As lockdown confusion reigns and rules about where you can go and at what time change every day, there’s one thing that has become clear. The creative community are rising to the challenges of the Covid crisis. In the US, new initiatives have turned the plywood boards nailed to shopfronts during lockdown into creative opportunities for artists and local communities. One architecture firm is using discarded plywood to make street furniture for restaurants. In the UK, designer Jonny Banger has joined with artist Jeremy Deller to let children vent their feelings about lockdown and create a unique exhibition. Creative spirit and inspirational design live on.
Worship on the waterways
God moves in mysterious ways, but it turns out She’s also pretty pragmatic. The price of UK real estate has soared as church congregations have fallen, so the Diocese of London has come up with a new way to ensure all East End communities can access church-run facilities: a new narrowboat named Genesis. The boat was developed by Turks Shipyard and naval architect Tony Tucker. As well as an office, kitchen and bathroom, it has a multipurpose meeting space with stools, tables – and a foldaway altar. Its pop-up roof is made from sailcloth and lined with LED lights so it can glow like a beacon, acting as a landmark for locals.
Genesis will travel to where it’s most needed – a nimble response to the quick changes caused by regeneration in local areas, especially on the canals which are now recognised as a valuable urban resource. Genesis is currently moored at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to serve the St Columba East parish. In years to come it’ll travel to where canalside communities need it, providing space for employment training, toddler groups, support groups and pilates classes, as well as religious ceremonies.
Vicar of Genesis is the Rev Dave Pilkington, who’s spent his career in East London working on social and community projects before being ordained in 2019. He’s pleased to be off the interim vessel, Elsdale II, which served his congregation for the last year. That boat was pretty nippy when the heating broke. “The sight of Genesis on the banks of the River Lee Navigation is fantastic,” says Pilkington. “With so many changes happening in Hackney Wick and Fish Island, we constantly seek ways to build community. With Genesis we can look forward to a space to support our desire for action, reflection and contemplation.” Like its namesake book of the Bible, for the church and local communities, this is just the beginning.
Flatpack for flats
When furniture designer Oliver Theobald moved into his first flat a few years ago, he couldn’t find any flatpack furniture that was well made and designed to fit small spaces. So he started Fuzl, a crowdsourced design studio to make the furniture he wanted.
Fuzl designs are all made in the UK from sustainable wood and fully recyclable. Lots are made with the sort of small, annoying shapes that converted flat dwellers are particularly familiar with. There’s a triangular dining table to seat two in a tight corner. Benches which double as seats or storage.
No tools are needed to put them together – all use a steel fixing system originally developed for commercial packaging. So no screws, hammers or glue. In fact, the current record for putting a Fuzl chair together is 55 seconds. Ikea, take note.
Out of the mouths of children
This week an unusual art show opens at London’s Foundling Museum. The Covid Letters is an exhibition of children’s art – all made from Boris Johnson’s letter from the start of lockdown urging the public to stay at home. The project isn’t the work of an esteemed artist, though, but the anarchic concept of a clothes designer and bootlegger. You may not know Jonny Banger’s name (and, of course, that’s not his real name, it comes from social media) but you will have seen his designs in the news.
His Fuck Boris T-shirt made June headlines when a protestor wearing one at a London Black Lives Matters rally was stopped by transport police and told it broke the law. His NHS/Nike T-shirts were originally made in support of junior doctors in 2016, but gained new significance this year. Banger used all the money from these T-shirt sales to fund food deliveries to staff at five London hospitals and an HIV centre during spring 2020.
The Covid Letters started on social media, when Banger invited young people aged under 16 to customise the Johnson letter and use it to express their feelings. “We had hundreds and the work was so good we thought it deserved an exhibition,” says Banger. “Picasso said, ‘All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up’. Children also learn that lying is bad, but then a lot of people forget that as they grow up, too. The entries are [an honest response to Johnson’s letter] and they say it better than I ever could.”
Artist Jeremy Deller, trustee of the Foundling Museum, organised the show. He met Banger at his first fashion show in 2019. “I love Jeremy’s art – it’s fun, political and for the people by the people. Inviting me to show this work at The Foundling Museum means a lot, I couldn’t think of better home for it.”
Even before they hit headlines this year, Banger’s clothing designs sat in an interesting cultural junction. As a teenager in Farnborough he worked for his dad’s friend selling designer sportswear and printing T-shirts. He only found out it was called bootlegging when the police got involved.
In 2013, Banger made himself a T-shirt declaring Free Tulisa to support singer Tulisa Contostavlos. A friend working at Wireless Festival that year said they’d get him in for free if he made T-shirts for DJ Skream and Jordan from Rizzle Kicks to wear on stage. Demand after this publicity was so great that Banger borrowed money and set up his clothes company, Sports Banger. His designs bearing counterfeit trademarks – such as the Nike swoosh – and witty, political slogans went down so well that many of the companies he bootlegged asked him to work with them.
His clothes often appear in fashion magazines, but they’re sold at high-street prices. Banger believes that since his designs reflect working class and rave culture, they should be sold at a price that the people who inspired them can afford. It’s hard to know if the best comparison for Banger is Banksy, or Louis Vuitton’s magpie-eyed designer Virgil Abloh. “I think of my clothing as rave, the highest form of art and fashion,” he says. “I haven’t bumped into Banksy or Virgil at a rave for years but I wish them both well.”
