Thursday, 13 October 2016

Two versions of socialist utopianism at the London Design Biennale

The theme of the 2016 London Design Biennale, was “Utopia”. This was explored in many different ways in the various national pavilions. The displays ranged from the abstract and conceptual, to practical projects and real objects, intended for use in the real world.

Two fascinating pavilions were those of two former socialist countries, Russia, and Chile, showing two different aspects of socialist utopianism.

The Russian exhibition, Discovering Utopia: Lost Archives of Soviet Design, was a catalogue of projects from created at the All-Union Soviet Institute of Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE) and Soviet Design Studios (SHKB) between the 1960s and the 1980s. Here were the designs for products which would contribute to realising the socialist utopia. The institute employed not only designers, but also philosophers, sociologists and historians of art and culture. On display were a wide range of products: vehicles, trains, a hydrofoil, kitchen utensils, electronic goods (including a precusor of modern computers and tablets), and much more. Some of these went into production, like the hydrofoil which was exported to Britain, but most were never realised due to economic or technical constraints.

Here are some examples of the projects, from the website of the Moscow Design Museum

Seating in this section was provided in the form of cardboard chairs, made from an old Soviet design discovered by the curators. They were very comfortable, in fact. But note, should you be tempted to have a go at making one, that the cardboard from which they were made was of a heavier grade than that used for your usual mail order delivery.


The Chilean pavilion, The Counterculture Room, was an exhibition about the Chilean Cybersyn project, which took place from 1971 – 1973 during the time of the socialist president Salvador Allende. Using the computer technology available at the time, such as telex machines, the aim of the project was to provide the government with real time data that would help them run the economy. The architect of the system was an English business consultant Stafford Beer. This was a sort of precursor of the internet and “big data” of today. The experiment ended with the assassination of Allende in a military coup.

The heart of the display was a reconstruction of the operations room , deigned by Gui Bonsiepe, with its futuristic swivel chairs, and screens for displaying data. Each chair had a control panel on one of the armrests. On the other armrest was that other essential accessory of the period, an ashtray.

Here are some images of the original design and the original room:

You can find out more about Project Cybersyn here

That's all for today. There was lots more at the biennale, so please come back next week.

Friday, 7 October 2016

London Design Biennale 2016: Lebanon and South Africa

A Beirut Street, and Giant Stuffed Animals

At the first London Design Biennale, held at Somerset House from 7 - 27 September this year. There were 37 countries represented, each with their own installation, on the theme of Utopia. The exhibits ranged from the highly conceptual, to collections of practical objects. I thought it was a good selection, and immensely enjoyable.

Here are two of them, to begin with.

Mezzing in Lebanon

This was a delightful outdoor installation on the terrace, a re-creation or re-imagining of the streets of Beirut, with a barber shop cum mini-cinema, rooms for relaxing and playing board games, a quilt maker, and food and drink stalls.

The food was by a well-known London restaurant, Momo. I have never been to Momo, but the shawarma was delicious, so it's on my list. I've never been to Beirut either, but now I'm curious, and the UK government advice is that it's only moderately dangerous, so we'll see.

South Africa
Otium and Acedia

Hanging nests in the form of ferocious animals. They were charming and funny.

I'm sure, like me, everyone must have been wondering what they would be like to sit in, but that was forbidden. This was as close as I got.

You can see more of the designer's work in his website, which is worth a visit.

That's all for today.
More next time.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

My very own digital wallpaper designs

Still a bit hectic this week, so I'll just eave you with these wallpapers which I produced at the London Design Biennale, in the Cooper Hewitt exhibition. More details next time.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

This week I have been mostly ...

I have been busy with domestic matters. It will be worth it in the end. 

Friday, 16 September 2016

Oxford Road Station, Manchester

"One of the most remarkable and unusual stations in the country both for the architectural form and the technological interest"

This extraordinary building, with its three laminated timber conoid shell roofs was designed by architect Max Clendenning of British Railways' Midland region, with structural engineer Hugh Tottenham of the Timber Development Association. It had to be built of wood because it sits atop a weak viaduct, which cannot bear the weight of a brick or concrete structure. The form of the roofs allows a large space to be covered without the use of internal columns, and giving the station a dramatic appearance, and a light and airy interior.

Here are some pictures I took on a recent visit.

It is described in the Pevsner guide to Manchester as
"One of the most interesting and innovative buildings of the period" 
"One of the most remarkable and unusual stations in the country both for the architectural form and the technological interest"
Here is a picture showing the roofs under construction, from the RIBA collections (click on the title for a higher resolution image):

Oxford Road railway station, Manchester: the laminated timber shell roof under construction

Despite its elevated situation, the single storey station is hidden from view by surrounding buildings, and by the curving approach road that leads to it.

