LONDON DESIGN BIENNALE 2021

This year’s theme:
‘Design in an age of crisis’

Tuesday 1st June saw the launch of the London Design Biennale, 15 months in the making. The theme was ‘design in an age of crisis’ exploring issues around the world, from climate change, to global inequalities, to COVID. 

Most striking, upon arrival, is the Forests for Change installation, a forest of 400+ trees in the central courtyard of Somerset House. Designer Es Devlin came up with the idea when told about the one founding rule of Somerset House – that no trees should be planted in the central courtyard. Naturally, her first idea was to do just that, to show that we cannot keep nature out. Biennale director, Victoria Broackes, said about the exhibit “We now know we have to live with nature, so by bringing a forest into the heart of the courtyard, we’re presenting that idea very, very clearly”. These trees, post exhibition, will head to inner-city boroughs for various causes – there’s no waste with the exhibits. 

As you walk through, there is bird song from around the world, curated by Brian Eno, singing as and when they would in their natural habitats at various different times. Each visit will therefore be a different experience – and a deeply relaxing one.  

At the end of the forest sits a ‘henge’ of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, each tackling a separate issue faced by our population and planet today – no poverty, gender equality, education and clean water being just a few. Guests then have the chance to add their own voice at pillar 17 – partnership – to share which goal they have chosen to focus on and why. After all, we cannot all solve all problems, but individually we can tackle what matters most to us. 

Heading inside, there is more evidence of goal 17 in action. While not all were able to travel to the UK in the current circumstances, various countries were able to exhibit through the halls and rooms of Somerset House, each showcasing a separate issue. Germany’s installation featured plastic spoons through the ages ahead of next month’s EU ban on plastic cutlery. It looks at the culture of disposability, and how we might shift our mentality to view the full lifecycle of products, not simply dispose of them with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach. 

Finland’s display looks at the echo chambers we find ourselves in so often on social media. Seeking out those who actively reflect the views we already hold, we lose out on seeing different perspectives. Maintaining the COVID safe 2m apart, viewers are invited to sit opposite a complete stranger in a reflective ‘bubble’ and be faced with a view different to their own. 

Most compelling of all was the Design in an age of Crisis gallery, filled to the brim with a myriad of solutions to many of our most complex issues. Created in response to the COVID pandemic, contributors were asked to submit applications to the gallery within five categories: Environment, Health, Society, Work and Young Person. It was especially compelling as all the submissions displayed contained existing solutions to problems, leaving attendees feeling uplifted as they left. Favourites included the Pop-Up Ecosystems – green spaces attached to existing buildings to improve mental health, Glasir – a community-based, modular system for affordable and equitable food production in urban areas and Draft – a natural, sustainable alternative to home cooling systems. Biennale Director Victoria Broackes noted, following on from the postponement of the Biennale in 2020, that “this is a moment when people are listening and looking for ways to improve things”. Because of this she created an entire exhibition within an exhibition, which will later go on tour. “When we couldn’t do a biennale last year but could see people responding creatively to the crisis we sought to make something of that,” said Broackes.  

Finally, on the river terrace outside, American designer Ini Archibong displays his sail-like Pavillion of the African Diaspora. Inspired by conches traded along the African coast, it will stand as a platform for educators, performers and other events for the next few weeks, before going on tour. 

Despite the social distancing guidelines and timed entries, the London Design Biennale packs an incredible amount in, with the varied and often uplifting exhibits preventing the experience from becoming too overwhelming. Sadiq Khan promoted the exhibition as “one of the first major cultural events to take place following the easing of lockdown” in his speech during the launch, as part of his Let’s Do London campaign. To account for the limited capacity thanks to COVID, the Biennale has been pushed to improve its online presence, sharing information about exhibitors who were unable to make the show in person, as well as all entries to the Design in the Age of Crisis Gallery.


If you’re unable to visit, make sure to check them out online!
The London Design Biennale is open to visitors until the 27th June. Book here.