Mind and Body Take Center Stage at This Year’s London Design Biennale

At the Biennale many contributions have been produced by collectives and interdisciplinary teams rather than by star brand names.


Never before have our emotions lurked so close to the surface.

This is the era of emojis, a time when our emotional lives are played out on social media and when a nation’s happiness ranking is treated as a serious socioeconomic indicator. The first World Happiness Report was published in 2012 by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a project of the United Nations.

Since then, Britain has appointed a minister for loneliness, and the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and India have appointed minsters for happiness — with varying degrees of success.

Emotional States is the theme selected by organizers of this year’s London Design Biennale, which takes over Somerset House on Sept. 4. During the Biennale, 40 pavilions representing nations, territories and cities will explore the relationship among design, social needs and our emotional responses.

“At its core, the Biennale is about how design can create emotions, play off emotions and learn from emotions,” said John Sorrell, president of the event. “I want to make people think about the challenge that designers have to try and make things better, and how emotional response fits within this.”

The result is a broad interpretation across design disciplines. While some participants examine emotional response at its most visceral, such as the Latvian pavilion’s interactive exhibit exploring the joy of doodling in condensation, many participants take a more intellectual tack, creating immersive experiences that deal with heavy-duty political and social issues. Design is viewed as an agent for positive change, rather than simply the process of creating objects.

The British representative is Forensic Architecture, a Turner Prize-nominated organization that gathers architectural evidence in cases of war crimes or other human rights abuses. Brazil offers a poignant and visually arresting snapshot of the effects of deforestation. Israel’s offering will take the form of a “rapid response” design studio called Exposed Nerves, intended to show the challenges faced by designers working in Israel. Everyday life is characterized by a lack of security, and political and social upheaval. The result is “fast, ever-changing with sometimes unfinished outputs,” explained the curator, Hila Shaltieli. “This is all as a result of the emotional, stressful and complicated everyday reality in Israel.”

Matthew Malpass, a research fellow in critical design at Central Saint Martins, said the concept of what a designer produces was changing. “There is a perception that a designer is someone who comes in to design graphics in your corporate brochure, or there is a tangible creative output like a chair,” he said. “The idea of the designer as someone with the ability to manage complexity is why we’re seeing design shifting to address broader complex societal issues, but it is a similar process, the way you manage complexity in a design problem.” He cited the British government’s Policy Lab, which was set up in 2014 to bring in designers to think about organizational change.

At the Biennale many contributions have been produced by collectives and interdisciplinary teams rather than by star brand names. The power of community activism and a citizen-centered approach to design recurs throughout the pavilions. Sorrell said he believed that there was a discernible shift away from the idea of the designer who commands singular authorship. “Engaging a community in the design process is important to creating a positive emotional response — you can give them a sense of identity through design for the community, for civil society,” he said. “What designers need to be really good at is understanding the minds and the desires of the people they are ultimately designing for.”

But this does not mean endless focus groups and market research. “It’s not a matter of saying to people ‘what do you want?’ because often they won’t know what’s possible,” he said. “That is something the designer must understand in the conversation — that’s where great creativity comes.”

Guatemala’s pavilion showcases a handmade textile installation that represents Santa Catarina Palopó, a community where inhabitants use art and design to improve their physical environment by painting dazzling murals inspired by nearby Lake Atitlán on their houses. Initially spearheaded by CNN correspondent Harris Whitbeck in 2017, the aim of the project is to make residents feel more at home. It has been credited with a reduction in crime and a rise in tourism, which has improved the economy. The project offers a direct, visual example of design as a force for social and economic change.

Austria’s pavilion, After Abundance, tackles climate change. “It’s not about presenting a complete solved problem, but using design practices as a way to investigate complex social, political and cultural issues,” according to the project’s curator, Thomas Geisler. “We are interested in issues that confront the future generations of designers.”

The pavilion offers a glimpse of a future Alpine landscape, where the natural and human worlds are inseparable. Visitors are transported to a traditional Austrian farmhouse where a future local community tackles climate change by combining new technology and traditional crafts. Members share renewable energy and genetically modify their own corn to survive. “We don’t want to create a linear emotional response,” said the project’s leader, Anab Jain, professor of industrial design at the University in Applied Arts in Vienna. “Some might find it dystopian but there is hope — we have the tools, tactics, resilience and ingenuity to address these challenges.”

“I don’t think that designers will stop designing products, but the new generation of designers is much more socially aware,” Jain added. “Designers are uniquely placed to explore complex issues.”

Designing products that generate long-term happiness is a focus for Paul Hekkert, head of Industrial Design at Delft University of Technology. Creating a happy moment is easy, he said, but designing for sustained, prolonged happiness presents a greater challenge.

Hekkert said that he believed that in the last five to 10 years, the Western world consumerist reliance on instant gratification — the belief that buying new shiny stuff made us happy — was losing its luster. “The whole well-being movement has made us more aware that what truly makes us happiest is to have good relationships, to be healthy and to be mindful.”

Exercise, enjoying an active social life and having a sense of purpose are all important to long-term happiness, he added. “We know the general mechanisms that create long-term happiness, so the question is, how can we design services and products that will ultimately make people more happy?”

The car industry is quickly adapting to this shift in consumer mindset, Hekkert said: “People buy an electric car because it makes them feel good, they are contributing to a bigger purpose, they are creating a cleaner world.” The sharing economy — another trend triggering huge change — has also shifted the role of design, he added, because ownership of products is no longer an aspiration. “Products are increasingly a means to an end, and if your end is no longer showing off and having status, you start to see the design in a totally different light.”

Malpass said “normal” product designs jobs — such as consumer electronics or furniture — were all but disappearing. “Many of my students say, ‘I am never going to design industrial products, I’m going to use my design practice as a form of social commentary, political critique or activism,’” he said. “ We are in a very complex moment so there are lots of problems to solve — and designers love a problem.”

This, in part, is the purpose of the Biennale. “I want to dispel the idea that design is simply about how things look,” Sorrell said. “What we need right now is designers in the Civil Service,” members of Parliaments and “on boards of businesses.”

© New York Times 2018

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