What to see at the London Design Festival

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London swings back into action every September with the London Design Festival, which runs from September 16 to 24 this year. Founded in 2003 by Sir John Sorrell and Ben Evans, the week‑long celebration of the city’s designers, artists, manufacturers and makers now stretches across 13 districts, with recent additions including Battersea and “Dalston to Stokey”. The expansion builds on the founders’ mission to showcase the many creative clusters across the capital. This year, the programme includes a celebration of cork along the Strand and an exhibition dedicated to the style evolution of the grand piano. Here are six of the best things to see, do and roam around, as design takes over the city. 

1. This Island Sunrise

Sadie Coles gallery in Mayfair is presenting a view of British design history over the past four centuries, told through the stories of three thrones. They’re the work of three different makers: Tom Dixon, Eduardo Paolozzi and an anonymous 17th-century wood-turner.

From Dixon’s steel rods to the hand-turned ash and fruitwood of the baroque design, the exhibition presents three visions of a symbol of dynastic authority and explores the material and cultural advances that have shaped Britain’s design identity. A selection of found objects and artefacts, recalling the treasures found in high-street antique shops, accompany the triptych. Together they tell a story of the nation’s past. A tour led by curator Simon Andrews will take place on September 19. (Until September 24, Sadie Coles HQ)

2. The Localist Café

© Olena Oliinyk

Joseph Ellwood, of furniture studio Six Dots Design, has teamed up with architecture firm Buckley Grey Yeoman and Shoreditch Arts Club to create The Localist Café, a fully operational eatery fitted out with crockery and furniture from 40 UK-based designers. Featuring chairs made in Peckham, plates from Hackney, bendy steelwork console tables and chairs from Barnaby Lewis in Bermondsey and tableware from David Mellor Design in the Peak District, the café will champion the city’s (and country’s) eclectic range of makers, demonstrating what a space truly dedicated to local manufacturing might look like. The café will be open to all, and items on display will be available to purchase via Six Dots. (September 21-23, Shoreditch Arts Club)

3. Simone Brewster’s Spirit of Place

A rendering of Simone Brewster’s large-scale cork vessels © Simone Brewster and Amorim

One of the major projects of the design festival is a collaboration between artist and designer Simone Brewster and Amorim, the world’s largest cork producer. Brewster visited the Amorim forests in the Herdade de Rio Frio estate in Portugal and was inspired by the potential of cork as a material that could be used more in architecture. She decided to create sculptures celebrating its possibilities. With her signature flair for the enormous (her portfolio is filled with statement furniture and grand-scale objects), she designed an installation of five voluptuous cork vessels reaching up to 2.5m tall. Each form is inspired by one of the conditions needed for the tree to thrive, including upward space and biodiversity. They can be viewed by taking a stroll along the Strand. (September 16-24, Strand Aldwych)

4. Modernist Estates Tour

A tokyobike tour of modernist housing estates © Yu Fujiwara

Graphic designer and author of London’s Perambulation guides Stefi Orazi will lead a cycling tour of the city’s modernist housing estates to coincide with the festival, organised in partnership with Japanese bike brand tokyobike. Participants will traverse three London boroughs: Camden, Islington and the City of London, passing by architectural feats such as Bloomsbury’s Brunswick Centre, designed in the 1960s by Patrick Hodgkinson; Farringdon’s 1950s Golden Lane estate; and, perhaps the city’s most ambitious and radical housing unit, the Barbican. If a bike doesn’t appeal, you can go on foot. Fitness coach Ed Conway will be leading a 90-minute architectural running tour starting in King’s Cross and winding up in Bloomsbury — a route spotlighting mid-century and brutalist haunts such as Clerkenwell’s Weston Rise and Spa Green Estate, the latter designed by modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin. (Cycling tour, September 16, 10am-1pm, £25. Running tour, September 17, 10am-11.30am, £20)

5. Small Spaces in the City: Rethinking Inside the Box

A liveable micro-space © Clare Farrow Studio

This exhibition at Roca London Gallery explores the challenge of small spaces from the point of view of both the designer and user. How can designers make micro-spaces liveable? Can small spaces be enjoyable? Curated by Clare Farrow Studio, the highlights include a short film by Candida Johnson starring the Royal Ballet’s William Bracewell as he dances his way around his 22 sq m dressing room, and performance art from Richard Beckett, an associate professor at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, who will spend several days in a booth in the gallery that’s been lined with forest-floor microbes. The installation forms part of his ongoing research into the benefits of reintroducing healthy bacteria into our living spaces. (Until January 27 2024, Roca London Gallery)

6. Grand Passion Pianos

An avant-garde 1926 off-black and burr Pleyel baby grand piano

In Fitzrovia, design and music will reach a crescendo at the Grand Passion Pianos showroom, where a bespoke Pleyel grand piano made by French-American designer Hilton McConnico will be unveiled, alongside other singular Pleyel designs, including a 19th-century model in rosewood and a 1926 avant-garde grand in off-black. Leading concert pianist Jonathan Ferrucci will play a special recital on McConnico’s piano, which was one of the last pieces created by the maker, on September 18. He will perform his solo piece against the backdrop of a digital artwork designed to simulate the workings of his mind. (September 16-24, Grand Passion Pianos Showroom

Inès Cross is an editorial assistant on HTSI magazine

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