Design Museum, London - Museums Association

Design Museum, London

Oliver Green asks whether the Design Museum, in its new Kensington home, measures up to expectations
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Oliver Green
London’s new Design Museum is the third and most ambitious iteration of a project initiated by Sir Terence Conran in the “designer decade” of the 1980s.

The way he tells it now sounds almost like an epiphany: “I’d been involved in selling design to the public and to industry for nearly 30 years, but I had a fierce conviction that we could do more.”

When his Habitat group became a public company in 1980, Conran was determined to go beyond his retail success at introducing duvets and flat-pack furniture to the UK.

He had a strong personal mission to educate industrialists, designers and students, as well as politicians and the general public, on the broader significance and importance of good design.

“It was the feeling that we could use intelligent design to change and improve Britain, acting as a catalyst for social and economic change,” he said.

The museum route was not an obvious one to take at the time. The big nationals were still very traditional institutions with a general distaste for income generation. State-run bodies were facing cuts and had little support from Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

The prime minister herself was not interested in arts and culture at all – nor, as it turned out, in design for industry beyond basic functionality and sales value, though she was later persuaded to open the new Design Museum.

Conran began his design education mission in the old basement boiler rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). The Boilerhouse gallery, which Conran opened there in 1983, offered new insights into the key role of design in mass production, and took a new approach to subjects ranging from the history of taste to modern industrial design.

It felt like a sparky subversion of old Albertopolis in South Kensington.

At a time when the state-run Design Council had sunk from its 1960s glory days to the point where it was handing out a special award to British Leyland’s bland new Austin Montego, the Boilerhouse devoted a whole show to the design evolution of the new jelly-mould Ford Sierra. Neither would be hailed as a classic today, but the very idea of presenting a popular car design in a national art museum felt absurdly radical. Conran even claimed that more people visited the tiny 370 sq m of the Boilerhouse than the remaining 13 acres of the V&A. This seems unlikely, but the new gallery was stirring a mini cultural revolution in the basement.

By 1989 Conran had physically moved the Boilerhouse project out of the V&A and set up his own independent Design Museum overlooking the Thames just beyond Tower Bridge. It was now in a former banana warehouse given a fashionable white Bauhaus makeover.

Location, location, location

The location had its pros and cons. It was not easy to get to and some way off the tourist trail, but the area became fashionable as other warehouses were converted into apartments, offices and restaurants.

In the 1990s the Design Museum produced a succession of well-received exhibitions, but it never achieved the popularity it craved. It was all somehow a bit niche, and the museum lost its way, torn between the poles of industrial product design and arty designer fashion. Even the ancillary features that Conran himself was so good at developing for cultural consumers elsewhere – namely, an inviting shop and cafe, were never a convincing part of the offer.

Meanwhile, the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 and the remarkable reinvention and turnaround of the V&A radically shifted the focus, style and visitor appeal of London’s principal art and design attractions in the 21st century. The Design Museum now needed a new course if it was to remain relevant.

Writer Deyan Sudjic was hired as director by Conran in 2006 to find the museum a suitable new home and partnership that could enable it to meet its ambitions while remaining independent. The outcome of a decade’s tortuous research, planning and negotiation is a surprising return to Kensington in a new guise and location.

Every major development in London today is framed by property deals. This one has been created both to rescue the Grade II-listed but redundant former Commonwealth Institute building and provide a striking new home for the Design Museum. Following an investment of £83m, including help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the giant 1960s modernist structure with its hyperbolic paraboloid roof has been transformed for an aspirational future role as the world’s leading institution dedicated to contemporary design and architecture. The process has tripled the museum’s available space to 10,000 sq m, including two major temporary galleries, a free permanent collection display, a restaurant overlooking Holland Park, an auditorium, studios, library, archive and new learning facilities.

Remote access

The project is impressive but could be risky. The location, the refit and the exhibition design all seem to raise issues that could compromise the museum’s future. Is it wise to move to west London when the developing city has been moving east since before the 2012 Olympics?

Despite the suggestion that it is now closer to its natural partners in Kensington such as the V&A and the Royal College of Art (RCA), both of them are at least two miles away on the other side of the borough. The V&A’s stores at Blythe House, by Olympia, are closer but will soon be moving east to Stratford, and the RCA is already transferring to south London. The Design Museum is now facing the future isolated in a remote, wealthy residential quarter a fair walk from the nearest tube. Will enough people visit?

Architect John Pawson’s “retuning” of the interior to resemble a giant Scandinavian hotel has reshaped every feature of the listed building except the iconic roof. The core of the 1962 institute is now an huge wood-panelled void with multiple staircases, balconies and circulation areas, but few exhibits. There is only limited vertical display space on the walls and nothing in the centre to highlight the wonderful roof.

Scaling up

The main exhibition areas are in smaller white-box locations off the main hall. There is certainly more display space than at Shad Thames but the initial free exhibition does not take full advantage of it to showcase the museum’s permanent collections in a new way. Designer Maker User presents nearly 1,000 objects, as well as a crowd-sourced wall, but these everyday exhibits seem too mundane and well known to attract much interest. Where are the star items?

The first temporary exhibition, Fear and Love – Reactions to a Complex World (until 23 April), features 11 new installations by a selection of the world’s leading designers. The press release promises exploration of “a spectrum of issues that define our time including networked sexuality, sentient robots, slow fashion and settled nomads”.

To me these fell immediately into the pretentious modern art gallery category and had little or nothing to do with fitness for purpose or consumer design. London is already overflowing with modern art shows and the Design Museum needs to come up with presentations that are more creative and practical. Innovative design is not about being wacky.

With Tate Modern expanding and the V&A becoming the new champion of pop culture blockbusters, the Design Museum faces a challenging future on the exhibition front. Its best hope may be an imaginative plan to put active and creative learning at the heart of the museum through the new Swarovski Foundation Centre, which aims to cater for 60,000 learners a year, from toddlers to postgraduates.

I wish the Design Museum every success but I fear that Sir Terence and colleagues will have to keep fighting the same battles he started out on all those years ago.

Oliver Green is a research fellow at London Transport Museum
Project data
Cost £83m
Main funders Terence Conran; Swarovski Foundation; Heritage Lottery Fund; Arts Council England; private investors
Architect John Pawson
Exhibition design Studio Myerscough
Main contractor Wilmott Dixon Interiors
Project management  Gardiner & Theobald Management Services
Structural engineer Arup
Service engineer and environmental consultant Chapman BDSP
Acoustic consultant Applied Acoustic Design
Lighting consultant Chapman BDSP
IT/AV consultant Coleman Bennett
Catering consultant Tricon
Cost consultant Turner & Townsend Cost Management
CDM consultant Jackson Coles
Planning consultant Gerald Eve
Wayfinding Cartlidge Levene
Approved inspector Butler & Young
Legal adviser Speechly Bircham
Permanent gallery fit-out Elmwood Projects
Transport consultant Arup Transport
Heritage consultant Donald Insall Associates
Accessibility consultant Earnscliffe
Logistics consultant Arup
Fire strategy consultant Arup
3D visualisations Alex Morris Visualisation
Admission Main collection free

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