Hot or cold?

Visiting the London Design Festival, Nadine Botha finds herself torn between sustainable and pop.

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If the London Design Festival were a pop hit parade, the Oh Sustainability! aria would have come in third. Although the sophisticated Afropolitan bop of David Adjaye’s Sclera pavilion made a rapid ascension in the charts, coming in second, the unchallenged chart topper remained Tom Dixon.

With his futuristic electro veneer applied to neo-classical shapes, Dixon might be allowed to call himself a hipster if he weren’t too old. Besides being creative director of 100% Design at Earl’s Court, Dixon presented a number of public addresses, a massive stand at the show and an upholstery exhibition on the design trail. It was hard to turn your head without feeling outshone. And that’s without mentioning the gold lamé shopping bags (little does Dixon know that Checkers was selling them two months ago).

Adjaye played it much more low-key, shying from public attention and allowing his temporary installation of American tulipwood to speak for itself. Clearly it spoke to many, as by the time I got to it, it was closed for repairs. Forming the focal point of the Southbank leg of the London Design Festival, this may be considered understandable.

However, I felt sorry for Oh Sustainability! – it tried so hard. 100% Design, 100% Futures, 100% Detail and 100% Material gave it top rankings in all its promotions. Instances of sustainable design were also elevated on plinths along the central 100% walkway and the seminar programme emphasised sustainability throughout. From the exhibitors themselves, a notable collection presented by [re]design offered eye-catching lighting solutions, and a number of innovative products were also launched, including Mekatronika’s Quanta Light LED lighting system and the Mathmos LED Wind Light by Jason Bruges.

The Sustainable Design Trail offered an alternative route through the London Design Festival fringe events. The quirky exhibition From Now to Eternity at Arts Co stood out for its questioning, but not dismissive, attitude towards plastic. Wouldn’t It Be Nice at Somerset House fuelled the fanciful imagination with creations from superstars including Martí Guixé, Jurgen Bey and Martino Gamper. In turn, the Eco design shop exhibited take-home substitutes.

Some startling designs stood out at Tent Design and Designersblock too, the highlight of which was certainly Sante Kim’s ingenious speakers made from recycled wine bottles. Not to mention Zoe Murphy’s fabulously upcycled second-hand furniture; Mario Stadelmann’s bold paper-mâché seats made out of recycled newspaper; Caroline Saul’s Bulbous Vessels made from recycled plastic milk bottles; and Ryan Frank’s stool made from straw and wool.

The Design Council also went out on a leafy limb, playing host to Greengaged, a hub of events, debates, workshops, exhibitions, seminars and masterclasses. However, it was while attending the final event, a demanding creative huddle session entitled Green for Go, that I realised Oh Sustainability! had come in third on the pop charts.

See, the Green for Go session was driven by small groups brainstorming tough questions – alarmism or step change, what to do with landfills, how to redesign the world, and so on. Then, simultaneously, two completely diverging but utterly convincing realisations struck me: one, if all design and all human activities do not become sustainable then humanity will die out; and two, jeez, Tom Dixon, David Adjaye and all the hip young things at Tent and Designersblock are just so fucking hot. I felt uncontrollable shame akin to having sexual thoughts in church.

I mean, when facing the end of the world, how can any reputable design editor be attracted to design that is not fundamentally and holistically driven by sustainability? Then one cannot recognise the sheer exuberance of discovering Yuri Suzuki’s sound jewellery and finger turntables; Debbie Smyth’s drawings of electrical pylons using pins and threads; Seletti and all the other porcelain designers at Tent’s tongue-in-cheek indictments of consumerism; Francesca Signori and Rosa Avinoni Locatelli’s collection of all-paper trench coats, lamps and baggage; the tactile geometric finishing of Gareth Neal’s cabinets; Nick Fraser’s idiosyncratic sublimation of archetypal shapes, forms and objects; Anne Kyyrö Quinn’s sound-absorbing felt wall panelling; or Mixko’s Conceptual Crap Sticker for your toilet – “R. Mutt 1917” – which, although summing up the point, doesn’t offer an alternative.

This is the crux of where the sustainability movement is in the world right now – at the same place as HIV/Aids in Africa. You can tell and educate and market yourself into a non-carbon-based life form, and have it on all the very important agendas of all the global decision makers, but how do you make people wear condoms? Sustainability and HIV/Aids campaigns have to challenge the very raw nature of human desire.

Sure, sustainability has made many inroads in terms of framing itself as cool, but it’s just not hot yet. As long as there is still space for celebrity designers and ingenious non-sustainable ideas to be ogled, Oh Sustainability! just doesn’t crack the number-one spot on the pop chart. For now, it still feels like I’m being sent off to the nunnery.

Watch the Talk with David Adjaye