Clerkenwell Design Week 

A review of the UK’s leading design festival

In the last two decades, London has played host to ever more craft and design fairs. Over the same period, it has attracted a significant number of design companies and individual designer-artists to set up a base there. Among the events on the city’s calendar, the Clerkenwell Design Week (CDW) is touted as ‘the UK’s leading design festival’. Founded in 2009, it provides a platform for interior design products targeted primarily at commercial spaces such as offices, hotels, restaurants, spas and leisure facilities. The district of Clerkenwell, a historic centre for crafts such as watch and jewellery making since the nineteenth century, is today home to a thriving community of creative businesses and architects. While the majority of participants in the CDW itself were based either locally or elsewhere in the UK, a handful of other European countries were also represented, including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Italy and Germany.

The fair’s headquarters were in the Old Session House, a late eighteenth-century, Palladian-style courthouse which inspired Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Its grand if slightly dilapidated rooms were occupied by furniture and lighting displays, including furniture makers Fora Form and Umage, whose Danish name translates as ‘making an effort’. The London-based lighting firm Spectra Stone presented a collection of hollow hexagonal tubes made from natural and semi-precious stones that were lit from within by an LED light stick.

Courtesy of Spectra Stone

On display in the nave of the parish church of St James was the British Collection. Among these was the woodworking company Matthew Burt, based in Wiltshire in the southwest of England, whose eponymous designer works with craftsmen to make furniture out of timber sourced from around the British Isles. The works on display included their signature ‘tricorn’ chair, a slim dining chair whose two back legs are combined into one, and a one-off drinks cabinet in Scottish elm with a ringed boxwood inlay, designed by Burton and made by an apprentice woodworker at the company’s workshop as his graduation piece.

Sustainability is a topical theme in contemporary design and craft, and many of the designer companies highlighted the sustainable or recycled aspects of their products. The designer-maker Tabitha Bargh presented a collection of lampshades made from repurposed waste materials such as plastic and cardboard. Dean Connell, creative director of British design consultancy I-AM.D.C, had collaborated with Romanian Carel Woodworks to produce a collection of office furniture that was designed to minimise waste in the production and to be durable and easy to refit, so as to discourage needless throwing away.

Matthew Burt, Ashmolean Benches, photo Jon Stone

The subterranean cells of Clerkenwell’s former House of Detention were converted to small display units for the Light section. Several of the products exhibited there incorporated modular parts that could be assembled and reassembled in different ways – modularity being a theme of design since the 1970s and Enzo Mari’s innovative approach to lighting. The Spanish brand Lladró presented its Seasons Collection of art deco-inspired porcelain chandeliers, made in a range of customisable coloured and shaped sections. Glow Lighting, a firm based in Ripon, north Yorkshire, offered ceiling lights composed of modular glass sections that could be strung from a range of cords. Emily Butterill, who founded the firm in 2015, has chosen to produce shades made in borosilicate glass rather than free-blown soda lime glass. Borosilicate can be easily lampworked and is more resistant to fracture in changing temperatures.

On the subject of lighting, one of the problems with portable table lamps, used on a large scale in restaurants and bars, is the need to recharge their batteries. If there is no power socket nearby, the whole light will need to be taken out of circulation while it is charging. To this problem, the lighting brand Pooky has come up with an ingenious solution: lamps made from stands, LED light cylinders, and shades as three magnetised components which can be easily separated from one another. The LED light section can then taken to charge by itself while a new one is inserted into the stand. Thus, businesses using these lamps can keep the stands and shades in operation at all times, and only replace the (long-lasting) LED units when required.

Jo Andersson Studios at Light, Photo Sam Frost

Lighting is, of course, essential to creating the right ambience, particularly in the hospitality sector. The designer and glassblower Jo Andersson, who runs a studio in Sweden, was showing a balloon-sized sculpture of clear blown glass filled with water and balanced a revolving pedestal, with a light source underneath. As it passes through, the coloured light is diffracted by the combination of irregular glass and rippling water, projecting ever-changing patterns onto the walls. Andersson envisages that her creation might be particularly popular in a spa setting, where the lighting is typically already dimmed.

A contemporary design fair would not be complete without the digital moving image. At CDW this was provided by Cecoceco, a company founded by the entrepreneur Jason Lu and backed by Unilumin, a Chinese LED display manufacturer. Cecoceco was showing floor-to-ceiling digital LED screens of the kind found in hotels and department stores, but with a difference: the surface of their ‘ArtMorph’ screens was overlaid with a surface of customisable materials with different textures, such as ribbed glass or stone. The idea is to transform the screen into a surface that has its own appeal, even when switched off, and that can blend in with the rest of the space.

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Emma Park
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