The Fun of the Fair

A brightly coloured climbing frame and a playhouse for grown-ups – this year’s Clerkenwell Design Week allows you to embrace your inner child, says Katie Treggiden

 “I ask you not to forget to play,” said the legendary Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. This year, Clerkenwell Design Week (CDW) has taken his advice to heart. There’s always a sense of fun with the quirky on- street sights the festival is known for (remember Lulu Guinness’s giant pin-art installation in 2011?) but this year the playground is strongly referenced, thanks to two interactive structures at the main “Design Fields” venue at Spa Fields park.

Showing a natural affinity with the park’s tennis court, outdoor gym and children’s area will be a colourful Perspex tower that visitors can climb and a grown-up “playhouse” in which they can hang out during CDW.

“Playing is exploring and imagining,” says show director William Knight. “It lets off the shackles and provides a certain type of freedom that is important for innovation and design.”

The use of play in design, of course, is nothing new. Experimentation has always been a key part of the creative process, and it has been perhaps most notable in the modernist movement, despite its austere and functional overtones. You only have to look at the work of the textile designer Alexander Girard, born 100 years ago this year.

“Girard gave back to design what orthodox modernism had rejected: vibrant colours, graphic patterns, opulent interiors,” explains Jochen Eisenbrand, the curator of a recent retrospective of Girard’s work that was held at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany. Girard’s wooden dolls, authorised originals of which are made by Clerkenwell-based brand Vitra, are a case in point.

At the Bauhaus, arguably the 20th century’s most influential art school, parties and plays were as important at lessons and workshops. When the school was forced to close under pressure from the Nazis, many of its protagonists fled to America, taking the principles of modernism – and playfulness – with them.

Charles and Ray Eames, pioneers of American modernism, were famously playful in their approach. “They saw play as a form of learning – for themselves, for their studio team and for the end users of their projects,” says Kirsty Thomas of Tom Pigeon, the design brand behind a range of Eames-inspired products, the Play Collection, created for sale at the Barbican’s retrospective of the couple a few years ago. “Their studio was full of the paraphernalia of modern culture: toys, circus props, posters, signs, masks, photos…”

You won’t miss The Beacon at Spa Fields this CDW; it’s a 7.5m tall viewing platform made from brightly coloured oversized Perspex triangles. “From it you’ll be able to see pretty much every type of architecture in London,” says William Knight. The internal staircase and multi-coloured outlooks add a sense of fun to the new vistas.

Nearby, the Belgian design brand BuzziSpace, whose London base is in Clerkenwell, is setting up its BuzziJungle work/lounge space, which can only be described as a climbing frame-cum-playhouse for grown-ups. “Various elements within the structure provide an opportunity for different interactions,” says its creator, Jonas Van Put. “Playing is everything, both from a designer and from a user perspective. Design shouldn’t be taken too seriously – certain designs only come to life by realising a playful image.”

Clerkenwell Design Week, 23-25 May