Designs on


The 21st-century reinvention of an institution that helped shape the city’s cultural landscape is very timely, says architecture expert Jonathan Bell


Opening in 1989, London’s Design Museum was at the vanguard of the designer decade – an era of matt-black devices, chromed furniture, bold fashions and the burgeoning cult of the designer name that changed the way we saw our interiors forever. In the UK it led the way in turning our attention to leading industrial designers of the day who are now household names. People like Phillipe Stark, James Dyson and Tom Dixon who taught us to see good design as a work of art.

This consumerist frenzy wasn’t the museum’s raison d’être, of course, but rather to celebrate the neglected field of industrial design. Its origins were in the V&A, where, for many decades, industrial objects had fallen between the curatorial cracks. Buried in the museum’s basement, it started life as the Boilerhouse, cofounded by Terence Conran and Stephen Bayley in 1982.

In 1989, the collection graduated to its own purpose-designed space in a former banana warehouse on Shad Thames, given a gl eaming whi te Modernist-style overhaul by Conran’s own architecture studio to stand in stark contrast to the abandoned brick husks and patches of waste ground that lay around it. The Design Museum grew with the area, as loft-living transformed riverside London and its curatorial team breathed new life into the everyday, rediscovered forgotten designers and introduced the burgeoning big names of the 1990s movement to an eager public. It was the heyday of Starck, Dyson, and Dixon as well as Marc Newson, and Ron Arad, all of whom came to prominence as the museum gained cultural traction.

The deep dive into mid-century nostalgia had barely started, so exhibitions on Ray and Charles Eames, Giò Ponti, Arne Jacobsen, Eileen Gray, Dieter Rams and Buckminster Fuller drew enthusiastic audiences and gave fresh insight into the art behind the object. Blockbuster shows on Zaha Hadid, Paul Smith and Peter Saville cemented reputations, while the DM helped launch the careers of renowned young designers such as Barber & Osgerby, Tord Boontje, Thomas Heatherwick and more.

Now the space at Shad Thames has closed and the museum is preparing its new home in Kensington. Renowned architect John Pawson, who contributed an exhibition to the museum in its V&A days, has overseen the £80m refurbishment of the striking former Commonwealth Institute. His typically restrained palette preserves the full drama of the 1962 structure’s tented roof, while new adjoining housing blocks by architectural giants OMA and AHMM have effectively bankrolled the project.

Why move? Shad Thames had infamously inflexible exhibition floorplates and diminishing space for back office and education. While its comprehensive shop and Blueprint Café – the first of many such designer-driven eateries now scattered along the Thames – were famed, relatively low levels of passing traffic kept visitor numbers well below Tate levels.

The new building triples the exhibition spaces and adds an auditorium as well as dedicated education areas

The new building triples the exhibition spaces and adds an auditorium as well as dedicated All photos The Design Museum education areas, with partnerships from furniture-makers Vitra and lighting specialists Concord creating a worthy backdrop for the objects themselves and making the museum an essential destination. A new chief curator, Justin McGuirk, will join Deyan Sudjic, the director since 2006, as the institution gains fresh prominence, elevating London’s creative profile and educating us all about the role of design in our everyday lives. The museum will continue in its tradition of bringing London’s young design talent to an increasingly engaged international audience, while educating on design’s most prominent figures.

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