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Current design fairs, including the three researched for this article, Salone del Mobile, the London Design Festival, and imm cologne, are both commercial and cultural events. Attendance is remarkable, compared to what it used to be. Yet for the designers at work, this is a vital moment to illustrate new ideas and innovative approach. Within this context, the interrelationships between design, creativity and commerce have become more complex and slightly uneasy, especially for those aiming to emerge or catch a break into production. Dependent on lucrative corporate sponsorships, large fairs are part showroom, part museum and part street party. And while they still attract and showcase the worlds top manufacturers and designers, there is a concern shared by industry insiders that these prestigious fairs are looming a dark shadow on the more emergent and conceptual of designers.
Recently, alternative venues have emerged that balance, complement and even confront the influence of such major festivals. Three satellite events, Ventura Lambrate, the Anti-Design Festival, and [D3] Design Talents have demonstrated a particular commitment to designers and their creative presentations. Each of these satellites approaches the respective market and audience in a different way.
Margo Konings and Margriet Vollenberg, who have been involved with the Salone del Mobile for more than 10 years, found the main showroom hall, Zona Tortona, too commercial and too expensive. They then created Ventura Lambrate, seeking to build a new space within the larger festival, where they could once again focus on the creative process and return to the substance and content of their work. Most of what they present today is experimental or deemed conceptual, but they seek the process rather than merely the product that is being driven to market. After a well-received 2010 debut, Konings says the event has surpassed even their highest expectations.
Based in Shoreditch, the heart of Londons East End, The Anti-Design Festival runs in conjunction with the London Design Festival (LDF). Its founder, Neville Brody, says he developed the festival in opposition to the rigid, unhealthy criteria of what is valued, produced and consumed in our contemporary generic culture. Frustrated by what he saw as the petty commercialism of LDF, Brody says curators and artists involved with the event want to shift the audiences focus away from shopping and back towards thinking, exploring themes of danger, creativity and risk.
[D3] Design Talents, on the other hand, has just celebrated its fourth year of championing the emerging and independent. Fresh international designers (graduated within three years) in partnership with imm cologne are showcased collectively on a young platform. Creators of this festival understand the unique pressure that students, recent graduates and young independent professionals face as they try to break into the international design market. They focused their efforts exclusively on presenting and publicising designers and products that might otherwise be overshadowed by larger brands with bigger budgets.
We spoke with the founders and curators of each of these events recently, to discover new ways in which they re-engage todays design-show biz.
Margo Konings & Margriet Vollenberg (Founders & Curators)
How did you realise you wanted establish an alternative design space, and why?
The world has been waiting for this change. We have been working in Milan for the Fuori Salone for over 10 years. But, over time we started to feel there was less creative space and actually less floor space for the creative studios, smaller, younger, independent individuals. New work and interesting labels were finding it hard to get the room to display their work.
Our focus was on giving our clients and the creative world a stage. We had the idea for longer but finally three years ago we began looking for an area where people could show their work in the way we were imagining. We found this new zone in Milan, which is also a very old zone. Milanese people think of Lambrate as outside the city, industrial, a place they dont go. But it had such an important history. It is empty now with these beautiful old industrial spaces and it isnt really outside the city anymore. Before we came, it had already been rediscovered by artists and galleries. The creative tendency was already there. Wed had the dream for a long time and then we had the place to do it.
Ventura Lambrate was inspired by the substance of exhibitors and the content of the work. Are quality, substance and content lacking in the contemporary design world?
No, they have been there in general, but the Fuori Salone can place limitations on designers. The logistics were constraining what people could do. In previous years design has been all about big, bigger, biggest. There was little focus on the background behind the pieces the roots and how they got to their final destination. This was happening in both the design world and in the commercial aspect of this world, and we wanted to bring it all back down to earth a bit and tell these stories of how works ended up the way they did or didnt! We wanted to show the background, the research and the concepts rather than just putting the finished product up on a pedestal.
Can you tell me more about curatorial process? How did you decide who would be part of the first event and what were you looking for?
What was important for us was that everyone exhibiting had cultural relevance. Commercial labels can still be relevant. The kinetic machines of the new British label Laikingland are a good example. Most of the exhibition, and the process as a whole, came from instinct and intuition based on our experience. The selection came naturally. There is a plan, but in another way its very open. For us, its based on judging from our expertise, not prioritising one group over another, but to focus on the concepts, the products and the presentations.
Youve said process is at the heart of Ventura Lambrate. How can you successfully display or reveal process in an exhibition?
Its not that we thought about showing just that, but we saw a lot of designers who were asking to be involved with work that revealed the process. Their priorities inspired us to look for a new perspective. We notice process is now a priority for many of the artists we work with. There is more interest in materials and breaking down steps. Maarten Baas is a good example: with his Clay furniture pieces you can literally see the shape of fingers in the material making each one unique. Process was also the main focus in the presentations of Italian IN Residence and Belgium Z33.
