From our meeting point at the V&A we took a stroll along Kensington High Street, past a lot of interesting architecture e.g. the Art Deco Barkers building and up to the new location for the Design Museum. We were given a very interesting introductory talk which gave a flavour of the history of the museum and its new location, before time to visit the Library then explore a temporary and a permanent exhibition.
The new Design Museum was opened last year by founder Terrence Conran (famous for furniture and other design work e.g. Conran shops, M&S), who was also founder of Habitat in 1964. In the past he ran Mothercare and also BHS in the 1980s, plus set up restaurants like the Soup Kitchen chain. In the late 1970/80s Conran felt the public did not fully understand ‘design’ and its full impact therefore pushed for an experimental museum/exhibition. This was originally sited in the bottom of the V&A for about 5 years in the Boilerhouse Room.
The quest for a more permanent home and a focus on a contemporary design collection began (away from the historic and ancient collections easily found already). An old Banana ripening warehouse from the 1940s became the location from 1989 until 2016. All design disciplines were covered, from cars, to posters, architecture, shoes, etc.
In the last year the Design Museum has been located in the old Commonwealth Institute building, an important and fascinating structure built c.1962. In 2002 the Institute closed and the plan wasto sell the building to fund education in Commonwealth countries. The Design Museum acquired the building on the condition that adjacent flats would be developed to pay for the renovation of the main grade II* structure.
Some original features remain e.g. stained glass windows in the shop, plus some marble that has been relocated as a wall feature. On the lower floors you can see a large tactile map of the Commonwealth that has been retained. The space overall was opened up to make more of a feature of the roof. John Pawson was the designer and he used soft LED lighting to good effect. Originally natural light came through small triangles in the roof, but several windows have been added to let more light through.
The concrete roof is pinned by two pillars. Rain water drains from the roof down pipes in the pillars which needed a major expansion to deal the volume generated by the British weather! The roof itself is a hyperbolic paraboloid – concave on two sides, convex on one. This was described as a bit like a horse saddle. The concrete side roofs add to an interesting effect with a grey wood wool layer, which is both light and provides effective insulation. The view from the roof outside is particular impressive and put me in mind of the origami fortune tellers we used to make in primary school!
A lot of space has been gained in the renovation. There is a free, permanent exhibition on the upper floor ‘Designer, Maker, User’ which features all sorts of design history and objects. As part of the visit we had access to the temporary, paid exhibition ‘Imagine Moscow’, which focused on never-built Soviet architecture, the concept of the sun city, designs for Lenin’s mausoleum and Soviet palace – a 1:1 replica of Lenin’s index finger from the would-be statue on the top of the palace was just one striking feature of the exhibition which featured designs, artwork, video and other elements.
Upstairs there were also learning facilities, offices for staff, space for the enterprise competition for secondary schools – some of the winning entries on display were particularly good. These were manufactured and sold in the shop. Needless to say we also had fun in the shop and café. It was great to have a tour around the Library and compare their journal holdings and shelving! A hidden gem was the incorporation of Robin Day’s studio – one of the key 20th Century furniture designers. You could see the tools, models and sketches as well as the books that provided inspiration in this space.
All in all the Design Museum was a fascinating and varied visit and made for a great first ARCLIB Spring visit experience for me to take part in. It was great to catch up with everyone and I hope to see many of you in July!
David Stacey, University of Bath