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London Design Fair 2016
16th August 2017

Jimmy MacDonald: London Design Fair

Fifteen years ago, designers Jimmy MacDonald and Rachel Isherwood (now husband and wife) started an edited graduate show for fellow young and emerging designers. It gave them an appetite for design-facing trade shows and, in 2007, Tent London was born. Although the duo had almighty ambitions for the event, they could’ve never envisaged it evolving into the sprawling 12,000m²  show that it is today. 
Jimmy & Rachel in 2012. Photography by Bill Kingston.
The London Design Fair is a four-day industry event that takes place in Shoreditch’s Old Truman Brewery during the London Design Festival. Each year, the event brings together 500 exhibitors from 28 countries across the world. The event comprises international country pavilions, exhibitor stands (showcasing products by both independent designers and established brands), features and exhibitions. Across its three floors, the Fair showcases the very latest in furniture, lighting, textiles and material innovation. 
The event was founded in 2007, under the name Tent London, and rebranded in 2016 to the umbrella brand London Design Fair. Spanning three floors, each year London Design Fair attracts over 27,000 visitors which range from retail buyers and interior designers to design-savvy members of the public. Interestingly for a trade fair, the event refuses to get excited by brands, and is instead led by content. No two London Design Fairs look the same. 

With London Design Festival creeping up on us, we caught up with Jimmy (over the most delicious coffee courtesy of Ace Hotel) to get some inside information on the London Design Fair. In the interview that follows Jimmy discusses how the event has evolved, both in terms of direction and numbers; why an international outlook is of utmost importance; and why he prefers to have a personal relationship with his exhibitors. 
Rive Roshan will be exhibiting in Dutch Stuff at the London Design Fair this September.
Tent London, now part of the umbrella brand London Design Fair, was founded over ten years ago. How has the event evolved over that time? 

My wife Rachel and I both studied design: I did interiors and Rachel did product design. Our first show ever wasn’t Tent London, it was the precursor to that. It was very much for our peer group – a more edited graduate show. Then we launched Tent London. The event grew quite nicely. It began as just one floor, then we added Super Brands and, in 2016, we launched the London Design Fair as an umbrella for all of the aforementioned. It started out as a show that we wanted to go and visit and now it is a show that our exhibitors need. We very much feel like we are servicing the industry. London Design Fair has become much more relevant over the years – I would say that is the biggest change. 

And how has London changed over that time? 

In the ten years since we founded the event, the centre of London has moved East. In that sense, the axises have come together: we were in the right place, with the right content, at the right time. We couldn’t have envisaged that. 
CR&D presented 'X3' an interactive project space where three furniture makers had 6 hours to make a chair!
How has London Design Fair’s audience evolved?

It has changed massively. It is still a fun show but to begin with, it was a very youthful show. At the beginning, everyone came for inspiration whereas now we attract an audience comprising serious buyers, retailers and architects who are working on live projects and are looking to specify something that they haven’t seen before. Year on year we attract new and exciting content because we totally pride ourselves on never chasing brand names. We are only interested in content that we think will appeal to our audience. We are not brand chasers and that has served us well because every year the content changes up dramatically. It is different every single year. 

You launched London Design Fair, an umbrella brand that will include both Tent London and Super Brands London, in 2016. Why did last year seem the right time to rebrand?

When you go to the main event of any design week in continental Europe it is always a fair. Our international audiences are predominantly from Europe so they really understand that term. London Design Fair is therefore more of a communications exercise than a change in what the event is. Communications-wise calling it a fair works super well. When you walk onto a stand in Stockholm and ask “would you like to show at Tent London?” the exhibitor’s first thought is probably that Tent is a camping exhibition! A festival the size of the London Design Festival requires a fair. We have very consistently grown year-on-year so I think we have earned that slot. We added another floor last year so technically, in terms of footprint, it is the biggest show in London.

Queen Sonja of Norway at Tent London 2013. Photography by Sophie Mutevelian.
The Fair has a significant international focus. Why is an international outlook so important?

London is an international destination and a global hub. It, therefore, makes sense that all of these countries would want to present in London because they then get to present to a global audience. London is a cosmopolitan city, over and above a city like Milan. Milan is not cosmopolitan, Milan is very Italian. London has year-round creativity and it is a very international working design scene so it makes sense for all these countries to present in London 

In terms of the creative industries, do you think that London is more of a consistent hub for creativity then? 

