One of my favourite London picks finally has a new home. The Design Museum closed the doors on its old Shad Thames galleries in June, promising a brighter, better future in Kensington. So as 2016 drew to a close, opening weekend in November promised to be a ray of sunshine in an otherwise rather grey month.
The move to the former Commonwealth Institute now gives the museum 10,000 square metres to play with: a blank canvas on which to paint their own story and a bigger space than ever before to showcase the history of great design. John Pawson, the minimalist designer behind this new temple of oak, glass and natural light, wanted to create a space “that people will feel good in”. The architecture of a museum matters and on first impressions, it’s beautiful outside and in. Taking a quiet moment with hundreds of other design lovers on the steps of its wide, open atrium, the Design Museum almost managed to convince me that I was in a purposeful space. Almost. But I did not feel good in it. At least, not everywhere.
I didn’t come to watch the world go by, pleasant as it was. I came to look, to learn, to look again. The drama of the building is only one part of this. A museum must have function as well as form, encouraging us to think, provoking us to engage. On the surface, the Design Museum works; it’s an elegant piece of design. In reality, this very design disguises its purpose, consigning the objects it should champion to corners and nooks.
The second floor plays host to a first for the museum – a free display of its permanent collection. Designer Maker User was only made possible by the space afforded by its new home. Here you’ll find 1,000 objects that showcase how design, manufacturing and brands have shaped the (mostly Western) (mostly developed) world as we know it. Everything you’d expect to be there, is – the iPod, the London Underground map, the iconic political poster – as well as some rather lovely surprises. While I spent a peaceful five minutes watching a cobbler craft a pair of Chelsea boots, my museum companion Tom had rather too much fun designing a new subway carriage in the digital interactive space. Much to the chagrin of the mini-maker waiting for a go behind him. The overall impression, though, is of something painted by numbers. You can see these objects and read these information labels in the design gallery of any national museum. In what is one the world’s leading design museums, we can demand more: more to surprise and delight, more than name, year and location. Designer Maker User has the potential to be great. In the meantime, it’s an interesting work in progress and a diverting way to spend the afternoon.
We fared better in Fear and Love, one of two temporary exhibitions curated for the museum’s debut. It brings together 11 new installations by some of the most innovative and thought-provoking designers and architects working today. Mimus the curious robot, sharp, swirling 3D-printed death masks and OMA’s poignant tribute to pan-European interiors make for an eclectic wander. Certainly, I don’t think I’ve ever been moved to tears by a broken vertical blind before. The standout installation, though, comes from architect Andrés Jaque. His film series Intimate Strangers examines the expected and unexpected consequences of social networking, all through the prism of gay dating app Grindr. It is brilliant, brutal and worth the admission price alone. While Designer Maker User weaves a more conventional story, Fear and Love is asking bold questions of the world design has built around us. It is the best of the Design Museum and something I hope to see reflected in forthcoming exhibitions.
I so wanted to love the new Design Museum. Much like I so want to love each new iPhone. For those who have a serious interest in how design shapes our modern experience, it still has much to recommend it. The temporary exhibition programme for 2017 will cover the challenge of designing for a rapidly ageing society and give us a glimpse of a Moscow never to be, the city as imagined by a bold generation on designers in the 1920s. And so this design lover waits for the next model with interest.
Designer, Maker, User is open daily 10:00–18:00 at the Design Museum, Kensington High Street, London. Admission free.
Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World runs until Sunday 23 April 2017. Admission: £14 adults, £10.50 concessions.
Photos by Luke Hayes