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Tent London Comes of Age and Embraces the Wonders of Digital Design

One of London's quirkier and more internationally-focussed design shows, its latest iteration saw Tent give greater play to digital design technology, while craft and authenticity remained vital to many of its more artisan-inclined exhibitors.

Photo: Eataipei: Avant-garde design meets exquisite food.
Eataipei: Avant-garde design meets exquisite food.
Photo: Eataipei: Avant-garde design meets exquisite food.
Eataipei: Avant-garde design meets exquisite food.

Small designers rubbed shoulders with established brands at the co-hosted Tent and Super Brands shows in London's hip East End. Overall, the brand backstory seemed every bit as important as aesthetics, with many exhibitors keen to explain the heritage and craft skills that went into their offerings.

Tent London was conceived eight years ago as a grungier, East End foil to 100% Design, the established London furniture and interior accessories show. Since then, the East End has become über hip and Tent has developed a quirky style quite in keeping with its location. This has also helped build its attraction for international brands and its reputation among the design set.

It is now a fashionable venue to visit during the burgeoning London Design Festival (LDF), staged annually in the UK capital. The 20-year-old 100% Design event, meanwhile, has grown from its renegade roots to become more of a standard trade fair. Moving this year to the Olympia exhibition centre in West London, it appears to have settled into a rut, where the programme of talks and seminars arguably has a stronger following than the range of exhibits on display.

Assessing the newer show's strengths, Max Fraser, Publisher of the London Design Guide, said: "Tent seemed to come of age in 2014. Now it is building on that surge forward." Fraser, who until this year was deputy director of the LDF, cites Tent as one of the must-sees at the Festival and something he steers overseas visitors towards in his new role as Design Tour Guide.

As with 100% Design, Tent focuses on furniture and accessories for the contract market as well as for the home. It is also keen to invite international companies into the mix. Unlike its rival, though, the focus at Tent is definitely on lifestyle – a concept that it explores in its broadest sense. Alongside the inevitable cupboards, cushions and chairs, visitors can find the odd stand displaying high-end bicycles, scooters, digital toys and even stationery. There is a lot of lighting on show and even more experimental ceramics, an area that often combines traditional styling with contemporary patterning.

The show also has a strong emphasis on craft and the manufacturing process. A handful of this year's exhibition stands featured working textile looms as a way of drawing visitors in. There were also a number of screen-printing units producing items for sale on the spot while, on other stands, furniture was deconstructed and the parts displayed as decorations.

There is always an air of fun at Tent and the average age of both exhibitor and visitor is noticeably lower than at 100% Design or at arch-rival Designjunction, both of which run concurrently during the LDF.

British Designer and Tent exhibitor, Nick Munro, believes fun is an important part of the event. He said: "It attracts customers and makes showing work there more pleasurable."

This year, Munro teamed up with Quooker – a north of England company supplying boiling water on demand at the kitchen sink – to show his elegant contemporary ranges of tea and coffee utensils, all crafted in stainless steel, glass, pewter and metal. This collaboration meant that visitors could sample his wares, enjoy a hot drink and linger for a chat at the bar-like stand. It also helped to demonstrate the benefits of instant boiling water and to build instant awareness with potential customers.

Munro and Quooker were showing on the ground floor of the Old Truman Brewery in the Super Brands' section of the show. The event organisers have increasingly brought the Super Brands zone to the fore, with its focus on the more established and international manufacturers. The more eclectic designer/maker-led Tent occupied the upper floors of the rambling old brewery building as a separately branded sub-show, billed as "Two shows: pure design".

Tent was also the first London trade show to embrace digital design as an adjunct to the more conventional interiors offering. In the early years, this was a clunky add-on that, if anything, down-graded the overall appeal of the show. This was despite the fact that it has always been close to London's so-called 'Silicon Roundabout' hub, home to many of the digital businesses in the capital.

Photo: A Quooker good looker.
A Quooker good looker.
Photo: A Quooker good looker.
A Quooker good looker.
Photo: Cherishing Gold: Dulux.
Cherishing Gold: Dulux.
Photo: Cherishing Gold: Dulux.
Cherishing Gold: Dulux.

