Clerkenwell Design week is spread across over seventy show rooms and four ‘hubs’, effectively mini shows housed in venues that are as different from the traditional aircraft hanger type halls that host the big interiors shows in the UK, US and just about everywhere else.
By far the most atmospheric, The Farmiloe Building, is a fine Victorian warehouse complete with Portland Stone, Aberdeen granite, wrought-iron beams, lifts, hoists and industrial curiosity. And within it there is a mixture of exhibitors from far and near. From Shanghai, Stellar Works’ collection reflects the origins of their Japanese, French and Chinese founders along with their Scandinavian creative direction. And there is clearly some Italian influence in there somewhere. I confess to a knee-jerk reaction to Chinese companies, having seen far too many badly made derivative products and, of course, blatant copies. This was a surprise and I mention Stellar Works at length because I want you to remember where you read about them first.
In amongst European Delights such as Scandinavian companies like Swedese with their clean-cut furniture and German Vitamin Design with their confident, assured pieces the Brits continue to do what they do. And that’s largely well made furniture and accessories with an awareness of their heritage and a distinctly contemporary style. For example, James, with their generous wing chair style love seats. For a bit of trivia, wing chairs were first developed by the Edwardians to combat the drafts resulting from all those badly fitted windows. Dare Studios have taken the idea and developed it into something elegant, clean and generous with notable Italian and Scandinavian influences, yet again. And that’s what makes London design so interesting – all those influences are capable of producing something so much greater than its parts.
It is a measure of the Farmiloe Building that it somehow out atmospheres the House of Detention. The former prison closed for business in 1794 was rebuilt as the New Prison in 1818 and in 1847 changed to the House of Detention. Soon after, its exercise yard was the target of a gunpowder explosion instigated by members of the Fenian Society in their attempt to free one of their arms suppliers. They succeeded only in killing 12 bystanders and injuring a further 120. The prison was demolished in 1890 and replaced with a school which, in turn, became flats. However, throughout all these changes the vaults remained and visiting them is good reason enough for calling in during Clerkenwell Design Week.
A subterranean vault maybe less than promising as a venue for showing off craft and other goods appealing to the interior design industry. Certainly Jonathan Field, craftsman and friend, looked less than happy about the water trickling in through the roof, dangerously close to his beautiful hand crafted furniture. Yet, somehow, it is irresistible. Who wouldn’t want to peek into a dingy cell to find a delightful display of lighting.
The other hubs were based in equally enticing venues. St John’s Gates dates from 1504 and the Crypt of the Priory Church of St John dates back to the twelfth century. Sure, the walk from building to building involves dodging London traffic and the occasional rain shower but who would trade charm and history for convenience and an un-ruined hairstyle? And between venues there are showrooms to explore and restaurants, bus or bars to call into. And as if the existing plethora of watering holes were not sufficient, there are pop-up venues including the irresistible Gin Garden.
Back in the 1850s, Clerkenwell was known as Little Italy. Today, in amongst the 75 showrooms you can find known Italian brands such as Poltrona Frau, Boffi and Capellini. Together with those exhibitors from all corners of Europe, and beyond, they amount to a celebration of variety and vibrancy. And maybe that’s what makes it such an English, or more specifically, London event. Those international influences are part of the whole. They neither shout nor hide their ‘otherness’, and they are not corralled into a corner reserved for all that is foreign and alien. London is a city where over 250 languages are spoken and everyone can find food just like mamma made, wherever she may have called home.
Clerkenwell Design Week has a style that is the preserve of the un-selfconscious, of those who are comfortable in their own skin. And part of that style is the celebration of all those influences from near and far. Sometimes I feel I have been to too many trade shows with efficient rows of polished products and eager corporate representatives. And there is, of course, a place for them, we all need to do business. But should you find yourself in London in late May some time, check to see if Clerkenwell Design Week is on. If I’m there, I’ll buy you a drink.