15 Minutes with London Design Biennale’s Christopher Turner

Samantha Tse

London Design Biennale Director Christopher Turner.

The first ever London Design Biennale will kick off on September 7th at the iconic Somerset House with over 30 international architects and designers presenting pavilions around the theme of Utopia by Design.

The fair is packed with both established designers such as Barber Osgerby and emerging talent including mischer’traxler. As London begins its month-long celebration of design, writer Samantha Tse had a chance to catch up with London Design Biennale’s director Christopher Turner to find out more about the idea of utopia in design, the importance of design in starting a dialogue around key issues and lessons learned from other biennales.

Japan_Aerial Being, Installation View at Musashino Art University © Yasuhiro Suzuki jpg

Large-sized Aerial Being ©Yasuhiro Suzuki, installation view at Musashino Art University, 2016

The world around us is rapidly changing and is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Why did you pick the theme of utopia and how did global current issues such as environmental issues, migration, and social equality influence the choice of theme? With 2016 marking 500 years since the publication of Thomas More’s classic text, and the celebration of this as part of Somerset House’s season UTOPIA 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility, using Utopia as the starting point for our first Biennale was a fairly easy decision. Modernist designers and architects have long grappled with utopian ideas, pursuits that were condemned to fail, and the idea of utopia has become unfashionable – we’re more interested in dystopias now. And, one person’s utopia is always another’s nightmare.

However, we wanted to see if something might be salvaged from the utopian ideal, what Ernst Bloch called “the principle of hope”, and were fascinated to see how different countries and their creative teams would interpret the idea of Utopia by Design and what kind of installations and exhibits would result. The response has proved that Utopia remains an inspirational provocation. Design teams are tackling some very big issues, but its immersive, inspirational and entertaining too.

Israel Aid Drop Image 3

Israel Louder Advanced prototype. Photo © Tami Dahan.

What role does design play in starting a dialogue around key issues in society? How can it add to the discourse? Designers are always engaged with key issues, intent on improving things, however small. What designer wakes up in the morning wondering how to make the world a worse place? And in identifying problems, they are halfway towards finding a solution. I think most designers have optimistic, socially conscious imaginations, and we wanted the Biennale to be a forum to explore that. Design is a crucial component of so many disciplines – it isn’t just decorative, added on at the end, part of the super-structure, but an important driver of change.

Concept rendering of Korean Pavilion installation. Image © Kiheon Shin & Austin S. Lee.

Concept rendering of Korean Pavilion installation. Image © Kiheon Shin & Austin S. Lee.


Can you please explain the selection process of how you chose the designers? We were really keen that our first Biennale had a truly global feel and a diverse group of nations taking part. In exploring Utopia by Design, it felt important that our exhibition should include responses from a genuinely wide-ranging set of perspectives.

We wrote to embassies and ambassadors inviting nations to participate in 2016. Those who were interested then took the responsibility of appointing commissioning bodies to put together proposals and select the designers or design teams that would represent them. We have 37 participating countries, almost twice as many as we anticipated in our first year, and we have representatives from six continents.

We are collaborating with some amazingly prestigious institutions – the V&A, the MAK, the Cooper Hewitt, the Moscow Design Museum, so countries are competing at the highest level. Having Somerset House as our venue has been fantastic in encouraging participation as it has such a variety of spaces that can cater to any project regardless of scale.

As a design journalist, you have covered biennales around the world. Are there any lessons you learned while attending them that influenced your approach to this biennale?Yes, of course, I’ve learnt great curatorial lessons from covering design festivals and biennales internationally – from Helsinki to Beijing. That journalistic tour also gave me a fantastic contacts book of designers and curators on which to call, and many of the people I’ve met over the years are participating in London.

The most famous and long-standing biennale in the world is obviously Venice, with events for art and architecture but not design. We followed the Venetian model in relinquishing curatorial control to countries rather than appointing a curator who would cherry-pick their favorite designs from around the world. As far as we were aware, there had never been a Biennale like Venice truly devoted to design in a major capital city.

India_Fabrics made by Aadyam ©ChakraView

Fabrics made by Aadyam for the Indian Pavilion. ©ChakraViewIsrael.

What is it about this particular moment in time that necessitated a design biennale in London and why Somerset House?Sir John Sorrell and Ben Evans, who initiated the London Design Festival, had been conscious for a number of years of an opportunity for a new enterprise that would bring designers from across the world together in a single, expansive and challenging exhibition exploring design’s role in our future.

Somerset House is this beautiful neo-classical building, probably the closest London gets to Venice, and we have this amazing opportunity to occupy the entire campus, including its fountain court and river terrace. It is also one of the top ten most visited attractions in London, with 3.2 million visitors a year, so has an amazing, international audience. Where better to have a design biennale, and stage this vibrant, ambitious, inspiring tour of the world?