Plastic the surprising material of the year at London Fashion Week

Though the Irish presence is low at this year’s London Design Fair, it is still a go-to event, says Carol O’Callaghan who takes a close look at its surprising ‘material of the year’ — plastic

There's a scant Irish presence among the exhibitors at the London Design Festival this week, even at the Shoreditch-based London Design Fair, which has usually had a strong Irish contingent, since its inception 11 years ago.

Shane Holland, the furniture and lighting designer, was the first, and he was later joined by craft designers across a huge variety of disciplines, including an official Irish presence, organised by the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland, for a couple of years.

With mutterings about Brexit uncertainty, regulars have stayed away, so the Irish exhibitors amount to Holland, showing his latest products, and a newcomer called The Things We Felt, with their felt-upholstered chairs.

Nevertheless, the London Design Fair (previously called Tent London) is still the go-to show, hosting the largest collection of international exhibitions, designers, brands, and country pavilions within the overall festival.

In all 28,000 retail buyers, architects, interior designers, collectors and members of the public are expected to view the latest in furniture, lighting, textiles, materials and conceptual installations, from 550 exhibitors representing 36 countries.

For the second year, it has launched an exhibit called ‘Material of the Year’, this time focussing on — wait for it — plastic.

It might seem a perverse choice to give such prominence to this one-time wonder-material, which is now maligned for its negative environmental impact.

However, there’s a logic in the choice. Rather than avoiding plastic, designers are tackling the eco problem by finding new, environmentally sound ways of working with it.

Four designers were commissioned to re-engineer and reimagine plastic into household products. Not just any kind of products, but things we would want and find useful in our homes.

“Understanding the fair’s audience, it was very important that the designers we selected produced pieces we know our audience will want,” says Jimmy MacDonald, founder and director of the London Design Fair. “Simply saying something is made from recycled plastic is not enough.”

Using pioneering recycling techniques, they’ve produced a new generation of plastic products, which are reducing the material’s impact and, in some cases, reversing it.

One of these innovators is Weez & Merl, a Brighton-based studio, set up in 2015 to reduce the quantity of plastic going to litter or landfill. Today, it specialises in low-density polyethylene (LDPE), which is commonly found in carrier bags and bubble wrap.

The studio has now developed a method of melting and reforming the material to create a durable, marble-effect surface material, which can be fashioned into things like coasters and tabletops, using woodworking techniques. In time for the London Design Fair, they have also made a table, translucent tessellating wall tiles (which are heat-fused together), and a lighting collection.

Tokyo-based designer, Kodai Iwamoto, has been inventive with a mix of traditional crafting techniques and mass-produced materials. Using glassblowing methods and PVC pipes normally found in plumbing, he has made a range of vessels — pots and vases — formed in wooden moulds.

Not all of the designers involved are established in their field, however. Charlotte Kidger, a new graduate from the prestigious Central Saint Martin’s School, completed her masters degree by focusing on re-engineering waste substances to create new sustainable materials.

Using polyurethane foam dust, she has developed a versatile composite that can form the base material for 3D sculptural and functional objects. Her exhibit is a range of colourful pots and vessels made from the composite. She’s also up-scaled her technique to make a table.

It’s hardly surprising that the Dutch are making their presence felt, too, with their reputation for sustainability and inventiveness. The Amsterdam-based studio of designer, Dirk Vander Kooij, has made a collection of products that features a range of sculptural vessels, oak shelving with bubbled plastic detailing, and LED lights fashioned into chandeliers.

It gives hope to our consumer society, as we grimace at images on television of floating islands of plastic waste and think how mammoth, even impossible, a task it is to clean it up. These innovations, though, help to mitigate some of the despair we feel as we’re presented with single cucumbers wrapped in plastic, and the sight of plastic kitchen appliances dumped because of built-in obsolescence.

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