This year the blend was a little less awkward, with the digital content taking a different form. A debating forum – Techable, denoting tech-enabled design – offered talks at Second Home, a fashionable new development in nearby Hanbury Street. Meanwhile, a number of digital exhibitors – notably play-related Technology Will Save Us, Hackaball and experimental group Map – were sprinkled among more the more traditional interiors companies.

Commenting on the change in emphasis, Jimmy MacDonald, Tent London Co-Founder and Director, said: "The huge growth in tech-enabled design in wearables, nutrition, finance, education, travel and medicine is truly awesome. We are delighted to provide a platform for start-ups and established brands to show how the sector is changing the way we experience the world and the environment around us."

Although the development of technology is interesting, the true highlight of this year's Tent lay elsewhere. Within the Super Brands sub-event, a series of Taiwanese culinary performances took centre stage throughout the show. Branded Eataipei, these experimental oriental feasts were designed to promote Taipei as the 2016 World Design Capital. They also reinforced the growing links between avant-garde design and exquisite food that are emerging globally.

Still on the international trail, the 100% Norway delegation continued to impress with its clean blonde wood designs and homespun wool fabrics. The Polish contingent, meanwhile, offered a refreshingly different approach. Focussing on contemporary ceramics, it's What Goes Behind installation, designed by Oskar Zieta, offered an intriguing glimpse into the philosophy behind the creation of each piece.

The Irish delegation was also promoting traditional craft and natural materials with a contemporary twist. As part of a big push by the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland for wider global recognition, its huge collective stand featured the work of some 20 Irish designers and makers, all under the "O" banner. Dublin-based furniture brand, Aodh, offered blonde bentwood furniture, County Kilkenny wicker weaver, Eamon Tobin, showed baskets, Mourne Textiles from County Down displayed a loom as an illustration of how its fabrics are made, while a handful of ceramics companies promoted their individual ranges.

One ceramicist that stood out at the event was Agaf Design, a small Polish company. There was a neat wit to the work of its designer, Agnieska Fornalewska, with her exquisite porcelain lines including knowing nods to the simple, chipped enamel mugs used by many British manual workers.

Elsewhere within Tent, paint giant Dulux was promoting Cherished Gold, its colour of the year. It was also pushing its muted colour palette, a range displayed through the creative handiwork of five artists and designers – textiles and surfaces designer Kit Miles; tassels weaver Jessica Light; artist and jewellery designer Anthony Roussel; artist Mark McClure; and printed textile designer Zoe Murphy. Each applied the Dulux palette to a specially commissioned piece, while also displaying their personal expertise.

Small specialist concerns like Agaf and eclectic British designer, Zoe Murphy – in town to show her reconstructed, decorated furniture, as well as her work on the Dulux installation – provided an effective counterpoint to the bigger, more conventional furniture businesses, such as Sweden's Lammhults and London-based Case.

There were also surprises around every corner in the exhibition space. There was even college work from students at Plymouth College of Art, as well as the Cass design and architecture school looking to offer visitors a glimpse into the future.

Overall, nearly all of the show content was good or at least interesting. While some exhibitors were slick, others were notably less seasoned. One interior designer said she had turned up expecting just furniture and lighting and was pleasantly surprised to find a blacksmith capable of making fittings for their projects – a fitting testimony to the diversity of the exhibitors.

The linking themes across all exhibitors was the way in which they engaged visitors in the processes and materials behind their work. That and the air of friendliness and fun that prevailed throughout.

Photo: A mug’s game: Polished work from Agaf.
A mug's game: Polished work from Agaf.
Photo: A mug’s game: Polished work from Agaf.
A mug's game: Polished work from Agaf.

Tent and Super Brands London was held at The Old Truman Brewery from 24-27 September. Overall, the show organisers claimed some 451 exhibitors from 29 countries, as well as 25,000 visitors from the UK, Europe and as far away as Australia and Vietnam.

Lynda Relph-Knight, Special Correspondent, London

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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