Yes, absolutely. There are few cities that are as creatively diverse as London. New York has an interesting design scene but it is still burgeoning. London attracts people from all over the world. Half of my team are from overseas and they very much think of themselves as Londoners. That’s the beauty of London and doing a show here: it is everyone’s home. 
Studio Proba will be exhibiting in Assembly at London Design Fair 2017.
Do the founding principles of London Design Fair remain the same?

They haven’t changed. It has always been about content and never about brands. That is the consistent thread over the last 15 years of our working life. It is always about content and we get very excited about content, we don’t get excited about brands. 

What has changed dramatically is the scale of what people do with us at the show. This year we have 15 Korean companies all arranging for themselves to come as one big collective. We are also launching Visit Sweden’s new three-year campaign. So the show is being used as a platform to launch international programmes and initiatives. The brands come because they believe we have an influencer audience. It can’t be the audience numbers because there are bigger consumer shows that they could go to. So it is about creating the right noise. 
Sebastian Cox at Tent London 2015. Photography by Sophie Mutevelian.
London Design Fair is unique in the diverse audience it attracts: from everyday members of the public who are curious about design, to industry buyers. How do you cater for such a diverse audience?

We do what buyers want. Subsequently, we have to have a quality of content that can end up on a shop floor. We intentionally seek out those people who are not showing a concept and are showing a product that is ready to rock and roll. We have to cater for the buyers but we also like to cater for the interior designers and the architects because when you are working on an interior project it is very difficult to find unique content that you haven’t used on a previous project. I have experienced it myself doing interior projects. You are desperately searching for something new to put in a space, just so you are specifying something different, and it is actually very difficult. Every single year, visiting architects and interior designers will find brand new content for interiors at London Design Fair. That is one function that we achieve very well. 

This year, we are are cross promoting with Decorex. So with the trade pass for Decorex you can get into London Design Fair and vice versa. We hope to introduce a West End interior design audience to the East London design scene. Remarkably the two worlds don’t meet that often and we want that to happen in person and not through the pages of magazines. It is about meeting the designers. I think our exhibitors get a lot more out of that too. That way, they may show just a coffee table but end up with a whole interior commission for a space within a broader project. But if the buyer and brand don’t meet then that won’t happen.
Ariane Prin will present Rustiles as part of London Design Fair's Material of the Year 2017.
What else is new for 2017? 

We will be having over 350 tropical plants across the show. They will be everywhere. My sister-in-law, Jordan, is a florist so I just said “I need…”. She sourced them for me and she will come to the show to arrange them. The benefits of having plants in the workspace or at home are very well documented, but not so much in temporary spaces. We think that it will take our very industrial, brutalist building and soften the edges. It will also make it Instagram heaven. We have never had a theme before. We don’t like themes but we do like plants. It just fits! There will be three varieties of plant in different sizes: monstera, palms, and rubber plants. We have so much volume so the plants needed to be tropical but also ones that we could have in huge volumes. 
Jimmy MacDonald with exhibitor Johnny from Dome Studio, 2015. Photography by Sophie Mutevelian.
How will exhibitors embrace the theme?

We will put a real blast out to our exhibitors saying: “If you have no time to style your space, just choose a nice pastel colour and make sure you have a tropical plant in your space.” That way, they'll be guaranteed social media coverage.  We will also be putting prints on the walls. We are not sure how subtle the plant theme will be – it might be totally in your face! 

Finally, what have learnt in the years since your London Design Fair journey began?

We look for design and people, not just design. That makes it much more interesting for us. It is very much about who we have in our show. Do we want them there? Are they good guys? Do we want to push them? Will they make it possible for us to support them on account of the type of individuals that they are? It is very collaborative. We have a really good relationship with our exhibitors and for us, that is really important. We rarely take an exhibitor from an application, we have usually met them somewhere, god knows where. It could be in the toilet of Bar Basso! When we started we very much wanted the biggest and the best brands but then it was the content that we became more interested in. We have a very loyal exhibitor base and they have grown with us. 
London Design Fair will play host to over 350 tropical plants across the show.
Learn more about London Design Fair 2017 projects: Dutch Stuff, Assembly and the Material of the Year 2017.

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