Just don't ask about the donkey rides...

Fiona Rattray previews a fête with a difference at the V&A
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The Independent Online

As great British traditions go, the village fête is way up there with Christmas pantos and queuing. Even if you've never been to one, you'll have seen one on television - such is their idyllic appeal that fêtes figure with monotonous regularity as the backdrop to murder mysteries. The essential ingredients - the cake stall, the tombola, the children's fancy dress competition - all help enshrine the fête in our rosy vision of rural life. But nostalgia freaks are in for something of a shock next weekend when the Victoria & Albert Museum hosts a village fête with a difference.

As great British traditions go, the village fête is way up there with Christmas pantos and queuing. Even if you've never been to one, you'll have seen one on television - such is their idyllic appeal that fêtes figure with monotonous regularity as the backdrop to murder mysteries. The essential ingredients - the cake stall, the tombola, the children's fancy dress competition - all help enshrine the fête in our rosy vision of rural life. But nostalgia freaks are in for something of a shock next weekend when the Victoria & Albert Museum hosts a village fête with a difference.

It sounds like the real McCoy: on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, the elegant courtyard of the Pirelli Gardens will be festooned with bunting; visitors will fish for prizes in the grand Pirelli Fountain; and stalls, in the traditional rickety manner, will sell cakes and goodies which will be consumed on the grass or taken home for tea. But this is no ordinary fête. "Designs on a Village Fête", curated by Claire Catterall and Sarah Gaventa of Scarlet Projects, is part of the V&A's current programme of events aimed at attracting a new audience for its contemporary collections. The 20-plus stalls will be devised and run by some of Britain's most exciting young designers as a way to showcase their work to the public.

"The emphasis is on fun. It's a great way to break down the barriers between the subject of contemporary design and the public's awareness of it," says Susan McCormack, the V&A's curator of contemporary projects. Somewhat surprisingly, she says that she had no difficulty in persuading the museum to go ahead with the idea - though one designer's suggestion that he might bring a donkey in to give people rides apparently got short shrift.

The donkey won't be there, but the attractions that will suggest that the designers have been having some serious fun with the concept. Ever-entertaining architects FAT will be running the obligatory cake stall, though in place of the usual Victoria sponges their cakes will be in the shape of buildings like Sellafield, the Pentagon and Didcott Power station. The cakes will be edible, but a little less appetising than usual. "It's Langlands and Bell in cake - authoritarian architecture in icing," says FAT's Charles Holland.

Another stall, by RCA graduates Pascal Anson and Arash Kayama will take the shape of an "Eskimo chair" - a seat made from ice where people will pay a small fee to cool off. Scarlet Projects' own contribution will be the "hook the plastic fish" game in the fountain where players will have the chance to win anything from a Mies van der Rohe chair to a can of condensed milk. Why condensed milk? "Because that's what I always used to win when I went to village fêtes as a child," explains Sarah Gaventa. Other prizes on offer include bottles of specially-designed scrumpy by graphic designers Bump, which you win by playing "Splat the rat", and Born Free t-shirts, clothes and baby wear which you have to catch by firing tiny water pistols at a revolving washing line.

"A lot of the people in the show make work which engages with the subject of Englishness," says Claire Catterall, "and a fête somehow reflects that strange quirkiness." In fact, as she and Gaventa point out, there's a great tradition of people making things to sell at fêtes - from toilet roll covers to Susan McCormack's own personal favourite, a doll's suit made out of dusters. For Catterall the event is an opportunity for the public to meet designers and understand the process behind their work. "Museums are always talking about being interactive but that usually means horrible computer games, this is about entering into the world of the designer and seeing that there's a subtext."

Carl Clerkin, whose bucket stool was a recent contender in the Peugeot Design awards, often uses found or utilitarian objects in his work. His bucket stool is a simple wooden stool with the addition of a bucket handle. For "Designs on a Summer Fête", Clerkin is planning a game where you hook rings over pegs to win a catapault made from recycled plastic lemonade bottles. Another game, by graphic designer Daniel Eatock, will involve a photocopier set to make copy after copy: in a new take on "guess the number of sweets in the jar", players will be asked to guess how many sheets of paper it will take before the toner runs out.

Prior to the opening on Friday, the cultural critic Michael Bracewell will be giving a talk entitled "The Strange Case of the English Fête" (6.30pm), which will look at its cultural significance. "We have this sentimental idea that the fête is a kind of nationhood in miniature," says Bracewell, "but in fact you just know that there have been high passions and political factioneering behind the scenes." In the course of his research Bracewell discovered that many village fêtes are promoted on the internet. In fact, he decided, "the internet is a glorified village fête with lots of people setting up their stalls and the same faint air of desperation".

Providing the weather holds out, the V&A fête should avoid the "air of desperation" and with Jerwood Furniture Prize winner Michael Marriott starring as "Barry the DJ" for the evening, the proceedings are sure to be lively. And as the visitors wend their weary way home, they will be safe in the knowledge that at least one great British tradition has been observed: the winners of "best in show" will be wearing big shiny rosettes.

'Designs on a Summer Fête': V&A, SW7 (020 7942 4200), Friday, 7.15pm to 9.45pm, and Saturday, 1pm to 5.30pm

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