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British design inspires Dubai 2021 vision

by Saul Leese

EN editor Saul Leese speaks to Roger Kornmayer, head of pavilion department, Expomobilia about how British designer Thomas Heatherwick inspired his ideas for Dubai 2021

British design inspires Dubai 2021 vision “Thomas Heatherwick’s British pavilion at Shanghai Expo in 2010 blew me away. It was explosive in appearance, structure, and the way it set the global design industry talking. It’s official title ‘The Seed Cathedral’ reflected its majesty and ability to inspire a sense of wonder. Most importantly it made a bold statement about British ingenuity and science, from form to content,” explains Roger Kornmayer, head of pavilion development at leading design and build agency Expomobilia.

Using 60,000 rods, and housing 200,000 seeds, the pavilion showcased that the UK is home to one of the world’s largest collections EN editor Saul Leese speaks to Roger Kornmayer, head of pavilion department, Expomobilia about how British designer Thomas Heatherwick inspired his ideas for Dubai 2021 of seeds. Heatherwick’s idea was to involve Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seedbank – whose mission is to collect 25 per cent of the world’s plant species by 2020.

The design process evolved to produce two interlinked and experiential elements: an architecturally iconic Seed Cathedral, and a multilayered landscape treatment of the 6,000sqm site. Kornmayer explained: “It was simply unlike anything else out there, and it’s spurned me on to push the boundaries of design and construction ever since. As we speak, Expomobilia, the design and construction firm where I run the pavilions division, is implementing no fewer than four pavilions for Dubai Expo (Switzerland, Netherlands, Finland, and Norway).

I have that Seed Cathedral in my rear-view mirror every day. “It’s the kind of benchmark that inspires you to ask yourself how you can break convention, tell stories, and wow the world with a temporary structure. We’re working with world class consortia, including the likes of Rintala Eggertsson, V8, JKMM, OOO, Kossman Dejong, and Bellprat Partners, and I’m astounded by the ambition and passion that is put into Expo stands. The reputation of entire countries is at stake.” “Beautiful and ephemeral, trade fair and expo stands are the butterflies of the architecture world. Emerging overnight, these structures only have a limited time to shine before they’re dismantled and cocooned.”

Kornmayer explains that we also need to spare a thought for the team tasked with creating trade show stands. Often under budget and ROI pressures, they must create a platform that acts as brand, marketing and sales tool, with hospitality, events and conferencing facilities. Yet in reality, people only remember a handful of the stands they see. So, what is it that makes a stand-out stand?

Stand storytelling

For me, it’s good old fashioned storytelling: a stand that not only looks amazing, but links the aesthetic, structure, and content to a wider brand or product message. When this kind of holistic thinking happens, you really realise the power of the stand as a medium. One such example that I often think about is Samsung’s IFA Berlin 2016 installation, which deconstructed their Quantum Dot TV into a display of 9,204 discs of coloured glass. This created a hypnotic, quasi-religious experience, that at once related to the product, and drew in visitors, who couldn’t resist sharing images.

To follow through with such an abstract concept, at the expense of hospitality space, takes confidence and a marketing team with vision, and the trust of their C-suite. Beyond artistic installations, structural innovations can deliver story and spectacle, especially at shows where exhibitors are demonstrating the latest technology.

At CES in Las Vegas this year, for example, LG’s curved screen entrance was utterly mesmerising, a show of domination in terms of technical and brand brilliance. Taking a different approach to emerging tech – at CES 2019, Google created a ride straight out of the Disneyland playbook. With characters designed by London-based Nexus Studio, it was creative, playful and product-relevant. It set a new standard for entertainment levels and creative ideas at trade shows.

The world stage

Perhaps the biggest fair of all is the World Expo. Underneath the glistening exterior, Expo is a metatrade fair, where nations display entire industries in a global showcase. As such the Expo results in some spectacular designs, as nations try to out-peacock each other. Ten years on from the Seed Cathedral and there’s no doubt some of the most spectacular stands in development will come at Expo in Dubai. In the interim the UK has delivered The Hive (Milan), the Yurt (Astana) and the Garden (Beijing). In Dubai, the UK will be represented by visionary Es Devlin, who has conceived a Poetry pavilion.

I can’t think of anyone more qualified than Devlin, and her design is a gramophone to the world, delivering poetry in a way that’s both understated and filled with meaning. It has echoes of Heatherwick’s work but so very contemporary, combining crowd sourced poetry with artificial intelligence to deliver a glowing, sculptural poem.

At Expomobilia, the four stands we are constructing each have very different core propositions: Finland promises an excursion through a ravine into the fresh winter snow, Norway explains the natural and industrial journey through the ocean, and visitors to the Swiss pavilion will emerge through the fog into an alpine vista. Perhaps the biggest talking point will be The Netherlands, who will lead the conversation on sustainability with their remarkable edible centrepiece – a plantcovered cone.

Each of these approaches considers the user journey at the heart. They create anticipation and deliver memorable experiences through spectacular installations, and smart use of technology. The legacy of the Seed Cathedral informs the focus on storytelling and spectacle through strong core ideas. Designers and constructors needn’t wait for such a big platform to use these elements. Brand activations of all sizes benefit when we consider what the point we’re trying to make is, and bake it into every element – from user journey, to content, to design and materials.

Think beyond just demonstrating products, into how a core idea can be extrapolated into engaging experiences. In fact, the simplest ideas can lead to the most eye-catching centrepieces – think of the Seed Cathedral, or Switzerland’s foggy reveal in Dubai.

Looking forward

Striking this balance between spectacle and sustainability is to be one of the sector’s core challenges going forward. Future trade shows will need to re-use, re-interpret and recontextualise their approach to materials. Restraint will be the new excess.

The 2020s offer us an opportunity to tell digital stories in a real-world environment which is under threat. For trade shows to continue to perform their multiple functions, whilst incorporating tech and sustainability, they’ll need to work harder than ever. My hope is that just as the 2010s were exemplified by the Seed Cathedral, it will be spectacular examples of storytelling, technology and sustainability that pave the way for the decade ahead. Strong ideas, explained through immersive spaces and well-told stories have a lasting, transformative and emotional effect on a visitor. One that can inspire for years to come.

Images by

V8 Architects

Hufton and Crow

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