The area around Oxford Road Sation is scheduled for extensive redevelopment, and there is concern that demolition of the existing buildings will destroy the character of the place. The famous Cornerhouse cinema just outside the station is closed and at risk of demolition, along with other nearby buildings.

I hope that this does not happen.

Historic England listing, with further references

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Clever, but ultimately pointless, for us anyway.

Have you seen this gadget? We discovered it some time ago, and we had been using it for years. It's used for washing dishes, and it's called a Dishmatic

It seemed like a neat idea at the time. Washing up liquid is poured into the handle. The sponge clips on to the bottom. There are holes in the plastic plate between the handle and the sponge, so that when you squeeze the sponge, the washing-up liquid flows into it. You can get a range of sponge heads, with different degrees of abrasiveness.

We realised, after more years than we care to confess, that it would be simpler just to use a normal sponge, and squeeze the washing up liquid onto it. In fact, I often did not even fill the handle up with washing up liquid, being too idle, and ended up squeezing the stuff directly onto the sponge.

It's made from recycled materials, which is nice. It's touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to using a dishwasher, which seems disingenuous, since that applies to all methods of washing by hand.

It's actually quite clever, but for all the effort that goes into producing it, and all the extra resources that are consumed in doing so, it seems ultimately a rather pointless and wasteful way of going about things.

Some reviewers liked it because they found that they didn't have to dip their hands in soapy water, but we always wear gloves when washing dishes.

Now we just use normal sponges.

We find them just as effective, and much simpler.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Palace Hotel, Manchester

A beautiful, ornate, monumental and friendly hotel, with magnificent public areas

During a recent trip to Manchester for the Urban Sketchers Symposium, we decided that we'd rather like to visit again. We were sitting in the bar of the Palace Hotel, and a quick online search showed that we could get quite a good deal for a short stay over the coming August bank holiday, so we decided to book a room, and duly returned a few weeks later for a stay.

The red brick and terracotta hotel is a grade II listed building originally built for the Refuge Assurance Company. It's an enormous, monumental structure, one of the landmark buildings in the city. The first phase was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, and built in 1891-1895. Alfred Waterhouse was, of course, the architect of the Manchester Town Hall, and the Natural History Museum in London. His son Paul designed the second phase, along with the 66 m tower, which was built in 1910-1912. A further extension was added in 1932 by Stanley Birkett. The Refuge company moved out in 1989, and the building was disused for several years. In 1996 it was converted into a hotel by Richard Newman. Prior to our visit, it had just undergone another major refurbishment.

The inside of the hotel is even more striking than the exterior. Richly decorated and faced with glazed brick and faience, there is a wealth of detail lots to look at. The refurbishment has been very well done, with contemporary lighting and furniture that fits in perfectly with the Victorian / Edwardian interior.

There is a very attractive and comfortable bar, where you can admire your surroundings over tea, a drink, and even some food.

Beyond the bar, the restaurant where we breakfast was served. The breakfast, by the way was excellent.

Adjacent to the restaurant, a covered courtyard known as the winter garden.

More details:

We were fortunate to be allocated a generously proportioned room on the first floor, with a high ceiling and a very large window. If you want a room with a high ceiling, note that the ceilings get lower as you go up the building, as you can tell by looking at the façade.

The room was very comfortably furnished, without being ostentatiously luxurious. The mattress on the bed was firm, the way we like it.

There were sensible reading lights on stalks attached to the headboard.

The desk was just right for someone wanting to do a bit of work, with a USB port in the power socket. The television was mounted at a sensible height for comfortable viewing from the bed.

The wardrobe had an ironing board, and proper hangers (not those hotel hangers fixed to the rail). Our bathroom, as it happened, was designed for disabled users, with an excellent shower.

We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in the Palace Hotel. It was a beautiful, sensitively refurbished and furnished, and perfectly at ease in the 21st century. It was comfortable but not ostentatious or swanky. The staff were friendly, helpful and professional. It's not a budget hotel, but not as expensive as the really posh establishments. For your money you get extremely comfortable and well appointed rooms, and a really superb breakfast. The public areas are staggering in their grandeur, and of course you don't have to be a resident to enjoy them.

The Palace Hotel
Oxford Street Manchester,
M60 7HA, UK
Tel: +44 (0)161 288  1111