Running one of the biggest design festivals in the world – arguably the biggest – is a bit like running a dating agency, if Ben Evans is to be believed. “We’re like a lonely hearts organisation,” he says, “putting ideas and activities out to new audiences. Our role is to try and help you to find the things you didn’t know you liked.”
And Evans should know; he co-founded the London Design Festival in 2003 with Sir John Sorrell and has acted as director ever since. Currently in its 15th year, the annual event was conceived as a celebration of the capital’s design to rival London Fashion Week and the London Art Fair.
It allows students from across London’s 25 design schools to make a name for themselves, international designers to make their mark on the global stage and for ordinary members of the public to buy unusual items for their home or simply be inspired by new ideas and design concepts.
A report by Nordicity and the Greater London Authority found the festival had generated £313m in the last 10 years, showcased over 21,000 projects and attracted 3.3m visitors from 75 countries. According to the report, £69.4m of tourism spending in 2015 was generated as a direct result of LDF.
Venerable institutions like the Royal College of Art and the V&A have been involved from the beginning, but new studios and schools are coming on board every year. Evans says there were 35 partners when it started out, but now there are over 400 spread across the city. LDF publishes a guide every year and helpfully splits London up into nine design districts, but it’s also had to develop a My Festival tool, available via londondesignfestival.com, to help visitors organise their schedule.
"Our role is to try and help you to find the things you didn’t know you liked.”
All the while, the competition has grown, too; when Evans and Sorrell started out, there were five cities hosting design events in the world and now he thinks that number is closer to 150. “Cities are realising that design is a very easy and user-friendly way to say something positive about yourself,” he says.
“We became one of the leading events relatively quickly and I think we benefited from it just being London, that great global city, but also from having a mature design sector with that breadth and depth. We benefited from the internationalism of our design sector as well. Many of our great design names who live and work in London don’t have British passports – well, they might be getting them now – but that’s something we should celebrate and applaud.”
Where London differs from other destinations is its almost cerebral approach; unlike Milan’s Salone del Mobile, it isn’t an enormous trade furniture show – although there is a B2B element – but a meeting of ideas and concepts. New this year is Design Frontiers, a group exhibition at Somerset House of over 30 leading international designers who are pushing the concept of design to its limits.
LDF also specialises in creating landmark public art projects, like the giant chess set by Jamie Hayon that took over Trafalgar Square in 2009 or this year’s project, Villa Walala by Camille Walala (pictured above) which is taking over Exchange Square in Broadgate.
"Yes, there are lots of great London and UK-based designers, but the prosperity of the design sector is dependent on access to talent, wherever it’s coming from."
Evans says he likes how they “confront the passerby”. Big design ideas, he says, have become more important in high-skilled Western economies as traditional manufacturing has declined. He points to the back of my iPhone as an example, which bears the legend ‘Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.’
"What that’s trying to do is tell you that design is the important bit, not where it’s put together. Apple has been very clear that the idea bit is them and this is where they do it. That’s relevant for us in London, too; we don’t necessarily make it here, but we originate it, we formulate it and the fact it might be made somewhere else is neither here nor there.”
London’s design sector is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but Evans is worried it may not stay that way. In his previous life, he worked on policy development and campaigns under Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair, before he was chosen to fill the Millennium Dome, as it was then known.
He also served as a governor for the University of the Arts London (UAL), the umbrella organisation under which most of the city’s design schools sit, and he emphasises the strong link between our design reputation and the strength of our educational institutions.
“The design sector is very skills based and we’re dependent on a steady stream of talent coming into it,” he says. “That’s why Brexit’s very worrying to us because that talent flow is not domestic. Yes, there are lots of great London and UK-based designers, but the prosperity of the design sector is dependent on access to talent, wherever it’s coming from. And if we limit ourselves in terms of our ability to reach out to that talent, then I think the pendulum could swing out quite quickly. There are plenty of other places that are hungry for our crown.”
He’s absolutely in favour of excluding overseas students from immigration figures – and believes most of the government is, too – and supports Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s London is Open campaign. The sector, he explains, thrives on our ability to attract young designers from all over the world.
"Put yourself in the position of an aspiring design student in Munich; why are you going to come to London? You’re attracted to London as a place and its institutions, but when you’re an international student, it’s hugely expensive.
"EU students currently pay what domestic students pay, but when we start charging them £25,000 a year, which is roughly what students from other places pay, it’s prohibitively expensive for all but the very well off, when it’s free to study at home. That’s a massive change and our institutions are worried.”
Evans hopes that LDF will continue to grow exponentially and attract talent and visitors from around the world. It’s his “baby”, he says, and “I will be involved in it, probably, for the rest of my life.” Despite the challenges ahead, LDF is determined to be an unstoppable force for years to come.
The London Design Festival runs from 16-24 September. Visit londondesignfestival.com.
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