Cecilia Wee (Curator)
How was Anti-Design Festival conceived?
It was the confluence of a lot of different things, including the economic climate right now, the political climate and how things quite often become staid as they become more stable. We wanted to rethink about where things that dont necessarily fit, can fit in, or the things that dont fit, where do they now exist? Especially here in London where there is such fragmentation of culture. Theres a panoply of things you can see and do and consume but those things quite often fall into particular models and ideas of consumption or how an audience might engage with a work.
Is this festival the result of classifications breaking down or is it trying to break them down?
From my point of view its a little bit of both. I think it is really important for work today to be politically and socially engaged, more than just exploring the categories in an abstract sense, but how does the work change what people think and do afterwards? I think that recalculation or rethinking about our social sphere through culture is one of the most important things we can do and thats whats really interesting about this festival.
Is the festival as much about generating ideas as exhibiting them?
Yeah, I think so, in the sense that we are asking people to make things especially for this event rather than finding work that might fit in. Artists involved are not then just part of the response, they are actually making the whole meaning of the festival. The non-hierarchical thing is really important too, particularly in the British context. In England there is a lot of artist-run and artist-led activity, but there are the bigger players like the Tate and all of those sorts of institutions who determine so much. It can be difficult for artists to see themselves as part of the cannon and part of the history of this place if their practices dont fit easily into traditional categories. We are using this festival to explore some of these issues. In terms of thinking about what this festival will be and how it will be received, I think a lot of people will look at this festival with a cynical eye to see how will it fail. But I think thats an interesting space to inhabit because that means anything can happen. Whereas if you go to other art of design fairs or events, you know exactly what the experience is going to be and you know what work will be there, what sort of audience is going to come along… so thats what makes this such an exciting event to be a part of.
Why are alternative venues, places outside mainstream exhibitions and fairs gaining popularity? Do they provide possibilities that are missing?
I think the growing interest in satellite festivals comes from not wanting to be part of the something more conventional. I think people are so concerned with issues of sponsorship and what all of those things mean in terms of who sponsors what event and fair and all of those sorts of things. Working in a satellite fair can give you the freedom to just explore ideas. If the platform of the event is well thought out and includes interesting artists working alongside you, then that can be a very fruitful and much more exciting experience than the expectations that go with more conventional events.
h2. [D3] Design Talents
Rüdiger Sprave (Organiser)
How did you branch out of imm cologne?
imm cologne is a now a very large, prestigious commercial design show. We wanted to use that context as an opportunity to present young designers to the wider public. We originally had a space within the main festival, but we wanted new designers to have a place where they werent overshadowed or marginalised by larger, better known designers with large budgets. It was a difficult process. There is so much international competition and young designers face so many pressures trying to get their work and ideas into the market place. Young designers are the future of the industry and we wanted to present and publicise them specifically. We knew this kind of alternative space could also be a kind of think tank for the industry. Young designers are doing things differently, things that havent been done or seen before. They are thinking differently, not always in the context of the marketplace. Venues like [D3] give them the support to do what they want to do.
So do satellite events like [D3] Design Talents really give new and emerging designers a better chance of succeeding in the market?
We certainly think so. Beyond publicity, the connection to a big tradeshow allows them to get in touch with great manufacturers, retailers and journalists from all over the world which would not otherwise be achieved if the event were promoted autonomously. Satellite shows like [D3] Design Talents help young designers get recognised and acknowledged by an insiders market to a much larger interior design industry. It is important for all designers in this context to remain active and present for some years, in order to keep regular contact with this vital branch to the global market. Another really important advantage we provide is financial support. [D3] Design Talents is sponsored by the imm cologne, which means invited participants have all expenses associated with exhibition covered, including flights, accommodation and transportation of products and materials. In this way each of the thirty-to-forty invited designers are winners.
Do you think the more experimental and inspirational venues are gaining popularity?
Inspiration is the point at these events. It is highly valued in our sector, and can fuel so much more. I think they tend to excite people more than the standard product design show. These satellite festivals can create a special kind of atmosphere, where everybody likes to be. You can think of these shows as a think tank of sorts, but also as a way of sourcing new products and ideas. Regarding [D3] Design Talents, there a several products which are now in serial production with well-known manufacturers, such as Richard Lampert, Ligne Roset, Kymo or Elmar Floetotto, just to name a few.
Do you think substance and challenging ideas are lacking at all?
It can be hard to find something really innovative and new, which nobody has seen before. Most often you see variations of something that already exists. But, no, substance and ideas arent lacking. Young designers presentations can offer new or different approaches. Their attitude in developing new products is often very conceptual and sometimes more playful. Their products are often unique. At the same time, they often have a heightened commercial sensibility new prototypes can be almost immediately produced and commercially available.