London and the Anti Design Festival
London’s reputation for being a design-friendly city is cemented in a PR blitzkrieg brought on by the annual London Design Festival (LDF). A wide-ranging, provocative mix of events, talks, installations, exhibitions, trade shows, seminars and publications, it’s become something of a must-see event that all design and lifestyle magazines love to cover as the “event of the season”. It brings in designers and creative hopefuls from around the world to participate in the proceedings, and get in on the excitement of new cutting edge ideas on display. It was surprising then, when a couple of months ago I heard celebrity graphic designer Neville Brody spreading the word on his Anti Design Festival to be held at the same time as this year’s LDF.
I had to ask myself when I first heard about it, whether he meant that the Anti Design Festival was anti-design or anti-design festival. How could Neville Brody – one of the most commercial designers out there – possibly hope to create something anti-design, I wondered. And who was he to be anti design-festival either when he travels the world from exotic design festival locale to another, selling his unique brand of success to people eager to know his formula? I was curious, anxious and fairly skeptical as I made my way to Redchurch Street where the ADF was headquartered, and I have to admit, that having been to some of its events, I’m no clearer as to what its messy, often confusing installations were really against.
Brody’s introduction in the ADF manifesto claims that the festival was a reaction to ” 25 years of cultural deep freeze in the UK” that (presumably) resulted in the “pretty and commercial” London Design Festival. While I don’t fully disagree with the judgement, the reaction appears, well, misdirected. As the centre of activity for the ADF, the Londonewcastle gallery (owned by one of the city’s largest real estate developers) had no signage outside other than a couple of A3 sheets of paper inviting people in. As I rambled in from the street and through the installation of a messy, paint-dripped, vandalized office, I entered the main exhibition space containing anonymously hung artwork on its walls. Stefan Sagmeister, Jonathan Barnbrook and Brody himself had work on display in a show that appeared more violent and anarchic in its visual language than revolutionary in any way. The work was mixed, untitled and crammed onto every available inch of wall space. If I was confused it was because the clutter of images hung with a deliberate carelessness only reflected the lack of communication message apparent in the entire space. Pages from a manifesto attached to the wall were scribbled over with markers while a group of students from the Royal College of Art (where Brody is set to take over as head of the Communication Art and Design department) conducted the workshop for the day.
Black paint, swear words and scrawls that said nothing significant followed me next-door into Idea Generation’s Über Collision: Epic Fail show, which, for the anti-commercialism it proclaimed, was housed in a posh art gallery that otherwise sells contemporary art to an elite few. I got even more disenchanted walking around the exhibition as more and more work consisted of little more than what one would expect of graffiti. The anti-establishment sentiment was so expected it looked like a copy of every “revolution” from the Sixties to the Noughties as if all the anti-design designers could come up with was a re-hash of everything that went before. It was an unoriginal idea of what freedom in design could really bring.
‘Angry’ is the word that came to mind in this collection of work that wasn’t “afraid to fail”: there was a sense of adolescent anger that emanated from the work created by some of London’s best designers, and I can’t fathom why they would go to such lengths to present such an unconvincing anti-thesis to the work they are otherwise so well-known for. After all, isn’t the idea of anti-design, an act of design in itself? And aren’t you trying too hard when you create a website and then label one section “disinformation” and another category “Obsessive Classification Disorder”?
To me, the failure of the festival was the fact that not once did it actually state was its beliefs, other than the fact that it was anti- something else. “Openness” and “freedom” are easy words to bandy about, but what kind of change are the organisers really rallying for if they can’t imagine an alternative to the status quo?
One comment from a fellow visitor was that the whole event felt a lot like an art show and it did indeed look like the work of a whole lot of designers that might be happier off being artists. Obviously they feel that commercial design projects restrict their creativity and expression in someway – a situation that may well be remedied by some time in a non-work art space where they are not afraid to fail. After all what is design if not useful and purposeful in some way?
I think that the Anti Design Festival failed because it tried so hard to be like anti-authoritarian art, that it ended up fulfilling the stereotype that was expected of it. But it failed even to fail properly for its nondescript, noncommittal negative mumbling that amounted to pointlessness. Being anti-design might actually require a lot more effort than the visual rambling we saw here.
On the whole, good going, ADF! You managed to be entirely contradictory by selling ad-space in your manifesto of anti-commercialism, created a website that no one could read and gave anti-design such a bad name that we can’t wait to get back to commercial design that actually sticks to its guns and sells us what it’s supposed to. It’s easy for the rather successful organisers of this show to ask for change when they’ve got their stomachs full. Design turned around the fortunes of the UK in the last 2 decades and it’s easy for them to say they want out now that the goings good. We all know however, that once that festival season is over, the anti-designers all going to go back to cushy jobs and glamorous design assignments, leaving the anti-anything sentiment to those people actually have a stake in the real world of creative pursuit – the artists.