EDITOR’S NOTE: As admirers of Toronto designer Maha Alavi’s work (we featured her Frooot bowl in 2021 and her Lithic chair in our recap of this January’s IDS Toronto), we were excited to hear that she’d be showing at London Design Festival 2023 and asked her to document the week through a designer’s eyes. Here, she chronicles several of the city’s top exhibitions.

The third week of a crisp September saw London abuzz with creative energy. Hosting the 21st edition of its namesake London Design Festival, the city cemented its reputation as a global design capital by showcasing emerging trends and fresh artistic breakthroughs — such as local architecture firm Parti Studio‘s Puddle light, shown above and featured as part of the exhibition “The Farm Shop” at Fels Gallery.

Among the major themes of LDF 2023 was an emphasis on sustainability (expressed through alternative materials and processes); the rise of more collaborative, cross-cultural approaches to design; and a resurgence of craft production techniques like weaving. While attending the fair to see my own pieces featured as part of an exhibition at The House (more on that in a minute), I visited many other inspiring exhibitions. Here were eight highlights of my cross-town tour.

A chair made of wire mesh next to a cabinet with ceramic floral doors at London Design Festival 2023.
“Sunflower Cabinet” by Natalia Triantafylli & Andrew Pierce Scott

“Greyscale” by Max Radford Gallery

The conceptual lean of “Greyscale” was a testament to the evolving dynamic between British design and art. Named for the gradient between black and white, the exhibition blended together pieces from 14 different designers. Their collective contributions were meant to be viewed as one body of work representing a single practice that extended across all fields of creative expression.

A closeup of a chair's wire mesh seat, featuring an orange check pattern.

Each participant shared a focus on collapsing conventional boundaries. Some of the show’s designers embraced familiar materials but used them in novel ways (for instance, Natalia Triantafylli and Andrew Pierce Scott collaborated on a steel cabinet with glazed stoneware doors featuring intricate floral patterns), while others adopted more unexpected materials but used them in more typical ways (such as London Studio LS Gomma, who created a chair out of rubber and metal mesh). 

A large wooden cabinet filled with wooden vessels in a gallery space at London Design Festival 2023.

“Join, Assemble, Hold” by The New Craftsmen

In 2012, a trio of gallerists founded The New Craftsmen to showcase the joy and value of exquisitely crafted goods. The brand has since come to represent a community of artisans in the British Isles, highlighting expertise in textiles, furniture, pottery, lighting, and fine art. For London Design Week, The New Craftsmen (which is under new leadership, and now operates as a series of pop-ups) nestled a craft-focused exhibition onto the second floor of the prolific Cromwell Place arts space.

A row of four woven baskets.
A glass table lamp sits on a pedestal clad in pink bricks.

“Join, Assemble, Hold” staged two different displays together in one space. The first, The Drawing Room, invited visitors to contemplate the iridescent tones of glass, presenting a table lamp by Edmond Byrne and a series of glasses crafted by Lulu Harrison using materials sourced from the River Thames. Meanwhile, The Kitchen featured pieces that evoked a sense of conviviality and togetherness. Turned wood vessels by Ash & Plumb and woven oak baskets by Lorna Singleton — one of the U.K.’s last remaining “swiller” weavers — inspired deeper appreciation for artisanal production.

At London Design Festival 2023, a stainless steel bar with red and yellow stools at it is stationed in front a wall featuring a row of lights that resemble large puddles.

“The Farm Shop” by Fels Gallery

Curated by designers Marco Campardo, Guan Lee, and Luca Lo Pinto, this project produced a captivating collection of home objects all crafted at Buckinghamshire’s scenic Grymsdyke Farm over this past summer by a collective of creatives.

A wobbly spoon and fork sit on top of a stack of wooden plates.
A sculpture made out of a glass cylinder tied to a brick with a bundle of wires.

Grymsdyke Farm stands as a unique amalgamation of research facility, fabrication workshop, and live-work space. The fruitful exchange of ideas, methodologies, and expertise that play out at this collaborative haven were demonstrated here in pieces like Juli Bolaños-Durman’s collection of Spirited Waste sculptures (created from discarded materials sourced onsite) and Michael Schoner’s Wobbly cutlery.

A rich, moody living room setting featuring an armchair, light and desk in dark red tones at London Design Festival 2023.

“The Bedroom and Study” by The House

Situated in the vibrant heart of East London, The House (an offshoot of M.A.H. Gallery) has earned a devoted following for its curation. With each rotation of its retail space, The House offers a fresh perspective on experiential retail, redefining how art and design can feature in our everyday lives. 

For its latest setup, the store presented two environments: a bedroom that mixed rich colours and plush textures to evoke an Italian Palazzo, and a study devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. Earthy ceramic vessels by Viv Lee and Julie Nelson sat against a backdrop of deep burgundy and red tones, creating a cocoon of tranquillity and inspiration. Other standout pieces included the Spiral Desk by Fred Rigby Studio, a wooden table lamp by Caroline Coirault-Jonqueres and a sculptural radiator by TubesRadiatori, as well as rich textiles by East London Cloth and artworks by Alexandria Coe

Sculptural vessels on a dark red bookcase.
A bronze towel bar.

