The ultimate deck of cards

As the housing market is on the brink of disaster, famous designers Damien Hirst, Vivienne Westwood and Ron Arad design playing cards for a homeless charity

"I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down," snarled the big bad wolf to the three little pigs. It's not just pink piglets that live in fear; to have your home ripped away from you is an increasing concern in Britain as more houses are being repossessed because of the struggling property market. This month, famous names have contributed art to the homeless charity Shelter's House of Cards campaign to raise awareness of our country's housing crisis.

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Of the 200 events for London Design Festival later this month, few can be so worthy as the House of Cards exhibition hosted by Shelter at the Haunch of Venison gallery (24-28 September). With the property market on the verge of collapse, celebrated artists and designers including Damien Hirst, Vivienne Westwood and Ron Arad have donated pieces of art based on a playing card that will be auctioned in aid of Shelter. The charity is highlighting the fragility of housing by comparing it to a house built of playing cards. One puff and it can crumble.

"It's such a poignant issue, and so now," designer-maker Ella Doran - who has donated art to the exhibition - told me. "The number of people, of families, who are losing their homes through repossession and having to turn to Shelter is scary."

According to Sam Younger, chief executive for Shelter, an estimated 65,000 homes are facing repossession this year and six million households are suffering stress and depression because of housing costs. He said, "More and more people are coming to Shelter for help and support."

Shelter invited 51 well known artists to create their own representation of a given playing card using any medium, size or shape. It could be photography, textiles, illustration, graphic design, street art, painting or even sculpture. The 52nd card, a Darwin-inspired illustration of a hybrid of a beetle and an octopus, is designed by London-based artist Mauricio Ortiz who won a competition open to the public. Contributing artists include Rankin (King of Diamonds), Vivienne Westwood (Queen of Spades), Damien Hirst (Ace of Hearts), David Bailey (King of Clubs), and several designers including Sophie Conran (Four of Spades) and Sir Terence Conran (Ten of Spades), the architects Ron Arad (Two of Spades) and Amanda Levete (Four of Hearts).

Doran used the literal concept of having shelter for her design (Three of Diamonds); "My piece is a pillow so it's really about having somewhere to rest your head." Others were less figurative. While fashion designer Henry Holland looked to frocks for imagination for his Four of Diamonds design, cookery writer and designer Sophie Conran used hand pressed paper with pressed leaves to create the Four of Spades. Her father Sir Terence Conran created the Ten of Spades as a self-portrait and jewellery designer Stephen Webster used nickel silver and crystals to craft the Ten of Diamonds. Young British Artist Mark Quinn has created the joker of the pack.

The artists' contributions for the exhibition add more kudos to the already celebrity-packed House of Cards campaign for Shelter. Samantha Morton, who herself experienced homelessness before becoming a famous actress, did the voiceover for their haunting 60-second TV commercial. The music was by Radiohead who donated the rights to use their track Videotape. The advert takes us through housing estates revealing buildings made of playing cards in various state of collapse. A gust of wind can blow down a home and focuses on the vulnerability of people affected by repossession.

"It's all the more humbling that the exhibition is happening during London Design Festival, the week when we celebrate design, houses and the interior," observes Doran, who is also selling customized placemats in aid of Shelter in her Cheshire Street shop. "It's great that we are able to produce beautiful designs but this exhibition should almost act as a rain check."

While the rest of the city is over run by cutting edge design this month, a corner in the West End will be raising awareness for the homeless. It’s time to batten down from the big bad wolf.

Annie Deakin is Editor of

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