— For 86 years, the Gegenbauer family has manufactured food — first sauerkraut, and now oil and vinegar — in a 19th-century lodging house in Favoriten, a dilapidated industrial district of Vienna
. The building is now being prepared to house an exhibition of furniture made by the French designer Marlène Huissoud from a material she developed from part of the factory’s waste.
Ms. Huissoud’s collaboration with Gegenbauer is one of the projects commissioned as part of the “Passionswege” section of Vienna Design Week, which runs from Sept. 25 through Oct. 4. Each project encourages an international designer to use the expertise of a traditional Viennese manufacturer to produce new works to be exhibited during for the festival. Among the other participants in this year’s program are a 165-year-old textile company, and specialists in sandblasting and water-jet cutting.
Vienna Design Week is one of dozens of design festivals and biennials to be held around the world this fall, with events planned in Beijing
; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Eindhoven, the Netherlands
; Gwangju, South Korea
; London; Mexico City
; Prague; Seattle
; Taipei, Taiwan; and Tokyo
“Vienna hadn’t been on the international design map for quite some time before we started the festival,” said Lilli Hollein, the director of Vienna Design Week. “The benefits for the local design scene are obvious, but we also show the contemporary side of Vienna to international tourists and give the locals an idea of what design can be.”
Traditionally, design festivals tended to pursue commercial agendas by creating promotional and networking opportunities for local designers; and many still do. Both the London Design Festival and Paris Design Week are timed to coincide with the furniture trade fairs 100% Design and Maison & Object. The first Beijing Design Trade Fair is to open this month during Beijing Design Week.
Yet most festivals also program events with a broader appeal to attract design enthusiasts as well as professionals. And the most culturally ambitious festivals, like those in Vienna and Gwangju, have emerged as impromptu training grounds for a new generation of design curators in leading museums.
One of the most dynamic festivals is Dutch Design Week, which will stage more than 400 events in Eindhoven
from Oct. 17 to 25. Eindhoven has emerged as a global center of design experimentation as students have flocked to Design Academy Eindhoven, Europe’s most influential design school, and stayed in the city after graduation to set up studios in the derelict factories and warehouses offered to young designers for low rents by the local council. Several hundred thousand people travel to Eindhoven each year to explore the city’s design scene during Dutch Design Week.
Few other places have as strong a design ethos, or such staunch political support, yet other festivals have tried to develop distinctive strands of programming (as Vienna Design Week has done with Passionswege).
A recurrent theme of Beijing Design Week, for example, is the regeneration of Dashilar, one of the few surviving historic areas of the city. Young Chinese designers show their work there during the festival alongside exhibitions celebrating Dashilar’s craft heritage. Craft is also a focus of Design Week Mexico, which will run from Oct. 21 to 25 in Mexico City with the first of a series of exhibitions exploring the artisanal skills of particular regions, starting with Chiapas in southern Mexico.
An annual highlight of the Brussels Design September festival is Europe
’s biggest flea market for late 20th-century design, the Brussels Design Market. More than 100 European dealers will descend on the city this weekend to sell their wares in an early 1900s harbor station.
The most popular features of the London Design Festival, which began in 2003, are its collaborations with the city’s museums. During this autumn’s festival, running from Sept. 19 to 27, the British designer Max Lamb is to exhibit at the Somerset House cultural center the furniture he has made from a single ash tree on his grandfather’s farm. An exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, meanwhile, will explore the experimental objects made from wood by the late Robin Day, one of Britain
’s best known 20th-century furniture designers.
The quality of the projects in the bigger festivals, like London’s and Brussels’, is so erratic that navigating the events can be tricky. The London festival hopes to strengthen its program by introducing a London Design Biennale at Somerset House in September 2016. It will run alongside the festival in alternate years. Modeled on the Venice art and architecture biennales, the new event, announced in July, will invite up to 40 countries to stage exhibitions on the theme of “Utopia by Design,” to mark the 500th anniversary of the humanist philosopher Thomas Moore’s book “Utopia.”
“The Venice biennales are important critical moments for global discourse in art and architecture,” said Christopher Turner, director of the new London biennale. “We want to do the same in London for design.”
Quality control may remain a challenge for the new biennale, however, as the participating countries will be responsible for their contributions. The most compelling design events of recent years have adopted a polemical approach to analyzing important design issues, as the London biennale plans to do, but have curated their programs themselves.
An example was the 2012 Istanbul Design Biennial, which staged a series of experiments with 3-D printing and other digital manufacturing technologies that are still hotly debated within design circles. Last year, the Ljubljana Design Biennial in Slovenia made a similar impact by presenting curatorial experiments into design’s future role in space travel, food politics and biotechnology.
The provocative ethos of these biennials will have an enduring influence on design culture through the work of their curators in new posts at leading museums. Beatrice Galilee joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
last year, having worked on the Gwangju Design Biennial. Thomas Geisler and Tulga Beyerle, who co-founded Vienna Design Week with Ms. Hollein, are now employed at the MAK Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna and the Dresden Museum of Decorative Arts, respectively. Kieran Long took charge of the V&A’s design program after a stint at the Venice Architecture Biennale, and Aric Chen joined M+ museum in Hong Kong from Beijing
The new recruits are redefining the design programs of those institutions, notably by analyzing design within a social and political context, rather than from a traditional aesthetic perspective. The V&A has radicalized its approach to design collecting since Mr. Long’s arrival, and Mr. Chen is assembling a collection of Asian design from scratch at M+ in the same spirit.
“Working on a festival or biennial is one of the few ways of experimenting and trying things out as a curator,” Ms. Galilee said. “It’s always fun to have that freedom, but an encyclopedic museum is the biggest platform a curator can ask for.”