Notes from the Design Museum
by Jon Dowling·
Last week we took a trip to the new Mecca of design in London, which opened at the end of last year, the Design Museum.
Growing up in England, with an interest in all things design-related, the previous incarnation at Shad Thames was a destination that was incredibly familiar to me. I have many fond memories of lectures and shows visited, some of which must of had an immeasurable impact on my career and persuasion for enthusing others with the importance of design history.
And so it was, with great anticipation and a little trepidation, that we took a visit to the museum at its new home in Kensington.
The space formerly housed the Commonwealth Institute in west London, a Grade II* listed building that had stood vacant for over a decade. The museum was developed by a design team led by John Pawson who, 'made the building fit for a 21st century museum, whilst at the same time retaining its spatial qualities'. The central atrium certainly takes the breath away, or at least elicits the communal response of an obligatory Instagram shot. As we strolled around the various levels, wondering where the actual work was (which called to mind our trip a few years earlier to the Guggenheim) we noticed that we really were one of the last to take the pilgrimage, with the dust literally already settled. Everywhere.
Bar the dust, what struck me to be amazing was quite how many people there were in attendance. I was filled with both an appreciation for the fact that the museum was basically free, to see the general exhibition at least, and a sense of wonder to witness the impact the new museum was having on the multitude of people who had come out to learn about design.
The general exhibition space, I'm sure it has a more interesting, focus-group-generated-name, felt a little small in comparison to the vast atrium you enter on arrival - I can only imagine how rammed it gets on a Saturday with note taking, bespectacled patrons – and must presumably be due to the Grade II* listing's limitations. The permanent exhibition, which focuses on the role of and importance of design in society, called 'Designer Maker User' was very well put together, even for a slightly jaded, middle-aged designer who runs an online design book store. It's understandably hard to put this well-told story together without the viewer feeling they've 'seen it all before' but they have done a commendable job and the real test, or should I say – what I am really looking forward to – is the one-off exhibitions that will surely come, exhibitions that can live up to the memories I have of the likes of a Crouwel, Brownjohn or Saville.
In general, it feels to me as though the Design Museum has inevitably both lost and gained something in its metamorphosis. In shedding its skin, it has gained an undoubted 'wow factor'. Architecturally speaking, the building is very impressive and the museum will become a 'destination', on a smaller scale, but similar to Tate Modern. None the less, it will be somewhere people will come to see, even if they are not necessarily deeply into design. But for me it's lost its intimacy, perhaps a little sole. This I'm sure will come over time, as we develop a new relationship with this much loved member of the design family.
Just one small change I'd make. Please don't make your staff where aprons.