From Matter’s exhibition on expanding the 5 senses

Time was, a design fair revolved around stuff you could grab hold of: the whizz-bang appliance, the Italian lighting, the simple chair every designer gets around to making eventually. But at this year’s London Design Festival, we’re seeing a lot of stuff we can’t grab hold of. New technology has been behind some of the greatest developments in design in recent years, but it sits at the forefront now more than ever.

The form-versus-function argument no longer exists in a world where users are experiencing design on a whole other plane.

At Design Junction, the show that occupied two historic buildings in Bloomsbury, we met Benjamin Hubert, the acclaimed industrial designer behind the new platform, Layer, that uses the effect of multiple smartphones hoisted on tall stakes to exhibit a prototype app and wearable developed with the Carbon Trust.


“Our world is quite digital, and this is an opportunity for people to touch and feel what we’re working on,” said Hubert of Layer’s decision to show at the festival. The app measures the cumulative amount of carbon a person uses with every car trip they take and each serving of red meat the eat, and then gives them benchmarks for how to reduce their consumption. “Our work isn’t about producing more, but producing better, using design as a powerful tool for change.”

Two floors below, the virtual furniture house tylko launched with the Hub table by West Coast tech-design guru Yves Behar. If Behar’s presence wasn’t eye candy enough, an army of shop girls demonstrated the purchasing process on tablets: choose a table surface, for instance, use your fingers to elongate it as desired, tap the “leg” icon, and choose the shape, color, and length. Then use the camera to capture the room the table will be placed in and it’ll appear on the tablet in situ.

The reliably conceptual designer Faye Toogood took a plain-box studio in Somerset House and created an intimate “drawing room” by literally drawing it with charcoal on walls draped with canvas, imprinting her memories of cozy, traditional drawing rooms in a physical way. “It’s about creating a concept of space and objects,” she said, as an analogue record player played a soundtrack of birds and country bluster. “All the items here relate to things from my childhood in Rutland: yucca plants, owls, heirlooms… My father was a mythologist and there was a real emphasis on memorizing our history.”

Down the hall we experienced a concept of the future rather than the past. Odyssey, the festival’s first virtual-reality exhibition by Los Angeles designer Tino Schaedler, featured a giant turbine that we took turns straddling and grasping onto while wearing an Oculus Rift headset. During the demo, a curtain virtually descended on the room and we “lifted off” into virtual space, looking down on the building from a higher and higher vantage point.

“Virtual reality forms a link between the physical and virtual worlds, but it can also create beautiful objects,” says Schaedler. “In the near future, browsers will be 3D and the consumer experience will be Shopping 3.0. It’ll dematerialize life. I want to create experiences that offer pure freedom to explore the medium.”

Design studio Matter, which opened this week at the East End gallery One Good Deed Today, is a virtual resource that makes tangible the “hidden” processes that drive creativity today. A schedule of speakers enlisted by the studio covers each of the five senses over five days and celebrates the originators of ideas, rather than their physical manifestations. Earlier today, artist Alex Booker of Booker Printhouse ran a woodblock printing workshop inspired by Morse code. After creating their prints, participants tap out their meaning on a provided Morse code machine. And this weekend designer Zuzana GomboSova explores the potential of unseeable microorganisms in product design. “The last sense we explore is sight,” says event organizer Seetal Solanki, “because the artist will take you into outer space.”