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Destination Guides Interiors & Design

Exploring the London Design Scene with Isobel Dennis

Isobel Dennis, director of Collect, the international art fair for collectible, contemporary craft, knows a thing or two about the London design scene

Organized by the United Kingdom’s Crafts Council, Collect showcases specialist galleries and dealers worldwide who represent highly talented artists. The fair, which takes place at London’s Somerset House from February 27–March 1, 2020, offers some truly special pieces, and with 80 percent of work produced in the last five years, it also presents a chance to invest in something never seen before.

“We require the galleries coming to Collect to bring 80 percent new work to the fair,” says the fair's director Isobel Dennis. “We want to support living artists and present new pieces to the market. Some of these works are commissioned especially for the fair, which is very exciting.”

After five years at the Victoria & Albert Museum and 10 years at the Saatchi Gallery in London’s Chelsea, Collect is moving to Somerset House, a Neoclassical arts institution overlooking the River Thames. The new location was championed by its director Isobel Dennis, who has worked in various roles behind the scenes at London’s art fairs for 25 years. We talk to her about her career, design, and what she loves about the city.

How did you come to work as director of Collect?

I studied 3D design at Camberwell College of Arts in south London, where I specialized in ceramics, and then I got into fairs and exhibitions, working with graduates before moving to an interim position at the Design Museum in Kensington. When I took on this role a couple of years ago, I really felt like I’d come home. Everything is familiar to me; I understand the process of the makers we exhibit, and I feel like I can bring an integrity to it.

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Collect, the international art fair for modern craft and design, will be at Somerset House in London from February 27–March 1, 2020.

What spurred the move to Somerset House?

It’s always good to do something to refresh an art fair every so often. With this move, I tried to think differently about the environment, and to move away from the classic white-walled gallery concept. I kept coming back to Somerset House because the cultural fit just felt right. You have this Neoclassical grandeur as a backdrop to contemporary work and I think that’s exciting. What’s more, the work will look at home, because it’s being shown in a context that could be similar to where it will eventually end up. Many of the works are not wall-based, so we have more freedom in that respect.

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Joon Yong Kim’s Shooting Star was made in 2013 from blown cold-worked glass.

What can we expect to see at this year’s fair?

Glass is a big trend this year; I’m so appreciative of it as a craft. Paper too—wall-based and also 3D sculpture. We also have some beautiful textiles this year; some weaving and also some progressive art jewelry.

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Keeper of the Lake (Nalubaale) 2017 is a paper bead tapestry made by African artist Sanaa Gateja, represented at Collect by 50 Golborne.

Are there any particular artists or countries to keep an eye on this year?

Sanaa Gateja is an amazing African artist working with bark cloth and paper beads to create huge wall hangings. Ceramics are always popular; we have a collection of vessels by Vicky Lindo, a British artist who won top prize at the 2019 British Ceramics Biennial. Textiles and ceramics from South Korea are really amazing too. In Seoul, craft such as this is so steeped in tradition, and yet the works being produced are incredibly contemporary.

What is your favorite piece of architecture in London?

Both my parents were architects. They were constantly telling me to look up and I’ve always tried to keep this in mind, and to teach my children to do the same. I love the industrial buildings that we have in London, like the Tate Modern—I like its rawness, I love the concrete, and I love that it was an old power station—and at the other end of the spectrum I also really appreciate churches. They’re these quiet presences around London and I find them very moving.

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St. Bride's Church on Fleet Street in the City of London is tucked away from the main thoroughfare. Image: Alamy

St. Bride’s Church on Fleet Street is gorgeous (check out the monochrome floor tiles), and I have a huge soft spot for where my husband and I got married, Christ’s Chapel of God’s Gift in Dulwich Village, southeast London.

The old Commonwealth Institute (now the Design Museum in Kensington) is really special. It has this magnificent hyperbolic paraboloid roof that’s clad in copper. In the summer I enjoy spending time in the newly developed Granary Square in King’s Cross. In addition to Central Saint Martin’s fashion school and the magical fountains in front of it where children can play in the summer, you have Coal Drops Yard, the new Thomas Heatherwick-designed shopping and dining destination. I like to walk from my office in Angel to King’s Cross along the canal, and watch people enjoying themselves in the sunshine.

Which London galleries do you recommend?

I enjoy the Tate Modern for its space and for the interactive exhibitions, and close to home I love the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It’s small but progressive; there is a huge pavilion in the summer which is very impressive. For a small site it has a loud voice, which I like.

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Architects John Pawson and OMA transformed the former Commonwealth Building in 2016 to house London’s Design Museum. Image: Alamy

Where do you go shopping?

I can’t resist the design store Skandium, which has several outposts in the city, and my husband and I always go to the Midcentury Modern vintage interiors fair at Dulwich College. It started small but now it’s huge. We have quite a few pieces from there at home.

Where in London do you live?

I live in Herne Hill in southeast London and there is so much exciting art and design going on. In the summer when the Dulwich Festival is on there are open-house events where you can visit artist’s studios and homes, and there always seems to be a talk or event you can attend.

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In the summer this section of Regent's Canal running through King's Cross in London is a pleasant spot to sit and watch the world go by. Image: Alamy

How do you spend your weekends?

Every Saturday and Sunday since my children were little, my husband and I have taken them out to lunch somewhere local. We try to champion the independent places and as the children have grown up it’s just got better and better. Peckham has some fantastic restaurants, as does Brixton. We love Kricket, which serves Indian street food, and Mr Bao, which serves Taiwanese buns. My absolute favorite restaurant though has to be Trinity in Clapham. Chef Adam Bryant and his staff are fantastic and very knowledgeable about food and wine. It’s one of the most welcoming places, and I like that you can see into the open kitchen.

Dulwich Picture Gallery in southeast London is home to an impressive collection of 17th- and 18th-century European Old Masters. Image: Alamy

In the summer we like to go to Herne Hill Market to grab something to take to the nearby park, or North Cross Road Market in Dulwich, along with a stop at The Cheese Block or Mons cheese shops, and Moxon’s the fishmongers.

Picturesque Thorpeness in Suffolk, England, is home to the House in the Clouds, a water tower built in 1923. Image: Alamy

Where do you go to get out of the city?

We have a house in Thorpeness on the Suffolk coast, so I’d have to say there. I go up there and I breathe. Aldeburgh and Snape are nearby and both lovely cultural places to visit. I do love London though. My husband and I are both real Londoners. Lots of people think that once you have kids you should move out to the countryside, but I disagree. I think I need the culture and the community that you get when you live in a city. There’s so much stimulus here.

Banner image: Somerset House, London. Alamy