Designing the Design Museum


1 June 2016

“It’s gone from looking like a piece by one of those New York artists who cut buildings in half. It’s gone from looking like the last days of Pompeii. And it’s now beginning to crystallise into a building.”

So says Deyan Sudjic, director of London’s Design Museum. On 30 June, the museum’s Shad Thames location will close; on 24 November, it will open again in the formerly derelict Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park. The new museum will have 10,000m2 total space, allowing for a permanent collection display alongside both major and smaller exhibitions.

This Clerkenwell Design Week, at the Vitra showroom, Sudjic appeared in conversation with Stephen Bayley, the museum’s first director. They told the institution’s tale from its inception to its future, along the way discussing their directorial aims and the considerations that come with opening a museum.

Disegno is delighted to present an edited and excerpted transcript of the conversation.

Stephen Bayley If you want to look at the history of the Design Museum, as you’ve got to look back 40 years. At the time I was trying very hard to teach a course in the University of Kent. It’s amazing to say so, but there were really no real books on the subject. You could get books about William Morris or the Bauhaus, but you couldn’t in those days find a book on the history of modern furniture, or the history of industrial design. So I put together a book on the history of design for my students. It was a crude visual anthology culled from magazines I’d booked out of the RIBA library. I persuaded the Design Council to publish it as a textbook for students, and it came to the attention of Terence Conran.

Deyan Sudjic One point worth making is that Terence Conran had the vision to start the museum because of the Victoria and Albert, which was the world’s first design museum devoted to mass production. And I think Terence’s view was to remind the V&A that design had by the 1970s it had become something else – an exquisite and important collection of decorative art.

Stephen We can’t remember now how little design was understood. We also can’t remember how extraordinarily sleepy and antiquarian the V&A really was. I first met Terence in the Jubilee year of 1977. The first thing he said was “I’ve made a lot of money out of design, and I don’t want to leave it all to the children or the Inland Revenue. And I want to do for young people today what the V&A did for me.”

When Terence first met me he gave me some money, and I did a tour of every museum of the world that was then interested in design, Oslo, Zurich, Chicago, New York, and anywhere else I could think of. I came back and wrote a report for the Charity Commission, and we set up something called the Conran Foundation, which was dedicated to the promotion of design.

The very first idea for what became the Design Museum was a sort of high-tech factory in Milton Keynes. [V&A director] Roy Strong found out what we were doing, and with a characteristic mixture of style, generosity and a bit of opportunism said “why don’t you come and get started here?”

I had to traipse around the basements of the V&A looking for the space to use this money. We narrowed in down in the end to two areas: one was called the Clincher’s Hole, the other one was called the Old Boilerhouse Yard. Both were subterranean and ankle-deep in fetid water, and still had air raid notices from 1945. We went for the Boilerhouse and we created a white box. And our first exhibition was an art historical exercise about art and industry, about the great designers.

Deyan Why did you leave the Boilerhouse, and move to Shad Thames?

Stephen We never actually intended to do the Boilerhouse, it was only when we were offered a temporary opportunity to exist in the V&A. But it had become a huge success. Roy was very grateful, respectful and admiring of what he had done introducing people to modern design, but he was also slightly jealous of its success. And he refused to continue our lease, so in 1986 we had to close the Boilerhouse project and start looking for a new site. So we bought this unappetising building that had been used originally for storing bananas and then for surplus Korean military uniform, and turned it into Bauhaus on Thames.

Deyan And then, after opening the museum, you left.

Stephen I’m a prime example of the idea that people who found businesses shouldn’t run them.

Deyan I was recruited in 2006 with a brief to move the museum to somewhere larger. There was a sense that Shad Thames, wonderful though it is with its riverside site, was slightly too far from public transport. What was once an edge of the city site had been overwhelmed by residential development. And it was time to go somewhere bigger, somewhere that could offer people in more than a two-hour experience and could reach an even larger audience. And the trustees wanted somewhere where we could reach half a million, 600,000.

I was promised that we would be moving to a site behind the Turbine Hall on Bankside, that would require some land from the Tate to build that would be bigger, better, more accessible. At the time I arrived we were selling about 110,000 tickets a year, we had probably 200,000 visitors. So we explored the idea of the Tate, and in the end decided it wasn’t necessarily the right place to go. It’s nice to have those 4 million people a year walk past you on their way to the Tate. Would they actually come to see you afterwards? Perhaps not. We looked at going back to the V&A, but in the end decided that the 6,000m2 available wasn’t substantial enough, and we ran the risk of losing our identity.

