'You might find better graphic designers in a Swiss valley or better product designers in Germany," says Tom Dixon, former head of design at Habitat, "but, altogether, London is expert in design. Design students come here from all over the world to study and think for themselves. It's a crossroads where the whole world can be young and express itself through fashion, software and everything else design can be. Design in London is a real catch-all."
It certainly is if the 300 or so events taking place under the umbrella of the London design festival is anything to go by. Now in its ninth year, the annual event has expanded to become so sprawling and catholic in reach that it is almost impossible to describe succinctly. It encompasses venues as long established as the V&A museum, Tom Dixon's "epicentre for design and innovation" The Dock, and trade shows such as 100% Design and Tent London. There is a galaxy of exhibitions, talks, happenings and parties spread across town; a little more experimental as you trek eastward, a little more conservative as you go west.
"It's an umbrella organisation," says the festival's co-founder and director Ben Evans, a one-time speechwriter and policy adviser to Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair. "The great challenge is getting people who have never thought much about design to come and see how creative the city is. We get around 350,000 visitors a year. Obviously, a lot of these are designers, students and the design-conscious, but I'm intrigued by the impact the festival makes on the non-design audience. Design is such an important part of London's makeup and of the British economy, and we want people to know about it and enjoy it."
Aamu Song’s storytelling dress. Photograph: Bernhard Ludewig
The festival offers much to get involved with. There will be a Lego greenhouse by Sebastian Bergne in Covent Garden. An installation by Aamu Song takes the form of an enormous red dress made from more than 550 metres of fabric, which a storyteller will wear while the audience sits in its 238 capacious pockets. At the Royal College of Art, the Helen Hamlyn Foundation will showcase the latest ideas in design for the health services, including a new ambulance, and a room that responds to the needs of people with autism. Innovations in furniture, fabrics and lighting are also promised.
Yet what most excites Dixon and Evans are the shows where we get to see something new – "a bit of design research and development" as Evans puts it. John Pawson, architect of minimalist buildings including the Calvin Klein store in New York and the Cistercian monastery at Nový Dvůr, Bohemia, has installed such an object in St Paul's cathedral. At the top and bottom of the cantilevered stone stair winding up the south-west tower to the library, there is an enormous lens set in a polished hemisphere and a spherical convex mirror. Ground by Swarovski, makers of optical instruments and crystal chandeliers, these offer visitors a transformative view of this mesmerising baroque space.
"I'd never been inside Wren's wonderful tower before," says Pawson. "The view of the spiral helix of the stair winding up the stone cylinder is stunning, but I found my head spinning as I tried to take it in. So, the lens and mirror edit a highly focused view. The idea is nothing more than me trying to capture and fix a powerful image of a challenging and beautiful place."
Murray Moss’s Elizabethan prostitutes’ shoes. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
Over the entrance of the V&A, there's a tightly curved, 3D 12-metre spiral called Timber Wave, made from American red oak by London architect Amanda Levete's practice AL_A and engineers Arup, who recently won a competition to design a new courtyard and underground extension to the museum. Made up of hundreds of fine laminated sections glued together, it is an elegant demonstration of how engineering logic, architectural imagination and building craft can work together in unexpected ways.
However, the most exciting designs are found within the V&A itself. American designer Murray Moss has created eight installations – a hat by the milliner Stephen Jones for a Regency bust of Lady Belhaven, 14 pairs of Elizabethan prostitutes' shoes tucked under the Great Bed of Ware – all made using a 3D printing process by the Belgian company Materialise.
Sonya Winner’s After Matisse rug
Here is a technique that allows drawings made on or scanned into computers to become 3D objects. There are varying printing processes, although the most enjoyable involves objects being created by laser beams in vats of liquid resin; when "printing" is complete, the object is removed from what looks like a hi-tech primordial soup. The liquid drains away and a solid, usable object (which had no more than a virtual existence as a drawing on a computer screen a little while before) emerges, as if by sorcery, into the real world. Developed for military and other specialised engineering and architectural projects over the last decade, 3D printing is only just beginning to be used in public. "Within a decade, I'd expect every school in the country to have a 3D printer," says Evans. "Then everyone could be a designer, shaping and making things for themselves."
The 3D prints on show at the V&A from Saturday are delightful, yet there should be no question this is a design process that will quietly revolutionise the way we imagine and make things from table lamps to prototypes of buildings and buses. Its commercial applications are infinite, although it will also allow designers to play ever more and, happily, just for the sake of it. The London design festival is as much, and perhaps more, about play than anything else.
"The success of the festival is really all about whether people can get beyond what they already know," says Dixon. "You might have to trawl about a bit, but like London, the festival has a bit of everything." What saddens Dixon though, and to an extent Evans, is the fact that while there is clearly no lack of design creativity in London, little is applied to the public realm: to buses, railway stations, hospital waiting rooms.
"It's a shocking state of affairs," says Dixon. "A lot of the design at the festival is probably more art than anything more useful, but people have to experiment." There is no direct connection between the 3D prints in the V&A or a talk given by a fashionable designer at the inevitable pop-up space, or the beautiful contemporary rugs sold by Sonya Winner at Tent London. At its best, the London design festival nurtures a free thinking atmosphere in which anything is possible. How good it would be if just some of the energy and imagination, as well as the skill and know-how so prominently on display, could be as much a part of the public good as it is of private delight.