As well as The Covid Letters exhibition, Banger is presenting two new clothing collections this autumn, one for Sports Banger and another yet-to-be-announced project with a global fashion brand he used to bootleg. He’s also just started a record label – called Heras. “It’s named after the fence used to restrict public access. You see it everywhere, on building sites, at raves and festivals.” He’ll be running a Christmas food bank for his local primary school in Tottenham and The Covid Letters comes out as an art book in December. Banger will undoubtedly make more comment on Boris Johnson as the coronavirus debacle continues. But does he have any messages for now that he’d like to see in print? “Tell him Jonny Banger says your pants are on fire.”
Reinventing the wheels
Architect Suzanne Brewer came up with a novel way to keep her 13-year-old son, Jarvis, away from his game console one summer: she got him to design a walking wheelchair with her for a kids’ competition.
The project started in 2018 after they saw a man in a traditional wheelchair struggle in the crowd at their local rugby club. They decided to work on an alternative device that would allowed disabled people to make eye contact and feel more included in crowded environments. From Jarvis’s original designs, Brewer went on to make prototypes, ‘Frankensteining’ together contraptions from parts bought off eBay and Amazon.
The prototype is the first walking wheelchair to have two wheels, rather than a bulky four or six. It’s closer to a Segway than a disability scooter or wheelchair, and has great manoeuvrability. A standing desk inspired the front supports and a movable saddle seat brings users from a sitting to upright position using a piston.
The chair saw Brewer become a Dezeen Public Vote winner last week and she’s now looking for developers to take the chair to the next stage. Its potential as a generic frame for a walking wheelchair could change the market. Most walking chairs are extremely expensive and custom made. For wheelchair users this could be a big step forwards.
Why Japanese design is good design
Good design is the default setting in Japan. Wherever you look, the Japanese seem to have taken William Morris’s adage about everything in your home being either beautiful or useful, and bettered it: Japanese design is typically both. And not just the home. Posters on the subway, packaging in shops, tableware in restaurants, the list goes on – as substantial new book Japanese Design Since 1945 makes plain. Featuring hundreds of objects and dozens of profiles of designers, from household names (Issey Miyake; Global knives) to cult product makers (Oji Masanori; Ryoichi Kobayashi), the furnishings, textiles, graphics, packaging and household goods featured are simultaneously simple and sophisticated, everyday and extraordinary.
The book focuses on the post-war period because that is when mass manufacturing became widespread and a cross-cultural exchange between Japan and the West flourished. These may be “modern” objects but a connection with tradition abounds. As author Naomi Pollock, an American architect living in Japan, says: “A chair is much more than what you sit on.”
Take the Kikkoman Soy Sauce bottle. Recognisable instantly from its broad base, tapered neck and red plastic cap, it was created 59 years ago by industrial designer Kenji Ekuan. More than a hundred prototypes were developed for the cap alone, the problem of drips was eliminated by slicing the spout on a 60-degree angle. The dispenser’s opening is slightly wider than that of the two-litre supply bottle, to enable refills and reuse. The colour of the cap, meanwhile, recalls the Japanese flag.
That level of care put into a household object is typical. “Though user and maker may never meet, this way of thinking and doing is communicated through the object that had been created,” Pollock writes. “It is a process and value system rooted in Japan’s unique craft culture.”
Japanese Design (Thames & Hudson, £50) is out now
It’s in the jeans
Levi’s has repaired, reimagined and recycled its denim with new line Levi’s by Levi’s, sold at Levi’s Haus in London. The clothes are made from faulty, returned and donated denim dyed with organic indigo in patterns created by Indigowares, a sustainable, hand-dyeing company in the UK. Accessories are handcrafted by the Working Well Trust in Tower Hamlets, which helps people with mental health issues and learning difficulties find work. As Levi’s is a global company, this local initiative obviously won’t save the planet, but as the jeans giant has set goals for water reduction and eliminated all hazardous chemicals from its supply chain this year, looking at supply chains and workers’ conditions is the next step.
New ways with wood
The plywood renaissance reached a new level this year. The cost and physical properties of these layered wood veneers mean it’s been a building industry staple for centuries but, more recently, its creative potential has also been celebrated. London’s V&A Museum even held an exhibition about plywood in 2017.
Though the boards nailed across shopfronts around the world as lockdown fell was not the high-grade hardwood plywood typically used for designer furniture, those barricades have arguably proved a more valuable resource.
While some communities turned these blank facades into murals or supportive messages for key workers in the early days of lockdown, as Black Lives Matter protests spread during summer, many plywood boards became canvases for protest art. In the US, a group of private businesses and nonprofits formed The Plywood Project – a new public art initiative distributing these resources to BAME communities and artists and commissioning new work. The nonprofit Worthless Studios also set up The Plywood Protection Project, a grant for artists looking to create work from recycled plywood.
Another innovative project on New York’s streets is Re-Ply. This initiative from the US office of Australian architect firm BVN takes plywood destined for landfill and repurposes it as street dining furniture. The furniture is for sale, but Re-Ply also connects sponsors with restaurants which need financial help to buy outdoor furniture. All proceeds go to a local children’s charity. Re-Ply is also looking to collaborate with artists.
Small acorns may be responsible for mighty oaks, but it turns out the humble wood chip can be pretty powerful too.
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