Inside V&A’s London Design Festival programme

From physically repairing memories, experimenting with merging raw materials and transforming 3D scans into physical sculptures, here are the design stories behind this year’s V&A installations.

The V&A returns as the official London Design Festival hub for the 13th year running, launching a series of ten installations which interpret the theme of transformation and regeneration.

This year it seems that each installation invites viewers to consider their relationship with the things around them, whether that be materials, waste, statues, or even their own personal belongings.

Transforming antiques

Credit: Bocci

Standing in the V&A’s John Madejiski Garden, you can feel the heat on your face as live glass blowing takes place. Ornamental pieces from the Material Experiments installation are also on display.

Not many would admit to wanting to melt down one of the V&A’s permanent collections of precious metal ornaments, but Bocci co-founder Omar Arbel’s says that he “fantasised” about it at the beginning of his design process. Instead, he collected items resembling that of the museum’s collections from antique shops and flea markets around London.

With the aim of “transforming the composition of matter”, Arbel began to think about combining two raw materials with different chemical and physical properties. When melted, glass and copper blend together harmoniously, however, when hardened the glass shatters leaving behind a delicate copper relic.

Unlike regular copper, these pieces have an iridescent quality to them, which Arbel says is “the shadow of the glass”. He relinquishes control of what from the ornaments will take, leaving this completely up to the glassblowers. In the Paul and Kill Ruddock gallery, the antique materials used for the process are on show alongside the final products, demonstrating the level of transformation.

Regenerative repair

Giving new life to existing materials is a practice explored on a more personal level in the R for Repairs exhibition. It began two years ago in Singapore when Hans Tan Studio and Jane Withers Studio set out to comment on global waste by repairing people’s personal items.

Withers noted the “strangeness of objects that people sent in”, however, after hearing the stories behind them, the designers were able to better understand the sentimental value of attachment and how repairing the objects could give them new layers of meaning.

A standout piece in the exhibition is an antique sewing chest which was reworked into a table by designer Rio Kobayashi in London this year. The owner inherited the 18th century chest from her grandmother and, upon opening it, came across some sketches and watercolours pictures hidden inside.

The owner has a career in the arts themselves and felt connected to her grandmother through this chest, which represented her grandmothers’ dreams of being an artist, a calling that never came to be.

Kobayashi opened up the chest and added a glass table top so that the works of art were visible and repaired the body of the chest with various kinds of wood and Japanese joinery techniques, requiring no glue or nails.

The process of creating the exhibition and the finished products reveal a deeper meaning behind repair, that Withers describes as “the psychological dimension of repairing memories”.

Changing perceptions

V&A asked all female interdisciplinary design studio Xcessive Aesthetics to respond to something within the museum, guided by the theme of transformation and regeneration. The design team chose to explore the Cast Courts, housinga large collection of replicas of some of the most famous sculptures in the world across two large halls.

Noticing that museums bestow value on sculptures of certain body types, Xcessive Aesthetics set out to question the process and reasoning behind what is replicated and design a new and more unconventional version of it. Enter NotDavid!, a towering geometric sculpture made of aluminium sheets which intentionally looks nothing like the famous statue of David.

Using a multi-layered technique of transformation and replication (which visitors can see on screens in the exhibition space), the team 3D scanned their own bodies while intertwined and put it into a software used to make video games called Blender. The intention was to use the digital space to transform the idea of replica and so they decided that their bodies should take up as much space as possible.

This “inflation” led to the digital images bursting into a kind of fragmented form, which is expressed through disconnected nature of the massive metal structure that is NotDavid!. In a final rebellion against what they see as a historically patriarchal endeavour, Xcessive Aesthetics placed the sculpture directly above the Cast Courts in the Leighton Rooms.

Natural, renewable materials

From the Forest is a display that focuses on how wood can be used as a sustainable material. It is part of a ten-year research project launched earlier this year called Make Good: Rethinking Material Futures and presents ten pieces of furniture which have been mostly made during that decade.

At the front of the exhibition in the Dr Susan Weber Gallery is a piece made in 2010 by designer Gitta Gschwendter called Bodge Bench, crafted using “chair bodging” techniques. Using only freshly cut wood that had not been kiln or air dried and no power tools, Gschwendtner was able to make the bench in the space of a week.

She had no prior experience of using the technique, but the bench has lasted over a decade, seeking to prove that traditional – and sustainable – making methods can stand the test of time. V&A curator Johanna Agerman Ross has assured that she tested the bench, and it remains intact.

Solutions for ocean plastic

The Plasticity sculpture. Credit: Giacomo Cousa

Ocean blue and foamy white hues stretch upwards in a relatively derelict corner of the Simon Sainsbury Gallery, in the form of a 3d-printed structure. Italian architect Niccolo Casas worked with Parley for the Oceans to collect the 200kg of marine plastic that makes up the wave-like sculpture.

The lineal directions of the sculpture are interrupted in the centre by a collection of protruding lumps reminiscent of clouds or even sea foam that’s sits on the water’s surface. The organics natural shapes of this intersection have been made through fractal interpolation, which is a technique that mimics how rocks or waves would naturally abrase against a surface to give it its texture.

Plasticity aims to investigate the properties of marine plastic and make it known as a material that could be used more widely in the future. Working alongside Parley for the Oceans, Casas intends to continue collecting plastic from oceans, rivers, small islands, and beaches around the world, using it to make products like chairs and tables and, eventually, small shelters or houses for people in economically deprived countries.

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