This show also had a personal connection for me, as a few of my own hardware pieces — including my Fauna towel bar in polished natural bronze, shown above — were among the exhibited works. The towel bar is hand-formed and sandcast in small batches, reflecting the artistic approach to design that gallery director Laura Fulmine prioritizes in her curation. As a new designer, it can be daunting to find a space to show your work; I am grateful to Laura and the rest of her team for being champions of emerging creators.

At London Design Festival 2023, a series of stools sit scattered around a white room with a sign at the back that reads "Hackability of the Stool". One of the stools has been turned into a turntable, and the others have been modified in other ways. Two people hold drinks off to the side.

“Hackability of the Stool” by Daisuke Motogi and Vitra

At Vitra and Artek’s shared Shoreditch showroom, Japanese architect Daisuke Motogi and the DDAA Lab team delved into the boundless potential of Artek’s Stool 60 designed by Alvar Aalto back in 1933. One hundred different iterations of this familiar stool — all created by Motogi and the DDAA Lab — adapted the design to function as an ironing board, a record player or even a wine cooler. Together, these reimaginings showed the extent and breadth of uses that one piece of furniture can have if given the right context.

An iron rests on top of a stool with an upholstered top.
A wine bottle sits in the middle of a stool that has been modified with a cutout for a wine cooler. The sides of the stool feature cutouts to hold wine glasses.

The concept behind the show dates back to 2019. Together with DDAA, Motogi was tasked with creating a multifunctional piece of furniture that would be handy for both large gatherings and everyday use for a Tokyo-based community space. Rather than designing an entirely new product, they opted to enhance an existing one: the Stool 60. Chosen for its wooden structure, stackable nature, easy assembly, and efficient flat-pack design, the design was the ideal candidate for artistic and practical transformation — a hundred times over. 

A circular and long rectangular dining table sit below paper lanterns.

“Fiskars, Gifu, Hiroshima” by TwentyTwentyOne

Housed in the wondrous London design shop twentytwentyone, this exhibition studied the intriguing parallels between Finnish and Japanese cultures — namely, their shared appreciation for the natural world and unwavering commitment to the highest standards of material selection and craftsmanship.

A closeup of a wooden chair shown next to a rug.
A composition of wooden furniture viewed through a window, with artistic shadows.

Design heavyweights Jasper Morrison and Cecilie Manz worked with Japanese manufacturer Maruni to convey these design principles through wooden furniture that included a desk and task chair (by Morrison) as well as a dining table and chairs (by Manz). The paper lantern pendant lights hovering above were designed by London studio Barber Osgerby and produced by Japanese maker Ozeki + Co, while Woodnotes, a pioneering Finnish studio — the first to use paper yarn for textiles — contributed the show’s rugs.

A series of woven vessels at London Design Festival 2023.

“Mother Goddess of the Three Realms” by Wax Atelier

In another sign of London Design Festival 2023’s emphasis on cross-cultural collaboration, “Mother Goddess of the Three Realms: Cross Encounters, Joining Threads” bridged the creative realms of the United Kingdom and Vietnam to celebrate ideas of shared heritage and craft innovation. Spearheaded by London-based WAX Atelier, the endeavour was brought to life through partnerships with the skilled Blue H’mong craftswomen of Pa Co village in Mai Chau and fashion house KILOMET 109 in Hanoi. 

A yellow rope draped around a fountain sculpture in a courtyard.
A closeup of colourful rope textures.

Weaving together cross-cultural concepts and skills, a diverse cadre of UK-based designers and artisans also contributed to the show: Nice Projects created a hemp rope and wood bench, Brian Turner designed silk braids and tops, and Aimee Betts produced waxed cotton and leather wrapped batons. By demonstrating the transformation of botanical resources into tangible creations, the exhibition centred on the use of rope as both medium and metaphor.

Participants were also invited to learn how to make their own braids and braided cords using a traditional technique called Kumihimo, meaning “gathered thread” in Japanese. “Mother Goddess of the Three Realms” signified the power of cultural exchange — an underscoring of the rich tapestry of heritage, talent and ideas that transcends geographical boundaries.

A series of bamboo baskets at London Design Festival 2023.

“Bamboo” by Jasper Morrison Shop

Tucked away in the quiet East London shop and studio of Jasper Morrison, this exhibition shed light on the myriad qualities that make bamboo well suited for contemporary designs. By presenting an array of meticulously crafted items sourced from Japan, “Bamboo” underscored the material’s robustness and adaptability, as well as the intricate techniques employed in craft production.

A bamboo tool.
A closeup of a bamboo basket.

Curated by Jasper Morrison in collaboration with Japan Creative, the pieces shown spoke to Morrison’s own enduring fascination with bamboo — an unassuming yet highly sustainable material that was shown here transformed into an array of exquisite, durable objects through various crafting methodologies. With any luck, these captivating forms and patterns will serve as a wellspring of inspiration for a sustainable future.

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