It seems like you can’t lob a crumpet in London without hitting some world-class design. In a city with a nearly 2000-year history, centuries of architectural and cultural influence from all over the globe combine with quintessentially British attention to detail to produce some of the finest art and design anywhere in the world.
Its long history imbues London with a sense of tradition, stability and formality. Even in the wake of the UK’s controversial vote to leave the European Union, the English in particular project the classic “stiff upper lip” attitude that has passed into the zeitgeist. But London is a cosmopolitan metropolis; more politically and culturally liberal than the north, and with more sophisticated taste (at least to hear a Londoner tell it). As a global design headquarters, London’s unique blend of local, national and empirical history culminates in a perspective that marries avant-garde adventurousness to exacting quality standards, with an unmistakable wry humor and elegance.
Visiting London can be an overwhelming undertaking. I stayed there for three nights during a longer trip to the much quieter north of England this year, and the bustle of this world city definitely left an impression. It’s impossible to take in the whole of such a huge city in 72 hours, and I reluctantly boarded the train back north knowing there was so much more to experience. But what stands out from my brief foray is the sense of timelessness mingled with modern advancement─ancient relics standing shoulder-to-shoulder with cutting-edge masterpieces─and the feeling that one could make a lasting statement in London.
A common design motif in London is the combination of antique and avant-garde. Many museums, restaurants and hotels are housed in historic buildings that have been refurbished inside to modern standards of luxury. Even the AirBNB flat I stayed in when visiting Kensington and Chelsea was in a posh Edwardian walk-up, furnished inside with the actor/artist tenant’s theatrical props and mixed-media mural. If you’re a bit better at budgeting, check out one of these design-inspired hotels.
What started life as a Victorian-era railway hotel is now the trendy Andaz Liverpool Street hotel. Eames furnishings and street art deck out the rooms, and the hotel is situated in the recently up-and-coming East End (home to Lee Broom’s flagship Shoreditch studio).
In the fashionable West End, the Sanctum Soho Hotel is an upscale boutique hotel that has updated versions of the classic creature comforts we’re used to seeing in British dramas─tufted upholstery, rich leather sofas, polished metal fixtures. But here, the leather is alligator and that copper pendant is Tom Dixon. Yowza.
Also in the West End (home to myriad galleries and theaters) is the Philippe Starck-designed Sanderson. Every inch of the 1950s-era building has been reimagined─and by such an imagination. A surrelist’s dream, the Sanderson even hosts a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party with a down-the-rabbit-hole theme. And Sanderson’s notable Purple Bar is a monochromatic sight to behold.
Private galleries and museums charge admission or membership, but national collections are free to visit (though they appreciate donations and may charge for larger temporary exhibitions). Tate Modern is a gimme, with one of the world’s largest contemporary and modern art collections, but there are lesser known gems that modern-design aficionados shouldn’t miss.
The Institute of Contemporary Art is another example of old meeting new: Within its Georgian facade, the interior has been redesigned to reflect the ICA’s commitment to emerging artists. Exhibitions include multimedia presentations, experimental design history and works by recent fine-art graduates.
Soaring above the city, Sky Garden is a major tourist attraction for its views. But the space also embraces modern design, from the Kartell sofas to the building’s faceted steel construction. It’s worth booking ahead (the only way to get up there) and is free to visit.
Speaking of the skyline, within the boundaries of the old City of London you can appreciate the city’s unique historical design perspective from just about anywhere. Skyscrapers affectionately known as the Gherkin, Cheese Grater and Shard are visible from within the walls of the notorious Tower of London, the fortress where Anne Boleyn lost her head.
Bespoke tours have never been quite so literal. Even if you’re brave enough to traverse London on a bike, I wouldn’t do it without a tour guide. Artouride offers customized tours, as well as guided bike tours featuring street art or an architecture/design revue, and a leisurely pace with plenty of stops means you won’t miss any of the sights along the way.
Educational tours by Insider London include historic site and architecture tours, but their retail design tour highlights interior design and visual merchandising of shop displays in the West End, which is heavily design influenced in one of the world’s shopping capitals.
Finally, follow in my footsteps and take a self-guided design walk through the Royal Boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea. The Portobello Road market is jam-packed with unique finds and antiques, amid the hip shopping neighborhood Notting Hill, a design mecca that houses Tom Dixon’s flagship store. Walk past Holland Park to Kensington High Street and visit the Design Museum Shop (the museum itself reopens in November), jam packed with quirky and famous designers’ works. Or stop in at The Elgin across from the Ladbroke Grove tube station for a Sunday night pub quiz next to a giant Anglepoise lamp.