong recorded from forests around the world and curated by Brian Eno. The paths lead to a clearing in the centre where colourful plinths set out the UN’s goals to end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change by 2030. You can even add your own ideas for the change you want to see in the world and see these lit up on the 17th plinth. The scent of pines is quite powerful. Planted in the midst of the order of the Neoclassical courtyard it feels – as we all return to work and our busy lives – like a reminder of who’s boss.

From the forest enter the East Wing of Somerset House, turn left and you’ll find yourself at the Taiwanese Swingphony exhibit. Groups of seven at a time can enter the dark space. You’re given a metronome that you can set to any speed. Gradually they all begin to swing at the same speed and when this happens the room is lit by lanterns on the walls, symbolising those in Taiwanese temples. The idea is that no matter our differences, we can all connect as one; it’s rather magical to watch them light up and to feel the synchronised frequency of the metronomes. Also in the East Wing we loved the Latvian exhibition dedicated to the country’s introverted writers. The idea is that a writer sits in a booth – rather like taking confession, you can’t see their face. You whisper any question through an earpiece, someone inside the booth writes an answer and then a secret drawer opens where you receive a scrap of paper with the answer inside.

Image: Ed Reeve

Before you head to the West Wing, go out onto the terrace overlooking the river where you’ll find the Pavilion of the African Diaspora. The Sail is the first part of designer Ini Archibong’s project that will later include The Shell in New York in the autumn and The Wave in Miami in December to represent the dispersion of the African people – whether by choice or by force. Speaking movingly at the opening of the Biennale Archibong set forth his intention for the pavilion to provide a space where Black creative contributions can be seen, heard and celebrated. There will be talks and music here throughout the Biennale – you can register to hear him discuss his work at 4.30pm on 3 June here.

Image: Ed Reeve

Finally, in the West Wing, there are some wonderful rooms to visit including a rainbow collection of plastic spoons that will soon become museum-pieces as the EU bans plastic cutlery in July 2021. Don’t miss Finland’s exhibition where designer Enni-Kukka Tuomala presents her Empathy Echo Chamber which is a kind of blow-up space age tent in metallic silver. You can book it for a 12-minute session with a friend. You each enter from a different end through a zipped door, and then sit on illuminated stools in silence for two minutes, as the lights change colour and the mirrored sides reflect back the colours and feelings you fill the space with. After that you have ten minutes to chat – questions are provided on a prompt sheet. The idea is to challenge the empty ‘echo chamber’ notion of the digital age, and instead provide a space to reconnect with each other as we re-enter the world.

Victoria Broackes, Director of London Design Biennale with Es Devlin OBE, Ini Archibong and Sir John Sorrell CBE at the opening of the Biennale

The theme of this year’s show as chosen by Artistic Director Es Devlin is ‘Resonance’. We left feeling hopeful and reignited with energy. The Biennale gives the sense that positive change is possible. That feels like a pretty awesome achievement from any exhibition – do go and see it!

London Design Biennale
1 - 27 June 2021
Somerset House, WC2R 1LA
— Daisy Allsup
2nd June 2021

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