Painting the town red … and green and yellow: art movement brings new colour to London

Colourful postmodern street furniture, temporary temples adorned with neon geometric shapes and underpasses designed to evoke happiness have given Londoners a joyous break from the monotony of city landscapes in recent years. Now the trend has been identified as a design movement called New London Fabulous (NLF).

The Virtual Design Festival, organised by architecture and design magazine Dezeen, is the first event of its kind for the creative industries – a way to make sure that the products, artwork and talks cancelled as a result of coronavirus could find an audience. Last week, a VDF talk also birthed NLF.

The name was coined by designer Adam Nathaniel Furman in a VDF talk to describe a group of young creatives whose work is colourful, patterned, joyful and reflects “the cultural melting pot” of London.

Furman says the chance to create fantastical work is particular to London. “Design critics are understandably disapproving of temporary installations – they’re seen as wasteful and are often part of gentrification – but they do also give artists a unique chance to create large-scale works. Designers can express themselves in a way that’s not been done before. The public often loves colourful art and a lot of the people who commission public art in London have responded to that.”

Camille Walala on her
Walala Loung
e seat in Mayfair.

Furman’s Gateways piece, a set of tiled doorways celebrating the history of Turkish ceramics, was erected in King’s Cross for the London Design Festival in 2017. Other examples of NLF work include Happy Street, an enamelled panel work in a south London underpass by Yinka Ilori. He used colour theory to choose hues for the underpass which promote happiness. Rosebank Arcade by Edward Crooks is an alley into Walthamstow’s pedestrian shopping area that’s been patterned to look like a Victorian arcade. Camille Walala created graphic 80s-style street furniture called Walala Lounge in Mayfair and Morag Myerscough’s multicoloured, geometric-patterned art installation Temple of Agape stood for a summer on the South Bank.

“There is definitely something in the air,” says Marcus Fairs, the editor-in-chief of Dezeen and organiser of the VDF. “A lot of designers have independently started using colour boldly and unironically, out of sheer joy. Colour has been sidelined from serious design discourse for a while, but now it’s going mainstream.”

The NLF designers are not a clique, but do share interests. Subcultures and multiculturalism are key influences in these rainbow-coloured buildings. “I arrived in London 20 years ago from the south of France,” says Walala. “I missed seeing colours – and I could see so much potential for pockets of pattern and colour here. I think a lot of immigrants bring their experience and different perspective, which makes London more exciting.”

Furman spent his childhood in Japan, Argentina and Israel before his family settled in London. “Being a queer kid in the 90s was rubbish at school, but amazing in London. I went out to gay clubs in Soho and hung out at Cyberdog in Camden. Colour and aesthetics were an important part of these subcultural groups. They created a magical world that made me who I am.”

Though NLF has been dismissed as Instagram culture or, as Furman puts it, “millennials regurgitating existing ideas”, there is more to it. Both Ilori and Walala say community is important. “I love it when people have access to my work – that makes me really happy,” Ilori says in an interview with the Observer’s Design magazine. “Architecture and design should be for everyone.” He’s currently working on skate parks and playgrounds in Britain and France.

“It’s important to give back to London and create a space for meeting and interaction,” says Walala. “Joyful public space brings people together.” Her new community-funded project, The Walala Parade, will give Leyton High Road a facelift. Work starts in July.

However, Furman says his work is sometimes a middle finger to the tutors and tastemakers. “If you’re seen as different and receive abuse for that, it can make you think f you, I’m going to really go for what I believe in.”

He also says for him these creations are a response to the bleak times we live in. “When things are difficult, I think artists recalibrate their work to reflect what’s being taken away. I like Matisse – I mean, everyone likes Matisse – and his cutouts bring tears to your eyes, they’re so joyful. Many were created during [the second world war] when his daughter had been abducted by the Nazis and the world was falling apart outside his window. But he disappeared into a joyous, affirmative place. I do think that spirit is present in the new use of colour, too.”

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