05 Biennale explores the boundaries of design

By Martin Thomas, Writer

Design has an incredible power to expand horizons. The second London Design Biennale, at Somerset House in London until 23 September, is a sprawling collection of more than 40 installations, all geared to exploring how design can engage, challenge, educate and surprise.

It’s a fascinating collection of work produced in the name of countries, regions and cities around the world, all grouped around the common theme of ‘emotional states’. And it was interesting to note how each installation made its mark on me as I explored – not just by how they looked, but how they sounded, felt, or even smelled.

Latvia’s Matter to Matter is a giant green glass wall covered in carefully regulated condensation, upon which visitors are invited to scrawl designs that disappear in minutes. It’s a statement on the transience of human emotion and the speed with which nature reclaims the marks we leave on it – but it’s also a beautiful object that makes the space around it notably calm and meditative – a feeling that was reinforced by touching its cool, smooth surface with my fingers.

Australia’s Full Spectrum, on the other hand, feels more like a playful celebration of diversity. Designer Flynn Talbot has created a light curtain made of 150 fibre optic strands, which constantly change colour, creating a feast for the eyes that I could feel lifting my mood as I approached it. I watched a small child gleefully run around the circle of light, squealing with delight as she swung them back and forth. It seemed the perfect reaction to such a joyful piece.

Also noteworthy was Greece’s remarkable Disobedience, a 17-metre plastic ‘kinetic wall’ with a hollow centre, through which visitors walk – or run. As they progress, the whole thing changes shape. The heavier people are and the faster they move, the more the wall shape changes. Designer Nassia Inglessis wanted to challenge our perception of design and architecture as static things – walls aren’t supposed to move! It’s a wonderfully clever, sinewy structure that’s huge fun to immerse yourself in and – quite literally – be moved by.

But my favourite was Saudi Arabia’s beautiful Being and Existence, housed in a darkened room in which animated geometric patterns were projected onto walls via a series of mirrors. Visitors sit in front of this complex but restful structure and just reflect, lulled by the constantly changing abstract shapes in front of them. Designer Lulwah Al Homoud’s aim was to create a peaceful experience and it certainly was. I could have sat there for hours.

There is so much variety and incredible creativity on display at the Biennale that it’s impossible to distil the feelings it engenders into a digestible soundbite. To say it delivers on its mission to engage, challenge, educate and surprise would be an understatement.

Touring the exhibition is to embark on an emotional journey, where some installations lift the spirits and others prompt sober reflection. Some get you in the head, others go straight for the gut.

If you’re passionate about design – and interested in exploring the boundaries of what it is and what it’s capable of – the Biennale is a must-see.

Above: Saudi Arabia’s Being and Existence

Above: Australia’s Full Spectrum

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