July 24, 2012

London's design hotspots

The hype machine is going into overdrive as the Olympics finally arrive in London, but with all eyes on our sporting superstars, what about the other cultural delights the capital has to offer its visitors? After all, those lucky enough to have tickets need to entertain themselves on their rest days…

If London is the creative capital of the world, Shoreditch is its creative hub. Home to countless design studios (Air included) and many a kooky retailer, it’s worth coming for a whole afternoon to have a proper explore.

Start your visit at Boxpark, the world’s first pop-up mall. Located right next to Shoreditch High Street station, retailers are housed in converted shipping containers, which themselves are stacked over two levels to create a striking and unique shopping experience. It’s interesting to see how the shops have dealt with the restricted space to successfully fit out; but there are some innovative solutions on display.

From here take a trip down Bateman’s Row and pop into 1948 London, a Nike store showcasing and selling exclusive and future brand products. The interiors and merchandising change on a regular basis, but it’s always inventive and worth a peek. Just around the corner on Curtain Road is SCP, one of London’s finest design stores. A product designer, manufacturer and retailer it sells an array of beautiful items for the home, from furniture to lighting. My favourite is the Mark McGinnis alphabet series of prints, not for the nursery though…

East London, and this patch in particular, is also a hotbed for street art. It can be topical, political or just plain pretty, but you don’t need to look far for it. Staying on theme, Paralympic mascot Mandeville is depicted being harassed by an excitable dog down Brick Lane and the Olympic rings get an angular makeover on Holywell Lane. In Redchurch Street, artists Lucas and Malarkey have turned a plain wall into a vibrant mural of colour and characters. These guys are prolific, and their work can also be spotted on many a shop shutter around the area (see below, third from left).

Mind the Map
The London Transport Museum is one of the more underrated attractions in the city; but as well as exploring the history of the capital’s transport network, there is also lots to see in terms of design.

Current exhibition Mind the Map takes an insightful look into the design of maps across the transport network and capital. The history of the iconic tube map is charted from its early geographically correct days to its current diagrammatic form; with examples of MacDonald Gill’s intricate illustrations to Henry Beck’s more recognisable geometric look. There are new artworks on display too and kids can be entertained with the ‘track it down’ ticket stampers located around the museum.

The shop is also one of the best of London’s museums, so be prepared to part with your cash for a special edition tube poster or furnishings covered in the iconic tube/bus seat moquette fabric.


The V&A is one of the capital’s best-loved museums, housed in stunning Victorian surroundings. Home to the largest collection of art and design items, this summer it’s celebrating all things British with three outstanding exhibitions.

The first retrospective of Heatherwick Studio, arguably one of Britian’s most famous design houses, looks at the cross-disciplinary work the studio has produced in almost 20 years of practice. Their most recent commission was for TfL, developing a new Routemaster bus for the city. Now being introduced into operation, it signals a welcome return for an old London icon. Getting an insight into the process behind designing some of the most innovative sculptures and spaces is genuinely fascinating; from the stunning Seed Cathedral at the Shanghai Expo to the Spun chair (head into the courtyard to give one of them a go). The exhibition guide is a treat in itself, requiring a little bit of elbow grease to get your hands on it (see below). If you only get time to see one exhibition whilst you’re here, make it this one.

British Design: Innovation in the Modern Age looks at how design has progressed between the 1948 London Olympic Games and today; 60 years which has seen the cultural landscape change dramatically. The exhibition examines the struggle between tradition and modernity in design and Britain’s continuous pioneering in all fields, from fashion and art to engineering and architecture. Highlights include David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust costume, Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s highway signage and Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy installation (take note of the pill-tastic wallpaper).

Finally, Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950 is a collection of fabulous frocks from the red carpet and catwalk. The exhibition covers sixty years of British designers working at the forefront of the industry, including Zandra Rhodes, the late Alexander McQueen and Gareth Pugh. Prepare for some serious fashion envy as you also get a close up of dresses worn by the Royals and celebs including Elizabeth Hurley and Bianca Jagger.


Designed to Win
Of course, I couldn’t write a blog on London design hotspots without mentioning the Design Museum. Located on the South Bank, the museum champions all design disciplines, from graphics and interiors to fashion and furniture.

This summer the Designed to Win exhibition celebrates the relationship between design and sport; and particularly how design innovation can enhance the performance of athletes across various activities. It examines the distinction between science and human ability, looking at examples where materials and clothing are thought to have given athletes an unfair advantage (remember the Speedo FastSkin furore?). If you just can’t get enough of sport and the Games, this is a must visit.