12 utopian visions from the London Design Biennale 2016

Barber & Osgerby at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

On Saturday we visited London's first Design Biennale at Somerset House, where 37 countries were represented - all exploring the theme of 'Utopia by Design' through designs, prototypes and installations.

Taking over Somerset House's beautiful neoclassical buildings, courtyard and terraces, the idea behind this inaugural event was in part to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Thomas More's book 'Utopia' - the original work of fiction and political philosophy on the subject - bringing the eternal dream up to date.  The event aims to reconsider utopian ideals through a global offering of contemporary design-based ideas and outcomes that tackle both the micro and the macro questions of sustainability, migration, pollution, energy, cities and social equality.

We both found it a refreshing change from the usual 'show and tell' of commercially focused events, to see some really interesting and engaging conceptual thinking from a range of truly global design perspectives. Designers are often at the forefront of helping to facilitate new ideas for better living, through an awareness and understanding of our future needs and desires. Given today's climate of exponential technological change, unstable political times and uncertainty of the best way to be and live, 'what is utopia?' certainly seems just as apt a question to ask today as it no doubt did back in 1516.

Here are our favourite 12 utopian visions from the London Design Biennale 2016.


Most Dreamy

Austria Pavilion at London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

Austria's 'LeveL' was a delicate kinetic lighting installation of hand sewn paper lamp shades mounted onto the end of perfectly balanced rods. When perfectly still the space is illuminated at full brightness, and only when disturbed by human presence or interference is the utopian equilibrium upset and individual lights are dimmed as a result.


Most Illuminating

Russia at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

Russia's 'Utopia, Lost Archives of Soviet Design' was a seriously impressive catalogue of industrial design ideas and outputs from the 1960s through to the 1980s. Like so many old catalogues of industrial archives, this vast analogue collection of 35mm slides was almost lost, and only rediscovered recently. For the exhibition, literally hundreds of the slides were scaled up and back-lit to reveal a huge range of ingenious projects (large and small) from eminent Soviet thinkers and design practitioners.


Most Theatrical

Eatopia at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

Taiwan's 'Eatopia' was literally a treat in so many ways, with the history and culture of the country turned into a culinary performance event, all set within a magical forest surrounding a long white dining table in the form of the upturned island. We were guests along with about ten others to sample the delights of five specially conceived and prepared Taiwanese food concepts - each one representing a key stage in the country's ever changing evolution. The final dish 'The Melting Pot' perfectly represented a utopian outlook of embracing change for the good of all.


Most Humanitarian

Israel at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter
Israel at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

Israel's 'Human.Touch' offered two socially responsible designs that positively illustrates that caring for others is still alive and well. The first was a speaker system that translates sound into floor vibrations and visual textures for the deaf or hard of hearing. The second design, 'AIDrop' was an affordable outsize cardboard sycamore-esque seed pod containing disaster relief kits to be dropped en mass to those in urgent need. Pure genius.


Most Psychedelic

India at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

India's 'Chakraview' consisted of a super saturated colour and mirror-tastic entrance (of course), that led to an ultra vivid glowing blue cinema space charting the nation's truly inspiring mix of ancient philosophy and wisdom practiced through pragmatic and resourceful design solutions for the benefit of the country. Their installation was a crazy colourful culture-shock that India does so well and it certainly transported you to a completely different realm.


Most beautiful

Tunisia at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

Tunisia's 'Pulse Diagram' installation celebrates a feasible utopia built on the fragile foundations of 54 interconnected charred timber posts, that in turn support a web of threads suggesting nodes of complexity of inter-relationships between the 54 cities in Moore's Utopia. We were transfixed by the overall effect.


Most Poetic

Japan Pavilion at London Design Biennale | Design Hunter
Japan at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

Japan elected designer Yasuhiro Suzuki to exhibit a world of fascination and poetic beauty. His 'A Journey Around the Neighbourhood Globe' was like a room full of contemporary curiosities, each offering alternative realities through the most exquisite thinking and craftsmanship. We spent an age in this space and were both hard pressed to pick a favourite object... so many to choose from. In the end I'd probably go for the acrylic suitcase containing mini-magnetised islands of Japan and the UK, each on the surface of a glass of water and acting as delicate floating compasses pointing to a future way forward.


Most retro

Chile at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

Entering Chile's retro-utopian 'Counterculture room' was like occupying a set from a 1970s sci-fi movie. White plastic chairs with the obligatory orange cushions accompanied screens of endless unfathomable data produced many a smile. In fact the designs belonged to a 1971 government experiment called Project Cybersyn - a concept of cybenetic management and information to promote a system of holistic design, decentralized management and real time human computer interaction. The use of a retro design aesthetic is a great reminder of earlier utopian thinking, and that whilst often hip and cool at the time, it can soon mutate into representations of silly and naive ideas... hmmm, but then again?


Most Satisfying

Utopia Means Elsewhere | John Malkovich
Germany at the London Design Biennale

Germany's two rooms were all about thoughtfulness and tranquility. The first room, brightly lit and an intense white, presented the engaging text 'Utopia means Elsewhere' by John Malkovich framed large on an easel and inviting the simplicity of a beautifully crafted piece of text to recalibrate the mind after all the other design-based offerings seen beforehand. Then into the second room, completely dark except for four easy chairs inviting total relaxation for the visitor to kick back and loose yourself in a hypnotic digital LED fire, 'burning' away complete with roaring snap, crackle and pop sounds along with an ambient aroma of burnt wood. We ended up spending a good 20 minutes in there just chilling out and enjoying the moment.


Most Monumental

Barber & Osgerby at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

The UK's 'Forecast' by Barber and Osgerby took center stage in Somerset House's courtyard. Consisting of three large scale wind-dependent sculptures that referenced the nation's obsession with the ever-changing weather (both literally and metaphorically), the UK's past dependency of wind from a maritime perspective, along with a sustainable future focus based on renewable energy. The weather was calm and wet the day we visited, so the sculptures were relatively well behaved.


Most Thought Provoking

Border City - Mexico at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

Mexico's 'Border City' offered a bi-national city masterplan on the border of Mexico and the USA, presented as a seamless digital audio-visual wrap around experience projected onto curved walls and a large central model. Here a symbiotic relationship of 2 differing cultures is imagined through animated charts, infographics and rendered 'lifestyle' clips, where both sides show mutual respect for each other, trading cultural and economic benefits for the greater good. All in all a very topical subject at a time when so many countries are retreating towards nationalism as a form of 'self-protectionism'.


Most Everyday

Lebanon at the London Design Biennale | Design Hunter

Lebanon's outdoor street scene on the river terrace of Somerset House felt like being transported to a place of 'non-design' or rather a snapshot of middle-eastern everydayness that oozes personality through a never ending resourcefulness of a happy and contented people with a make-shift attitude to life. This was our final stop on a utopian tour of the world and so we decided to accept their friendly welcome and sat down in the street to enjoy a delicious Falafel pita, freshly prepared with a tasty Lebanese salad and drizzled with tahini sauce.

Despite the rainy weather, we left feeling totally satisfied, full of interesting concepts, ideas and some seriously good food!

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The London Design Biennale is at Somerset House until Sept 27th. More information here.

Words by Graham Powell and photography by Helen Powell for Design Hunter.