One thing I definitely wanted to do when I moved here (London) was volunteer in some capacity. In my last post, I talked the importance of defining your identity based on your life's work rather than your job. Volunteering, creating, reading, learning — these all fall under my life's work umbrella. Among my many London-related Internet search black holes that I've fallen into was Somerset House — an iconic piece of history, art gallery, and venue that sits along the river near West London. This is where I first read about the London Design Biennale (LDB for short) and was immediately interested in getting involved. 

The very first LDB was in 2016 and brought together some of the world's most ambitious designers, innovators, and curators to show how design impacts our very being and every aspect of our lives. The theme for 2016 was Utopia by Design. The Biennale returned this September with the theme Emotional States. As someone who is fascinated by the human brain, emotions, and of course, mental health, this exhibition caught my attention. After sending in my application and attending an interview, I was chosen to be one of this year's volunteers. 

Two to three times per week throughout the Biennale, I threw my black and orange t-shirt on, grabbed a flat white, and hopped on the Northern line to Somerset House. We had our morning briefing, grabbed our LDB tote bags and catalogue, and walked to our stations. I spent my shift greeting hundreds of visitors, answering questions, admiring and interacting with the exhibits, and making new friends. 

What I thought would be a standard volunteering position turned into something much deeper ~as one should expect at a show titled Emotional States~ and I am so grateful for this experience. It was a perfect intro to London. 

Here's what I learned:

Emotion is a universal language. 

The nature of this exhibit is multi-cultural. Each installation represents a country in that the designers are from that country and their exhibit was heavily influenced by aspects of their culture. Being that London is often referred to as a melting pot of cultures, the LDB was a direct reflection of this. Visitors of all cultures came to the LDB and many were most excited to see how their country depicted the theme. The installations were interactive and many included highly emotional things like scent, textures, and sounds so specific to their country. 

Qatar's installation titled The State of You by designer Aisha Nasser Al-Sowaidi was one of my favourites. You could smell it from down the hallway but only got the full effect from standing under one of the ceramic domes. Visitors are invited to place their heads beneath seven dome-like “worlds”, each of which releases a different scented smoke. Each dome released a scent that bears emotional significance to the designer. Scents of mango, tobacco and rain filled the room. I am heavily influenced by scent and believe it is one of the most emotionally charged substances. A specific scent can transport us back in time.  

Canada's installation titled An Emotional Landscape by Bruce Mau Design (Toronto) displayed a map and markers of cities that are named after different emotional states. The design team were struck by the fact that so many places in Canada are named after emotional states – from Happy Adventure, Newfoundland to Hope, British Columbia by way of Love, Saskatchewan. Opposite the map were video projections of interviews with citizens of those cities. As a Canadian new to London, I found so much comfort in this room and my immediate reaction was this is just SO Canada and I love it. 

Most people I've met here so far are from somewhere else and while London is incredible, there is just something about home that is comforting and nostalgic. I think a lot of visitors found comfort in the sights, sounds, and scents of their homeland. 

Design can be a powerful force for good. 

Many of the installations not only represented their country but are sparking new ideas for solving crucial problems. Sustainability, up-cycling, accessibility, human rights, and healing trauma were common themes that I was heartened to see. 

Sweden showed how coal— a historically cheap and dirty fossil fuel— could be re-used to create art pieces, floor tiles, and furniture. It looks sleek too! 

The Netherlands presented a greenhouse of the future – a building that harvests both food and the electricity needed to grow it. How cool is that?

Good people make everything more fun. 

Some of the shifts felt longer than others and all of them required standing all day. What kept me going and coming back with a big smile on my face was my fellow volunteers. They all had diverse backgrounds but we all had our passion for art and design in common. As we sometimes spent over two hours with each other if we were stationed in the same exhibit, we all got really close fast and connected on a deep level. Some of them had me in tears laughing and it made the day go by in a flash. We're all still talking via text and liking each other's insta pics. It's the best. 

If you're at all interested in art and design, sustainability, and creative solutions to important issues, I invite you to read about all the participants here.

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