Homes With its staggering display of innovative ideas, the larger-than-life London Design Festival is a cut above other furniture fairs.
In 1995, 100% Design, little more than a large gathering of interiors fans, was held in the Duke of York's Barracks off the King's Road. At the time, the event generated a certain buzz, but today the comparative size of the London Design Festival (which encompasses the original 100% Design and myriad other events) dwarfs its earlier incarnation. The event has gone from one extreme to the other: if it started off as a manageably compact, albeit parochial, fair, now the festival, in its sixth year, is almost indigestibly large.
The scale does not diminish its significance or appeal, but you certainly need stamina - and time - to see a decent proportion of it: there are over 160 events on offer here. Not that this has deterred people from attempting to do so: last year, the festival attracted 30,000 visitors excluding passers-by who chanced upon its events. "To make it more manageable, there's been a push towards organising events by area. The idea of suggested routes has been a resounding success," says Libby Sellers, a curator known for mounting cutting-edge shows.
This year, she is putting on an exhibition of homeware called Beau Sauvage at Liberty, which will pitch the raw against the polished, one example being Peter Marigold's cabinet in a chic, streamlined shape, which is nevertheless made of rough-hewn wood. One reason why the festival has mushroomed is that the concept of design has become dizzyingly diverse since the Nineties: the London Design Festival (nicknamed LDF for short) now encompasses not just furniture and product design but architecture, industrial and graphic design, multi-media technology and fashion. "The festival has expanded into different areas of design and this year the digital and communication side has grown," says Ben Evans, the festival's director.
Asked what LDF's forte is in relation to other international design festivals - such as the Milan Furniture Fair, New York's ICFF or Design Miami - Evans says: "London promotes a much wider array of design disciplines. Also, it's increasingly international in its design with people from all over the world living and working here. There is a consensus, too, that London's take on design is more cerebral, more intellectual: An interest in ideas is a defining characteristic of LDF."
Sellers agrees. "London has always been a centre of great ideas - of innovation and risk-taking. It's an expensive city, so it forces those who choose to live and work in it to push that bit harder to be noticed and have their work seen." One of LDF's most pivotal elements is 100% Design, which has grown from its humble beginnings and now takes place at the gargantuan Earls Court exhibition hall in West London. The remaining events are dotted around the entire capital: at the Truman Brewery in ultra-hip east London, the more sedate Mayfair, affluent Brompton Cross in South Kensington and - in a new plot development this year - super-central Covent Garden, among other areas.
In a surprising move, Designersblock, one of the edgiest design events in London - whose trademark has long been putting on shows in dilapidated yet atmospheric disused spaces - is showing this year in a comparatively slick venue in the area. 100% Design is not everyone's bag: its immensity is off-putting and the environment uninspiring in the way most exhibition halls are. But it does have interesting features - it's just a question of seeking them out.
One stand, 100% Futures, is devoted to showcasing up-and-coming talent. A designer who stands out this year is Bernard Hubert. He has created chairs that reference tradition (they are button-backed) yet come in unequivocally non-trad hues, including an eye-popping lime cordial colour and lurid turquoise. These two colours, incidentally, appear to be hot this season: also showing at 100% Design are Rosita Missoni's designs in Corian. These include a tall sink unit for the Italian company Boffi in zingy bands of lime, turquoise and black. Elsewhere here, the long-established star of London's design scene, Matthew Hilton, is unveiling his strikingly futuristic, if understated, wafer-thin Super-Light table.
One trend within LDF, and a growing one, is for stands or exhibitions to show work by designers from one country or city. At 100% Design, Norwegian designers are exhibiting under the banner, 100% Norway, while various cutting-edge Canadians have banded together to show as part of New Design Canada. It's a bit like the idea of national pavilions at the Venice Biennale. Beyond the rather airless confines of the Earls Court behemoth and jumping across London to the East End, Portuguese designers - including the outfit Boca do Lobo which creates incredibly baroque yet highly decorative sideboards - are putting on a show affiliated to a relatively new event, Tent London, held at the Truman Brewery on ultra-hip Brick Lane.
Tent London is one of LDF's most talked-about attractions. Perhaps its appeal lies in the way it caters to so many tastes, chiefly because it shows contemporary and vintage furniture cheek by jowl. Moreover, it's a "shopportunity". One Tent side-show, called Circa, sells 20th-century design, a striking example being the French sculptor Maurice Calka's bulbous Boomerang desk from 1969. Another, called Content, showcases contemporary pieces by young designers and by long-established brands such as the wallpaper firm Cole & Son.
Many are the design shops which put on events during LDF. Homeware store SCP, also in East London, is showing a new chair called Myto by the German designer Konstantin Grcic - possibly one of the world's most innovative designers: his experiments with technology constantly yield new forms but his designs also look seductive, coming in juicy pop shades. One mini-trend this year is the "pop-up shop". Looked at cynically, this is just a trendy way of describing a temporary shop and is perhaps no more than a trite marketing tool, a ruse for enticing a young crowd. The South Kensington gallery Rabih Hage is opening one at a different venue (1-5 Exhibition Road), to showcase work by the Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek who transforms unwanted materials into surprisingly elegant homeware. A new British design group, Decode London, will mount a similarly fleeting selling exhibition of coolly understated geometric designs by Benjamin Hubert and multidisciplinary practice Voon Wong and Benson Saw (at 187-211 St John Street, Clerkenwell).
This new obsession with the transient is reflected in the plethora of installations dotted about the capital. One of London's most feted design outfits, the duo Fredrikson Stallard, have created a wall of wood striated with bands that glow yellow at night, which will stand outside Somerset House. On the city's South Bank, meanwhile, as part of the mini-event Size + Matter, the feted architect David Adjaye has created a pavilion made of American tulipwood from sustainable forests, which people can enter and wander about in. Its aim, reasonably enough, is simply to celebrate the beauty of the material.
With all the talk of an impending recession, who knows whether LDF will be as big next year? If the going gets tough, some might see it as a frivolous indulgence. Sir John Sorrell, LDF's chairman, remains optimistic though. "Events such as this inspire new ideas, create new networks and lift the spirits - I've always believed that the greatest creativity comes from adversity."
For more information on LDF, visit @email:www.londondesignfestival.com