Jim Biddulph & Deborah Spencer in Conversation
Deborah Spencer has felt a love for all things art and design as long as she can remember. It served her well in her studies at Manchester University where she graduated with a degree in History of Art & Design and helped send her on a path to organising some of the UK’s leading design trade shows.
Having spent the first 4 years of her fledgling career at the Business Design Centre, working on three events; Fresh Art, New Designers and the London Art Fair, she moved on to a brand called Greenwich Village and helped launch the home department at Selfridges with a trend setting retail space.
Having met some the leading design brands in the industry Deborah found herself in demand, launching a succession of events from Superdesign in Convent Garden, The Dock for Tom Dixon in 2009 and the Tramshed in 2010. Then came arguably the biggest of them all – designjunction. In the 7 years Deborah spent at the helm the show went from strength to strength, with more than fifteen events in three major cities; London, Milan and New York. Each event took place in challenging venues such as a disused cinema, an old sorting office, a derelict school and more recently an entire site at King’s Cross. In 2017, the show won the AEO Award for Best Trade Show; recognition for the international appeal accrued through consistent quality and continuous evolutions.
Recognising a sea change in attitude towards travel and trade shows along with an increasing awareness of just how much the built environment and our personal dwellings affect our wellbeing, Deborah has conceived a new show called Planted. Its primary aim is to reconnect our cities to nature and promises to offer a fresh perspective on how we might design and organise our urban environments in the (near) future. I spoke to Deborah to find out more about the show and what we can expect of it as both an online and physical entity.
JB: Planted feels like the ideal for the times we live in – we’re collectively awakening to the need to connecting with nature. How did it come about and when did the connections click into place?
DS: My husband and I started working on Planted three years ago. He is former sports journalist and I had been running design shows for many years but we were constantly travelling and when our daughter Ella came along in 2017 she really focused our minds. We had a mutual love for design, food and nature and wanted to combine our interests. We used to visit farmers markets in London and wonder why people seemed so drawn to more natural means of production and more sustainable consumption; that connection with nature and natural processes. Increasingly we noticed people were seeking out calm, green oasis amongst polluted urban spaces and we started to imagine how this could be integrated into future urban spaces.
Gradually we realised there was a gap in the events market where we could combine our mutual interests and work together on a project.
JB: And you’ve also amassed an amazing team of leading industry experts to help steer the show and bring some incredible insights to proceedings – can you tell me about them?
DS: I had worked with Stewart Dodd, now chief exec at River Cottage, on a previous project for designjunction. Back then Stewart ran a highly successful architectural practice and when we approached him to join Planted he had no hesitation. It was a subject matter very close to his heart. Another old friend from the events industry Alice Breed also partnered very early on.
When we collectively realised what we were striving to present was a style of design and living which reconnected people with nature – we found the movement biophilic design. By happy coincidence Stewart attended the Bartlett School of Architecture alongside Oliver Heath, one of the world’s leading experts in biophilic design. Oliver didn’t hesitate to partner with us and in many ways it was Oliver’s arrival that confirmed we were traveling on the right path. More recently Paul De Zwart from Another Country joined our team and bought with him expertise in sustainable manufacture.
We believe that we can set ourselves apart from other design shows, where the organisers tend to stay more in the background, by offering clear thought leadership. We believe there is space in the market for a design show that is completely transparent and not afraid to state its values and beliefs.
JB: Of course, this year has created unprecedented challenges for all live events, how have plans changed for the show since the pandemic curtailed them earlier in the year?
DS: While we have every hope of launching next May, and our intention is always to have a physical event at the core of our business. The lockdown enabled us to re-examine and re-imagine the brand and how we could present it.
With a lot of media expertise within the team, we were able to quickly evolve into an online discussion forum, which has allowed us to interview some of the leading figures in this field through our critically acclaimed Planted Unearthed series of conversations. We have undergone an intense creative process which we are confident will result in a stronger, better-designed and more eco-conscious event than before. Essentially, every part of our business is now more diverse and sustainable than it was at the start of 2020.
We are still pushing forward with a physical show next May and will look to have a light touch presence at London Design Festival in September with an outdoor studio hosting live panel discussions and interviews for our Planted Unearthed series.
JB: A physical show is clearly still a primary objective – what can visitors expect of such an event?
DS: A physical event is absolutely still our primary objective. Next May at Kings Cross our visitors will encounter an engaging combination of cutting-edge and sustainable design brands, sitting alongside visually stunning installations.
There will be a botanical market with lots of locally sourced and ethically produced produce and flowers from around the UK, beautifully and sensitively crafted furniture and ingenious sustainable solutions for the home and workplace.
There will also be accessible educational piece, looking to explain how we all have a part to play in living a more sustainable lifestyle.
In short, Planted will present a snapshot of how design, sustainability, food, architecture and nature can combine to create cleaner, greener, healthier urban spaces.
JB: So, what kind of environment, exhibitors and content can visitors expect to see in May?
DS: It has always been central to our thinking that Planted should be a largely outdoor event and King’s Cross is an incredible urban redevelopment scheme in the heart of central London, which perfectly aligned with our sustainable principles. We are looking to occupy the entire site with three specific show sections.
Natural Living – bringing the outdoors in will be centred around the principles of biophilic design. Natural Living will showcase market-leading contemporary sustainable furniture and lighting brands such as Another Country, Benchmark, Vestre to name a few. Given that the UK is a world-leader in innovative design technologies, Sustainable design – The future of urban living will showcase some of the solutions to the huge environmental challenges faced by our towns and cities. Whilst Botanical Market – For cleaner, greener, better-looking urban spaces will focus on plant-based products on sale alongside delicious plant-based food and beverages in a Botanical Market; showcasing brands who work in harmony with nature and the natural world.
Finally, there will be a talks programme led by biophilic design expect Oliver Heath themed around climate change and sustainability. Are smart cities also healthy cities? Can green walls really improve air quality in our cities and buildings? Or can our relationship with desk plants help save the world? Lots of important questions will be asked as well as practical plant and wellbeing workshops.