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17th July 2017

Water: a multi-designer exhibition at LDF 2017

“We were watching a documentary about the race to Mars and the efforts being made to create water there in order to keep us alive. It is strange that humans would consider escaping from Earth, a planet with an abundance of water, to Mars, a planet that has none.”
Mike Vanis is co-founder of Unit Lab, a design studio based in Peckham that aims to make science relevant by taking it out of the lab and introducing it into our day-to-day lives. For the 2017 iteration of London Design Festival, Unit Lab have collaborated with designers Dean Brown and Kirsi Enkovaara to curate a multi-designer exhibition that examines water. Titled quite simply, Water, the exhibition will be hosted in the Bussey Building in Peckham between 19 and 24 September and brings together new works by 13 designers.
Water as a theme is undoubtedly broad. Covering approximately 71 per cent of the Earth's surface, it can define units of measurement, generate energy and even alter geography in the form of tsunamis, glaciers, rivers and monsoons. Its properties are studied to find ways to clean our oceans and its absence can create turmoil, being a scarce resource for most countries.
A preview of the exhibition design concept.
The 13 designers exhibiting as part of Water span multiple disciplines – including product design, graphics and technology – and were given carte blanche to create “products, materials, installations and experiments that incorporate, exploit, or examine water.”  The resulting designs are eclectic and capture humorous, bold and experimental design approaches. Projects include an underwater camera constructed out of household items, a machine that gives water a voice, and a water-generating, philanthropic robot.
The designers exhibiting as part of the show are: Andy Sheen, Dean Brown, Fernando Laposse, Henrik Nieratschke, Interaction Research Studio, James Patmore, Kirsi Enkovaara, Ola Mirecka, Philipp Ronnenberg, Simon Denzel, Six:Thirty x Matteo Loglio, Studio PSK x Karl Toomey and Unit Lab.
With London Design Festival just around the corner, Zetteler sat down with Mike to see what’s in store for the exhibition. In the interview published below, Mike discusses the importance of setting an open brief, his wider efforts to cement Peckham as a design destination, and the creativity found in pushing boundaries.
One of Unit Lab's designs; the fascinating Gravity Ruler.
First of all, what is Unit Lab and how did it get started?
Unit Lab is a design studio based in Peckham, south London. Together we design products that make science relevant on a personal level - products that take science out of the lab and bring it into our daily routines. Besides products we create workshops and installations for schools, museums and cultural institutions. Each year we explore a different theme. Past themes include gravity and orientation and this year's theme is water.  We find our inspiration in scientific theories and translate them into physical objects.
Have either of you organised a show like this before? What are you most looking forward to?
This is actually the first time that the three of us [Unit Lab together with Dean Brown and Kirsi Enkovaara] have worked together to organise a show. Our three distinct design approaches give us the ability to engage with a wide range of people. We are designers, rather than curators, so our core interest is creating an open brief and space for a collective of practitioners, including ourselves, to create something new for London Design Festival. The festival is dynamic enough to encompass new projects and approaches. One of the things that we’re all looking forward to is standing in the middle of a gallery, with 13 interpretations of a theme as broad as water. Equally, seeing the public’s reaction to the theme and the work is going to be really interesting. We think it’s going to be very different from group shows that people have seen before.
The Body Seat from Kirsi Enkovaara
What inspired the selection of water as the theme for this year’s exhibition?

At Unit Lab, we decided to make water our theme for this year. Water is so fundamental to the point that everyone takes it for granted. We were watching a documentary about the race to Mars and the efforts being made to create water there in order to keep us alive. It is strange that humans would consider escaping from Earth, a planet with an abundance of water, to Mars, a planet that has none. Most materials need water as part of their production. Water is so essential, yet so invisible. Kirsi and Dean were both so responsive to the theme, so we decided as a group that it would be interesting to get a group of designers to respond to this theme. We consciously kept the brief open in order to let each designer carve out their interest from the myriad possibilities.
What are your aims for the show? What effect do you want it to have on visitors?

