Why we need the new Design Museum
by Graham Powell
After much anticipation the Design Museum reopens later this week, moving to its new home in Kensington. We went along to the preview last week to see if the reality matched the hype, and to ask whether we still actually need a design museum in an age of easy access to information?
The old Commonwealth Institute building at the far end of Kensington High Street has been a hive of activity for the past few years, since it was announced that the Design Museum would be relocating there from it's previous location in Shad Thames, near Tower Bridge. Deyan Sudjic (Director of the Design Museum since 2006) was asked by Terence Conran to find a new and larger home for the museum in order for it to "grow from a niche player into an important international voice in design and architecture". After much searching the building in Kensington was chosen as the ideal location, offering three times as much space and being an ideal annexe to the institutions of nearby 'Albertopolis' - which includes the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Royal College of Art and the Serpentine Gallery. John Pawson was unanimoulsy chosen by the selection panel as the architect best suited to tackling the job of restoring and converting the listed 1960s landmark building which is situated at the southern end of Holland Park. A classic piece of contemporary postwar architecture complete with an iconic roof, not unlike many churches built around the country at the same time, the building had become rather tired and in need of a new purpose.
John Pawson is an architect who both Helen and I have long admired - to such an extent that certain details of our own home have been inspired by his minimalist approach to design and living. He is well known for taking the 'less is more' mantra to higher levels of use, with the aim of producing an improved inner calm derived from a more considered outer simplicity. Attention to details, well chosen quality materials and a muted colour palette are all key to his approach, and his practice's redesign of the new Design Museum continues the adherence to these finely tuned principles.
Upon entering the building's vast atrium space, your gaze is automatically drawn upwards to the magnificent concrete hyperbolic paraboloid roof supported by an array of undulating beams which fan out in a mesmerizing rythmn to captivate the viewer. The result is an instant state of awe and calmness instilled in the visitor's mind, allowing the business and stress of everyday life to quickly fade from memory.
Of course a minimalist interior, as experienced in many a modern art gallery and museum, is the standard preparation for a preferred higher state of consciousness in such a 'house of contemplation'. For this is in essence the purpose of a museum - it's a place where both we and the objects in question are removed from their everyday context so that we might better reflect on their functionality, place in history, semantic meaning and true purpose. In this sense the building's agenda is not unlike that of a church, but here design is the thing being worshipped, and god is in the details.
Pawson's approach to design takes Le Corbusier's modernist mantra of 'a liberal coat of whitewash to cleanse the soul' and evolves it into a more humane manifestation that we have come to know as minimalism. This form of minimalism doesn't dictate 'any colour your like as long as it's white' (which can so often result in the clinical sterility of logic), but prefers a subtle mix of well considered materials that aim to celebrate the understated and unobtrusive, instead of the showmanship of other 'look at me' design movements. Here, white walls are complemented with expanses of Italian terrazzo flooring at lower levels, or pale marble cladding and warmer light oak paneling and flooring at mid and higher levels, adding a naturalness and warmth to the spaces. Dark tones are utilised in the restaurant furniture for more social occasions. Ever present, but subtly unobtrusive, are the key design elements of lighting and those signature 'hidden' doors concealing services (again all very Pawsonesque) which add to the overall feeling of calmness. Even the service lifts are hidden behind carefully concealed bi-folding panel doors to keep the visual clutter to a minimum. Naturally the views of Holland Park are encouraged, rather than of Kensington High Street to add to the sense of calmness and peace of mind.
Exhibition spaces are provided by two generous temporary galleries, along with further smaller spaces throughout the museum, offering opportunities for surprise encounters and pop-up events. The museum's inaugral opening exhibitions do not disappoint either, consisting of an appropriate mix of individual design perspectives (Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World), curation from the museum's own permanent collection (Designer, Maker, User) and design accreditation (Beazely Designs of the Year). The museum's programme of Designers in Residence offers opportunities for emerging new talent to exhibit their work too. In a space three times the size of its predecessor, there's so much to see that it's hard to know what exhibits to report on here. And since we all have our own design preferences and agendas perhaps I should simply encourage you to visit and see them for yourself, rather than attempting to choose 'the best bits'. It was though great to see less 'sexy' design such as transport and technology (the sort derived from complex collaborative teams) featuring just as predominantly as those from the usual individual 'star' designers.
Suffice to say the new Design Museum has something for everyone, or at least everyone with an enquiring mind who has an interest in why things are as they are. It will undoubtedly act as a collecting point for both design and people, for budding and established design types whatever their age and background. On a broader level it has all the ingredients to act as a focal point to support the creative industries and help contribute much to the nation's 'greater good' through education, creativity, innovation, community, jobs and GDP. This is particularly needed at a time when design education and the creative industries in general seem to be coming under increasing political pressure to justify their existence and purpose. In acting as a focal point in this way we can't see why the new Design Museum shouldn't fulfil its remit and grow from a niche player into an important international voice in design and architecture.
So in answer to our question, YES we do need a new Design Museum - and perhaps more than ever in this 'post-truth' world of digital overload that we find ourselves increasingly immersed in. Thanks to John Pawson's minimalist interiors the new museum successfully invokes a calmness that is well suited to quiet contemplation and reflection, one where real learning can take place and higher quality information can be distributed.
We certainly think this is a destination worth making a design pilrimmage to.
Words by Graham Powell & photography by Helen Powell.