Designing 'Utopia': 37 countries showcase their visions at the inaugural London Design Biennale

Updated 16th September 2016
View gallery
12 Pictures
Designing 'Utopia': 37 countries showcase their visions at the inaugural London Design Biennale
Written by Natalia Rachlin, for CNNLondon
The inaugural edition of the London Design Biennale kicked-off at Somerset House yesterday, showcasing newly commissioned works and installations by leading designers, architects, artists, thinkers and institutions, representing 37 nations from six continents.
Exploring the theme of "Utopia by Design" -- inspired by the 500-year anniversary of Sir Thomas More's fictional classic, "Utopia" -- the installations touched on contemporary hot-topics ranging from sustainability and urban planning to migration and digital culture. A far cry from the object and furniture trade shows now so abundant in the design industry, the Biennale is a deep-dive into design in the more substantial sense of the word: an interrogation into its most forward-thinking applications and its significance in a quickly changing world.
From a water-dispensing gumball machine to an immersive taste of life in Beirut, we round up six of the most visually arresting entries that offered diverse takes on design's role in creating a version, or viision, of Utopia. The London Design Biennale runs until September 27, at Somerset House.


Designer: New Delhi-based artist and scenographer, Sumant Jayakrishnan
Curator: Rajshree Pathy
What: A bright, joyful and eclectic installation, "Chakraview" combined hanging textiles, fabric medallion curtains, a mirror-tiled floor, and a multimedia broadcast to create a saturated and optimistic vision of India's future. Promoting a concept of "multiple utopias", India's entry (supported by the India Design Forum) nodded to the importance of contemporary innovation, while underscoring the country's diverse religious, social and political heritage, and its myth-laden past.


Designer: Seyhan Özdemir, Sefer Çağlar, Çağla Gürbay, and Zeynep Akten of Istanbul-based multidisciplinary design studio Autoban
Curator: Paul McMillen, Zehra Uçar, Koray Malhan.
What: Dubbed "The Wish Machine", a hexagonal contraption composed of clear plastic tubes serves as a pneumatic message transport system, with visitors invited to place hand-written notes into capsules that are then whisked out of the room to an undisclosed location. The installation is a contemporary interpretation of the Wish Tree, an Anatolian tradition where wishes are tied to the branches of trees. Autoban notes that their aim was to convey a message of hope and encourage a sense of fantasy, in response to the current refugee crisis where Turkey has witnessed plenty of human suffering, as the bridge between the Middle East and Europe.


Designer: Katharina Mischer and Thomas Traxler of Vienna-based design studio mischer'traxler
Curator: Thomas Geisler
What: A delicate arrangement of interconnected light fixtures, "LeveL: the fragile balance of utopia" is formed of metallic rods with hand-sewn paper-shades covering LED lights at each end. The responsive installation is fully illuminated when still, but dims when there is movement in the room, creating a dynamic sensory experience that heroes the concept of equilibrium. "We see a utopia as an interconnected system where all the elements have to stay in balance, but such a moment will never endure," say the designers.


Designer: London-based designer and architect Annabel Karim Kassar, and a design team including: Rabih Zeidan, Violaine Jeantet, Maria Buontempo, Nehmat Alameh, Marie Robin, Christophe Hascoët, Isabelle Rolland, Alain Pin, Mustapha Hijazi, and Maxwell Sterry
Curator: Annabel Karim Kassar RIBA
What: Recreating the hustle and bustle of Beirut in central London, Karim Kassar erected a series of vibrant, souk-like stalls outside of Somerset House. A falafel vendor, a mattress maker, a juice bar, and even a barber, were part of the live installation intended to promote a sense of community and cooperation, which Karim Kassar considers essential to creating an Utopian ideal.

Saudi Arabia

Designer: Co-owners and co-founders of Oasis Magazine and Saudi Design Week, sisters Basma Bouzo and Noura Bouzo
Curator: Basma Bouzo and Noura Bouzo
What: "The Water Machine" is a giant, bespoke gumball machine that dispenses blue acrylic spheres (meant to look like water) rather than sweets, in an attempt to remind visitors about the scarcity of water as a resource through this simple, playful, and interactive concept. "The idea is that an ideal society can only exist if we can subordinate our personal whims and think of a society as a whole," say the Bouzos, who encourage guests to take away the plastic balls as a memento.


Designer: Industrial designers Konstantin Grcic and Olivia Herms
Curator: Konstantin Grcic and Olivia Herms
What: The designers transformed two adjacent rooms of Somerset House to create a disorientating experience out of contrasting environments. The one room was a stark white-cube simply outfitted with a sign showcasing the John Malchovich quote "Utopia means elsewhere". The other, a black box with a digital fireplace ablaze, with chairs inviting guests to sit down for a moment of contemplation. "I wanted people to have the opportunity to reflect on the notion of Utopia, which I think is entirely subjective and individual," said Grcic.