We looked at King’s Cross, we looked at a site next to City Hall, and [property developer] Stuart Lipton had shown me the former Commonwealth Institute. One day towards the end of 2007, I got a phone call from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea who wanted to bring the institute building – a Grade II* listed building that had been empty for ten years – back to life. The borough's planners saw us as the ideal occupants, and they worked with Stuart and his partners, who are building 60 flats designed by OMA, to make it possible for us to take it on.

The Commonwealth Institute was opened in 1962, at a time when London was still undergoing the after-effects of World War Two. There was construction rationing, so you couldn’t use certain materials. The only modern building in London before was the Royal Festival Hall. This was a chance to do something rather extraordinary, and much more impactful, with a wild paraboloid roof. Smuggling it into inner suburban London is astounding.

It was like a miniature world’s fair, in which each of the 54 member states had their own displays. For 30 years it flourished – it grew to about a million visitors a year – but the building was always problematic. The roof is drained at two points by two very small drain pipes that leaked furiously, and the exterior, though it looks like very contemporary pane glazing, was actually a sheet of glass, a foot of air, and breezeblocks. So it had the insulation characteristics of the tent in the Arctic. Eventually, the Commonwealth decided it would rather invest its money elsewhere.

So there was Kensington and Chelsea left with this hulk of recent, modern past without a sense of what to do with it. It had got pretty bleak. Buildings from the 60s, unless they are looked after, quickly deteriorate. Before we took it on, we had to be sure that we could actually adapt it in a way that makes sense for an institution that does have temporary exhibitions, and can’t close its whole building when there’s an exhibition change. We also needed to understand that you could actually adapt the building. Arup, the engineers, looked at the structure and there were no lifts when it was built. If you put lifts in you’d pierce the concrete floor slabs. And they were built such a minimal specification that the floor would have been brought down if it was pierced even by lift shafts. So all the floor slabs had to be come out, and we had to construct a new basement for our lecture theatre and auditorium.

Undaunted, we thought ‘let’s have a go’. So we had to raise £48m for the building – currently we have £45.5m. We’ve been very fortunate to have not just Terence’s backing, but also the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Arts Council of England, and a number of individual donors. We will have our permanent collection on the top floor, underneath that amazing roof. There’ll be studios for our designers in residence there, and a restaurant. On the lower level we’ll have our library, our archive, our learning centre, our offices. And on the ground floor there will be our major exhibition space and a secondary one.

The work really starts when we open in November, because building a building is nothing by comparison with actually making it come alive. Across the year we will have six exhibitions, so we’ll have at any one time three things for people to see. We need a strand of exhibitions that reach our to a wider audience, rather than just preaching to the converted. But we also need to maintain a sense of interest for people who actually know a lot about design.

The opening exhibition is curated by Justin McGuirk, our chief curator. It’s called Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World – I think fear and love is exactly what we feel about this project. To open a museum you do need something that, in the same way that Stephen opened Shad Thames with Culture and Commerce. You need a show that is sort of a manifesto. The second show is about California, and why it’s the centre of the universe.

Stephen The actual etymology and semantics of “museum” are very interesting. Terence never, ever wanted to call it a museum, but I won that particular battle with him because I felt part of the original idea was to drag design into the arena of respectable culture, which when we started doing this 40 years ago it definitely wasn’t. You’d find design on the gardening page, but not anywhere else.

Deyan I think you probably used that word to suggest seriousness, and to say that this is not a project, not a centre, not a council, but something that has a view. The strange thing is that museums have flourished, and I do think museums have a future, because they are a place that provoke people to leave their screens behind, and go and do something that actually involves seeing other people and having a shared experience. Museums are about telling stories. I think there’s always a tension between the idea that a museum is a place that collects stuff, a place run by people who find the public a nuisance, and those who want to tell stories. I think we do a bit of both, but it’s mainly about telling stories. I think in a world in which journalism is finding it harder and harder to support itself, maybe a museum can be a place that encourages us to reflect.