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Clerkenwell Design Week 2019 #CDW2019

The ubiquitous bright pink markings guide you round Clerkenwell

Clerkenwell Design Week is apparently celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, I have personally only been visiting since last year. This is in no small way down to the fact that it feels like it is more aimed at the interior design sector than the wider design field, so there are a lot of lighting, furniture and furnishings on show. That said, this is one of the more unusual trade fairs you will come across and for that reason it is worth a visit to sample the unique feel of this show.

Apparently Clerkenwell is the most concentrated place on Earth for designers and architects. Quite an accolade. What makes this show unique is that rather than being a trade fair in one big location, say Olympia or ExCeL, this one takes over Clerkenwell itself. The core of the show is based around a few core locations, each with a name and a theme like Platform (up and coming designers), Elements (hardware) and Light (lighting, unsurprisingly). These are generally put into an unusual location which is both exciting and disconcerting at the same time.

So we started our day at Farringdon and wandered round to Fabric nightclub. For anyone who hasn’t been there (that’s me!) this is series of underground rooms opposite Smithfield meat market, and as you descend into the industrial labyrinth you start to lose all sense of geography. Going down a flight of stairs and then back up another leads you to a floor somewhere in between the other two. And in each hidden room or alcove you encounter lighting designers. Unlike a ‘traditional’ trade fair where you walk up and down set aisles, here you never know where you will find someone. Fun and strange.

In between each venue there are dozens (hundreds?) of smaller venues which have joined in, all connected by the bright pink branding and arrows that follow you round Clerkenwell. I won’t pretend that we took them all in, not by a long shot, but we did dip in and out of venues as we came across them. The highlight though was the use of unusual settings and as well as Fabric, there were two others worth a mention.

First, Detail was set in the grounds of The Order of St John Church and the cloister garden there is a beautiful place to showcase outdoor furniture. A hot sunny spring day helped it is fair to say, but this felt a real treat. The real highlight had to be Platform though, set in the very atmospheric subterranean world of the House of Detention, the remains of a former prison on the site. The contrast to the heat outside was quite something, for down in the cells below it felt damp and dark. A strange place to showcase some of the beautiful designs it felt, but people seemed happy enough even if they had to enquire what the weather was like above! Sadly this venue is normally closed to the public, but that did make it all the more special for it.

Given the amazing venues at Fabric, the cloister gardens and the prison, the other major venues felt quite disappointing though. Set up in marquees in some of the open spaces around Clerkenwell, these tents felt distinctly underwhelming inside – tired dull carpets, repetitive rows of exhibitions stands and a decidedly dull ‘building’ on any architectural merit scale. Whilst this might be unavoidable in many cases, for a trade show highlighting the cutting edge of design, set in the heart of what is claimed to be the most concentrated design neighbourhood in the world this seems an opportunity missed. For want of inspiration on temporary outdoor structures look no further than the annual Serpentine Gallery pavilion  - an unfair yardstick I know but still a measure of what can be achieved through good design.

That said, CDW is well worth a visit if you work in the design sector, even if on the fringes of this design like we do. It is becoming an annual event for us to attend (Jo has been more years than I have) and one that still manages to inspire.


Part of the fun of an event like this is when it brings in the wider community. In this case, with so many people in the design community in and around Clerkenwell, there are a lot of fringe events. Like this one we attended, when seeking out Emma at Foilco (more on Emma here). This time Jo had a go at letterpress printing. See the process and result below.