We really want this exhibition to be a must-see during LDF. The festival has strong foundations in Brompton and Shoreditch, where it’s really geared around established design institutions. Peckham and South London have a growing creative community, hosting craftspeople, designers, artists, and makers. It therefore makes sense to cement Peckham as a design destination. We want to show the public a more exploratory side of design, where humour, boldness, and experimentation are centre-stage. As for the audience, we’d like to involve the general public, families, scientists, and the local community.
How did you go about selecting designers for the exhibition?

We started off by contacting a few of our colleagues and friends who we knew would share our enthusiasm. As we contacted a wider group of people, we aimed for a mix of nationalities, disciplines and backgrounds. We looked for designers who shared our desire to push boundaries and experiment. The final group of designers includes a lot of up-and-coming practitioners who are at a stage in their careers where they want to try bold new things.
What about the venue? Why is it a good fit for the exhibition? 

We picked Copeland Gallery in Peckham as our venue, which is part of Copeland Park and the Bussey Building. Unit Lab and Kirsi have a studio here. It’s a great hub of creativity - housing artists, makers and designers. Many of the designers in the exhibition also work in South London. It made sense to show our work in the same place where we work every day. The venue itself is large, unembellished and factory-esque, which is the perfect stage to host the 13 visionary practitioners and projects.
What sorts of things can we expect to see at the show?

One of the things we’re really excited about is that everyone is making new work. The designers have a diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines, so we’re going to get very different interpretations of the theme. We foresee a lot of experiments, humour, materials, and interactivity. Some of the works in the exhibition include a study of reflections, an open-source DIY underwater camera, a fountain and an attempt to bring the sea into the home.
What kind of events are you hoping to host in conjunction with the exhibition?

We’ve had a few really exciting ideas for events surrounding and complementing the exhibition. We’re organising a tour of the exhibition with some of the designers. We’re collaborating with the South East Makers Club on a couple of events, one being a conversation between a scientist and a designer around the theme of water. We are hoping to run a workshop for children during the weekend, an evening of short films, and potentially a musical event.
One of Dean Brown's previous projects, A Matter of Colour.
Unit Lab’s projects all refer to a particular facet of science or address a specific property. Can you tell us about your creative process? Do you start with a problem to solve or a concept to explore?
We are excited about science and love to make products that get people excited about it too. We like to pick a topic each year and immerse ourselves in it. The outcomes can vary a lot, from products and installations to workshops and events. One of the first steps of our process is gathering inspiration from old science demonstrations. We then do a lot of rough experiments and slowly resolve it in contemporary everyday products.
We have a loose creative process, and I think it changes with every project. Generally, we start with a very broad concept. Sometimes it’s an aspect of science that we see as overlooked, such as last year’s navigation theme. In this case, it starts off with a material. We then immerse ourselves in the theme, making prototypes, running workshops, and engaging with the public. We rarely know what we’re making until very shortly before the end of the project. This is the only way to get to objects as peculiar and intriguing as the Gravity Ruler and North Lights.
To what extent does aesthetic have an impact on the work?

We are quite careful with aesthetics. We draw a lot of inspiration from science, using a lot of metal and pragmatic materials. Because our objects are so conceptual, we like to use materials and forms that are quite simple and people are already familiar with.
Other than water, what else are you, Dean and Kirsi working on at the moment?

Dean: I’ve recently finished my second collaboration with Schloss Hollenegg for Design, a spectacular new Design destination hosted in an Austrian Castle, curated by Alice Stori Liechtenstein. I also have a new collection called Transit Vases, currently on show at the Mint Gallery in South Kensington.
Unit Lab: We’re currently working on our North Lights production. North Lights are a series of table lights with their own mind which bring traditional orientation into the home. The lights are influenced by the historical significance of the North Star as a navigational reference. The lights can be rotated around their axes and only switch on when they are facing north.
Kirsi: I am currently working on a project titled The Shapes of Human Body. Part of the project is currently being exhibited at the Helsinki Design Museum.
Find out more about Water and see the full list of designers here.
Dean Brown's Transit Vases.
Unit Lab's North Lights
Sailing Stones, concrete furniture designs from Kirsi Enkovaara.

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