Design Week’s biggest exhibition stories of 2021

Design Week’s biggest exhibition stories of 2021
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Design Week’s biggest exhibition stories of 2021

After a turbulent 2020, exhibitions made a mark on 2021 with shows offering both light-hearted respite from the everyday, and sobering reality checks.

There were few conversations in 2021 that were louder than those surrounding the climate crisis. The Design Museum’s Waste Age exhibition spoke to a specific aspect of the problem – the critical problem of waste around the world. As chief curator Justin McGuirk provocatively put it at the opening of the show: “There have been many material ages in human history – stone, bronze, steel – and we are suggesting what lies ahead could be the Waste Age.”

The show was split into three sections – the first, Peak Waste, confronted visitors with the epic scale of global waste. The underlying point, according to exhibition curator Gemma Curtin, was the “wholly inappropriate” way the world uses plastic. Section two, Precious Waste, offered visitors an insight into raw materials and how these might become part of a circular economy. Finally, Post Waste allowed visitors an insight into how designers were already using waste as a material in and of itself.

One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition came from its partnership with Urge Collective. Wanting to “walk the walk” when it came to impact, the curators at the Design Museum engaged Urge designers Sophie Thomas and Alexie Sommer – along with data analyst Ralf Waterfield – to conduct an environmental audit of the exhibition. All aspects of the show were interrogated, from the 11,000 emails involved behind the scenes, to the building materials and shipping.


Earlier in the year, the Design Museum had its focus on what it called “one of the most universal design objects”: the sneaker. Sneakers Unboxed: From Studio to Street took visitors on a journey from the 1970s New York basketball scene, through to London’s grime scene and Tokyo’s streetwear world through the lens of the always popular sports shoe.

The exhibition was designed by InterestingProjects. Studio co-founder Joana Filipe says the intention of the show was to elevate the shoe to its “cult status” and the first section of the exhibition concentrated on this in particular. The space was a “white canvas cathedral” and showcased the shoe’s early history.

After establishing the sneaker as a cult symbol, the rest of the exhibition examined how people have adapted and adopted the sneaker around the world. Huge billboard-like displays were used to reference the streets and brands that started to link sneakers to personalities, Filipe told Design Week. Naturally, plenty of sneakers made an appearance throughout the show. Filipe says the biggest challenge was making sure these relatively small objects didn’t get lost in the lofty Design Museum exhibition space.


The product of six years of work and £30.7 million, back in October the Imperial War Museum unveiled two new permanent galleries dedicated to the Second World War. Ralph Applebaum Associates (RAA) and Casson Mann designed spaces dedicated to the war and the Holocaust respectively.

Several interactive elements were embedded into both galleries – in the Second World War Galleries full-scale Anderson and Morrison air-raid shelters were positioned in a domestic setting while AV video boxes were installed overhead, playing a 20-minute looped video of what a typical bombing raid looked and felt like.

Upstairs, the new Holocaust Galleries sought to buck the trend of darkness seen in similar spaces around the world – instead opting for bright white walls. The thinking behind this was to show that the atrocities of the Holocaust happened in broad daylight, and not in the shadows. Filled with small but meaningful details, one of the most poignant was the way quotes were displayed. Quotes from Nazis appeared in a typeface developed from the typewriter of Nazi politician Arthur Seyss-Inquart, meanwhile quotes from the persecuted were written in Haarlemmer, a typeface from Jan Van Krimpen – for quotes from known victims of the Holocaust, the words appear with either backlit light or through projections.


As the Barbican prepared to show the first retrospective of Japanese-American designer and sculptor Isamu Noguchi in 20 years, we spoke with curator Florence Ostende about his life and work. The design world of course knew of Noguchi because of his contributions to the modernist design canon where he made his name across furniture and lighting. But he was a true creative multi-hyphenate, also working across sculpture, painting and even dance.

The Akari lamp or “light sculpture” as it is otherwise known took centre stage at the exhibition. Known as one of Noguchi’s most famous creations, it was made from traditional Japanese washi paper and then-new lightbulb technology. As Ostende explained, it stood as an example of the designer’s deliberate mix of old and new.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, the narrative focused on the relevance of Noguchi’s work and outlook on today’s designers. He was not a proponent of “art for art’s sake”, Ostende said, and wrote prolifically on subjects we would consider contemporary today, like sustainability, the environment and purpose. “His work is still incredibly relevant for designers and artists of today who also want to make a difference with their practice,” she said.


In the lead up to Japan House London’s retrospective exhibition on textile designer Sudō Reiko, we spoke with the designer about her life and work. Sudō began her career as a textile lab assistant before helping to found textile design company Nuno. She served as the company’s design director for 30 years – during which time she was an early adopter of sustainable design ideas like using waste and unconventional materials, promoting regional manufacturing and encouraging traditional crafting techniques.

Japan House explore Sudō’s life across five large-scale installations, which each combined Nuno fabrics with art projections and an array of supporting materials like sketches, videos and raw materials.

One such installation showcased Sudō’s sustainable approach writ large. Kibiso Crisscross, a collaborative project with the Tsuruoka Textile Makers Cooperative, revealed the process the team developed to reuse discarded kibiso, the protective outer layer of silk cocoons. A machine takes these tough remnants and creates yarns from them. The idea was to create “no waste and use everything”, according to the designer.


What was your favourite exhibition this year? Let us know in the comments below…


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