The fun of the fair, Clerkenwell Post, May/June 2017

All copy as provided to the publication.

As Clerkenwell Design Week embraces the concept of play with two installations designed to appeal to the visitor’s inner child, Katie Treggiden investigates the role of playfulness in design.

“I would only ask you not to forget to play,” said Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, and it seems 2017’s CDW Presents installation programme has taken his advice to heart. Two structures – the Beacon and Buzzijungle have a sense of play at their heart.

“Playfulness is universal,” says show director William Knight. “Playing is exploring and imagining – it lets the shackles off and provides a certain type of freedom that is important for innovation and design. The use of spaces for Clerkenwell Design Week is important – done well, and using ‘play,’ we can draw all of EC1’s community together for the festival.”

The use of play in design is nothing new. Playful experimentation has always been an important part of the design process, but perhaps most notably in the Modernism movement. Often seen as austere and functional, it did in fact have a playful side. “Alexander Girard gave back to design what orthodox modernism had rejected: vibrant colours, graphic patterns, opulent interiors,” explains the curator of a retrospective of his work at the Vitra Design Museum, Jochen Eisenbrand. His wooden Vitra dolls are a case in point.

At the Bauhaus, arguably the twentieth century’s most influential art school, costumes, parties and plays were as important at lessons and workshops. When the school was forced to close by pressure from the Nazis, many of its protagonists fled to American, taking the principles of Modernism – and playfulness – with them.

American designers Charles and Ray Eames, pioneers of American Modernism, were famously playful in their approach. “They saw play as a form of learning - for themselves, for their studio team and for the end users of their projects - and as an experience that everyone can benefit from,” explains Kirsty Thomas of Tom Pigeon, the design brand behind the Play Collection, a range of products created for the Barbican’s retrospective on the couple. “Their studio was full of the paraphernalia of modern culture – toys, circus props, posters, signs, masks, film footage, photos, colour and pattern – all of which inspired their beautifully diverse portfolio of work.”

So play in design has some heritage and it’s this that the CDW Presents structures draw upon. The Beacon is a 7.5 metre-high viewing platform, made from brightly-coloured oversized Perspex triangles, which will be located at the entrance to Spa Fields for the duration of the festival, drawing the eye from medieval Clerkenwell up to Spa Fields and through to Northampton Road. “From that point you’ll be able to see pretty much every typology of architecture in London,” says Knight. The internal staircase and multi-coloured outlooks add a sense of fun to these new vistas.

Meanwhile Clerkenwell-based Buzzispace will launch Buzzijungle – which can only be described as a climbing frame for grown-ups. “Various elements within the structure provide an opportunity for different interactions,” explains designer Jonas Van Put. “Playing is everything, both from a designer and from a user perspective. Design shouldn’t be taken too seriously – certain designs only come to life by realising a playful dream image.”

So if you’re visiting Clerkenwell Design Week this year, explore, learn and network by all means, but also make sure Alvar Aalto’s advice is ringing in your ears, and don’t forget to play.