Cathedral of Design


18 November 2016

Designer Terence Conran founded the Design Museum in 1989. In 2011, over two decades later, Conran personally donated £17.5m to help fund the museum's relocation from its modest home in Shad Thames to a new site on High Street Kensington. The £83m project has resulted in a museum three times the size of its predecessor.

The new Design Museum is housed in the former Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park, a listed building designed in the 1960s by architecture and design practice RMJM. The building’s mouldering interior has been transformed by the architect John Pawson, whose oak-lined atrium and terrazzo flooring give the museum a subtle grandeur. This grandeur is matched, albeit with less subtlety, by a concrete roof that swoops to heightened points on its two opposing corners. Architecture practices OMA and Allies and Morrison were enlisted to restore the building’s distinctive exterior, replacing the original façade with a double glazed skin that allows daylight to flood the space.

The new museum has huge ambitions, not least in its aim to attract 650,00 visitors each year, 400,000 more than in previous years. Its new galleries and learning spaces are seen as crucial to achieving this goal. For the first time in its history, the Design Museum will house a permanent collection that can be visited free of charge. The new museum also features two temporary exhibition spaces, an auditorium, a library and archive, and studio space for its designers in residence. “For the first time,” said Design Museum Director Deyan Sudjic, “our designers in residence will actually be in residence.”

With the arrival of the new Design Museum, London has been given an institution that matches design's importance within society. Served by a dedicated museum with the scope and ambition of other major London institutions, design now feels more approachable and inclusive.

At a press conference held on 17 November, a week ahead of the museum’s public opening on 24 November, Conran gave a speech about the new Design Museum. The designer's words gave an insight into the vision for the Design Museum in its new surrounds as well as the significance of the expansion and relocation, both for the institution and Conran personally. Below, Disegno is delighted to publish a transcript of the speech.

Terence Conran at the Design Museum, 17 November

Moving the Design Museum to Kensington is the most important moment in my career in design so far. I don’t know what is next, but can it ever be as exciting as this? This is a dream for me, it has been a long time materialising. Ten years, in fact, since Deyan joined us and said “come on, this little museum that we have got here is too small for everything that I want to do.”

It allows all our dreams and ambitions for the museum to come true. To create a world class space that is truly international with the size and scope for the promotion and celebration of design and architecture in this country. I don’t think there is anywhere in the world that compares to this museum at the moment. No doubt China or Singapore will do something in the future that is even bigger and better than this. Well, better I doubt, but bigger.

I am full of excitement as we open this magnificent new cathedral of design. I don’t know if the world "cathedral" is right, but certainly, the first time I came in after the space had been opened out I thought: “my gosh, this does feel like going into a cathedral.”

It really does feel like our moment has arrived and the importance of design to our lives and the economy is now truly appreciated. I might say here that I think it is very important that the government understands that design is hugely significant to the quality of life and the citizens of our country. It is also terribly important to the economy, especially to manufacturers. I think that every manufacturer should have a designer on its board. If they can have accountants, then they can also have designers.

Design is about optimism and that is what this place is about: clean, fresh, well-lit, friendly and full of surprises. I feel like I would like to live here. There is a wow factor but it is a wow of love rather than fear.

We have grown up but not grown old. With three times the space and John Pawson and OMA’s beautiful architecture and work, I hope you can now educate and inspire and delight future generations for years to come to truly make a difference to the world around us. We very much want to be international in our approach. The creative industries make an enormous contribution to the economy and to the quality of life of ordinary people. And also to the perception of the quality of our nation. Design, manufacturing and business are completely intertwined, and one cannot succeed without the other.