Asian designers make a splash at London Design Festival

Asian designers made a splash at the London Design Festival, and there were some stand-outs from Korea and Taiwan, writes Giovanna Dunmall

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 6:37pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 6:37pm

The London Design Festival, which took place last month, is not a commercial beast like the Milan Furniture Fair. It's a place to see conceptual designs and one-off installations, such as Canadian designer Omer Arbel's spectacular 30-metre cascading copper-and-glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

It's also fun to attend the countless talks at events such as the Global Design Forum, where speakers this year included Jaime Hayon, Ross Lovegrove and Hong Kong-based Michael Young. If that's not enough, there have also been attempts to commercialise the festival, with shows such as Design Junction and 100% Design.

Among the emerging graduate designers at last month's festival were a significant number of young Asians hungry for success and recognition. Reflecting London's reputation as a multicultural city, many of its major design courses attract students from around the globe.

It's no surprise that many of them stay on, such as Made by WORKS, a collective of a dozen recent Royal College of Art graduates that was formed in 2012; four of its 12 members are originally from Asia.

For this year's festival the collective focused on the "connection between the maker, the product and the user" and presented a series of "collectable works" in a shop format in the Clerkenwell Design Quarter (one of five design districts created to make tackling the sprawling festival more approachable). Zhang Ejing is from Wuxi, in Jiangsu province, but has been in London for seven years.

Her intriguing 3-D printed tote and make-up bags, and bamboo shopper made use of digital techniques but were clearly "inspired by the traditional craftsmanship of China and Japan".

Vietnamese-born Lola Lely's painterly series of side tables and stools turned humble and sometimes rotten woods (including spotted beech) to great effect; whereas South Korean Jungin Lee's pieces used materials in unexpected ways. Textiles were used to create seats and tables, and salt was condensed into a series of colourful accessories and even a stool. Her work explores the theme product life cycles.

"I think customers should be able to decide when they are finished with a piece of furniture," she says.

Her greatest design influence is, perhaps surprisingly, her grandmother. "Her approach to life and keeping house was always practical and functional," Lee says. "She didn't do anything unnecessary."

We design our furniture to be tools for living, as well as sculptures that complete the spaces we live in
Inchul Yeo, artiZAC

Made by WORKS is representative of a new wave of savvy, entrepreneurial designer-makers who have turned harsh and changing economic times into an asset and realised that one way through is to do things on their own. "You can't expect manufacturers to come knocking at your door," says Lely. "But there is power in numbers."

Over at 100% Design, in the west of town, a new section called International Pavilions featured stands dedicated to design from South Korea, Taipei and Shenzhen. The latter stand had a few pieces on show, but nothing backed up its aim of showcasing the transformation of Shenzhen from its status as the "world's factory to China's most innovative design city". Still, some designs from Taipei and South Korea stood out, especially the Taipei contribution dedicated to themes of sustainability and social design.

Interesting offerings included Jacky Wu's "crack vase", which combined marble with pieces of cracked wood that, despite its inherent beauty, would otherwise be considered useless. Pega Casa's Renaissance light, a sleek bamboo-and-metal adaptable-height desk lamp, was both hi-tech and sustainable with an undeniably modern aesthetic.

In the same series, the clever Renaissance stapler used a small LED light to reveal where the staple was going to land.

The South Korean stand at 100% Design was also a slick affair. Even the press kit - a puzzle that doubled as a USB stick - was clever and self-aware. Architect and designer Il Hoon Roh, who studied at the Architectural Association and Royal College of Art in London, showed off a bench that referenced Korean craft traditions, but was made out of carbon fibre, so could be lifted using only one finger.

The design duo that goes by the name of artiZAC, both of whom are architects, make the sort of furniture that wouldn't look out of place in a sleek, modernist home. It's no surprise that two of the designers they admire are Zaha Hadid and Ben van Berkel.

"We design our furniture to be tools for living, as well as sculptures that complete the spaces we live in," says an earnest Inchul Yeo, who is one half of artiZAC.

Eye-catching, but also deeply imaginative, was Studio Jinhyun Jeon's range of sensorial tableware. "We believe cutlery isn't just there to bring food to your mouth, it can also trigger your senses," says dynamic studio founder, Jinhyun Jeon.

Synaesthasia (a condition in which two senses are stimulated at the same time) isn't just something you are born with, she says, it can be developed. Using existing studies and new research carried out by the studio, Jeon and her team have created a series of ceramic, aluminium and even silicone spoons that enhance the senses with the use of different colours, shapes, textures, sizes and temperatures.

These spoons are now taking centre stage at the Netherlands' two Michelin-starred restaurant De Treeswijkhoeve (Jeon studied at the Eindhoven design academy and is based in the city), which has created a menu around the tableware.

"The chefs said they were tired of always having to come up with new ideas," says Jeon. "They found the spoons very inspiring."

At another major festival show, TENT, the quality was more variable. South Korea and Taiwan featured once again, reflecting their active and increasingly visible design communities. At Fresh Taiwan Ruskasa's eco-friendly and intentionally "slow design" philosophy was appealing, as was its accomplished range of chairs and benches made from walnut, beech and maple using traditional mortise and tenon techniques with modern lines.

Ideoso Design, also from Taiwan, showed a set of shoulder bags and backpacks made from cement bags that had been waterproofed and stitched together. The bags will be sold on their website, highlighting once again how many design practices are choosing to sell directly to consumers.

Also at TENT, a joint project between Korean design students and Goldsmiths College in London, which involved a workshop in South Korea but mainly weeks of long-distance tutorials over Skype, resulted in some neat and interesting ideas.

My favourite was the Sonic Graffiti project: small trumpet-shaped "voice grenades" that record any message you want and can be left in public places to relay your message to the world.

Thought-provoking and clever, it exemplifies what fresh new design is all about.