Esther E Shipman, Curator of Architecture + Design | February 9, 2017
The Design Museum, London reopened in its spectacular new digs in the iconic former Commonwealth Institute building, on November 24, 2016. The five year renovation of the landmark ‘60s, historically listed building was redesigned and interpreted by minimalist architect John Pawson, and financed through a substantial donation by the museum founder Sir Terence Conran.
Located in the cultural quarter of Kensington, the Design Museum now joins the Royal College of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, and Serpentine Gallery as a west end destination. The new building triples the gallery space of its previous location and adds the new Swarovski Foundation Centre of Learning, the 202 seat Bakala Auditorium and a dedicated gallery to display its permanent collection, accessible free of charge for the first time.
This model of free access to permanent collection artworks on display and payment for the temporary exhibitions either curated from within, or touring, was echoed at most of the large museums in London including the Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert. Nobody directly asks for money for these displays, however patrons are benignly encouraged to make a small cash contribution to the museums at donation boxes placed throughout the facilities. The program appears to be working wildly well as all of the exhibitions were extremely busy with queues (line-ups) to purchase tickets, entry to the paid exhibits, and cloak rooms. Note that the Design Museum offers lockers for free, but these were completely filled to capacity.
The Design Museum is the only museum in the UK devoted exclusively to contemporary design and architecture and is considered one of the leading in the world. The top-floor space under the spectacular museum roof (a giant hyperbolic paraboloid shape), which houses their permanent display, Designer, Maker, User, highlighting key objects from the museum’s collection. A soaring entry wall is fitted with what appears to be a floating metal grid to which a hundred of the most iconic products of the last century are affixed. It is powerful graphically, very colourful, and show stoppingly beautiful for an industrial design junkie like me. Awe struck viewers gather to take it all in and to compete with each other to name each design, designer, and manufacturer. In actuality, the display is an enlarged version of a retail display system used all over the world to great effect.
Also significant is the use of the term ‘Maker’ in the title. The relatively recent appropriation of the term by ‘hobby crafters’ is a bit of a pet peeve for me (see the curatorial essay for the 2015 Design at Riverside exhibition and catalogue Modern Makers). In this case, I was relieved to discover that the Makers referred to are large scale manufacturers devoted to producing exceptional industrial design products (innovative, technically advanced, functional, life enhancing, and aesthetically beautiful, or provocative) at a scale that makes them eminently affordable and easily accessible to a large number of users worldwide.
The exhibition itself is divided into smaller physical spaces rather than one huge room. Visitors can get intimate with the designs and interact with digital monitors and/or read brief informative texts about the designers and the design and manufacturing process.
The one exhibition which I did pay for was the official opening exhibition of the museum, the Beazley Design of the Year which celebrates design that promotes or delivers change, enables access, extends design practice or captures the spirit of the year. Someday the other museums will be showing this stuff is the tagline for the exhibition. In its ninth year, the 2016 ‘Beazley’ includes 70 projects nominated by international design practitioners, curators, and critics in the categories of architecture, digital, fashion, graphic, product and transport. The exhibition is eye opening, and spiritually uplifting.
The best intentions of design – making a real difference in people’s lives are realized, sometimes through deceptively simple low tech means, or free open-source software. Take the ‘Drinkable Book’ designed by Brian Gartside with graphic designer Aaron Stephenson and chemist Dr. Teresa Dankovich, PhD for Folia Water. A book as described in the exhibit catalogue “comprised of tear-off paper filter sheets that purify contaminated water and make it safe to drink. Each filter provides 30 days of clean water and the filters cost pennies to produce,” or ‘Open Surgery’ designed by Frank Kolkman with the Design Interactions department of the Royal College of Art, London, and the Kyoto Institute for Technology, referred to “as a subtle act of piracy and an unorthodox piece of investigative journalism”. While trying to develop a surgical robot that could be made affordable and accessible to communities living outside regulated healthcare systems, he ran head-on into an enormous intellectual copyright wall. In doing so, he exposed how corporations are hoarding potentially life-saving technologies and preventing them from reaching the public.
Amazingly Kolkman was able to maintain the integrity of the design – a low invasive surgical robot, running on open-source softwares, that costs a fraction of the price of the ‘pharma’ produced Da Vinci System.
The show is one remarkable design after another, from what is essentially the world’s largest smog vacuum cleaner for green spaces in polluted cities, by Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde, to protest posters and placards by the anonymous Malaysian design collective GRUPA (Grafik Rebel Untuk Prots & Aktivisme), to the Colección 7 clothing line by Mexican brand Yakampot, manufactured by hand in 45 indigenous Mexican communities.
As the poster says Someday other museums will be showing his stuff and you can invest in it or purchase it through a store or computer near you.
Esther E. Shipman