Somewhere Serious


1 June 2017

Last week, California: Designing Freedom opened at the Design Museum in London. Following Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, it is the second major temporary exhibition at the museum's new home in the former RMJM-designed Commonwealth Institute from the 1960s.

On the occasion of the opening of California, Disegno publishes a roundtable discussion about the making of the new museum, which opened in November 2016. The conversation features the Design Museum's director Deyan Sudjic, its chief curator Justin McGuirk, and John Pawson and Morag Myerscough, the designers tasked with reimagining the interiors and exhibition design of the new space. Also present at the table were four objects chosen for their significance to each participant’s thinking about the new Design Museum.

The conversation was chaired by Vicky Richardson, the former director of architecture, design and fashion at the British Council.

Vicky Richardson Why is it necessary to have a new Design Museum?

Deyan Sudjic We wanted something that would provide us with the kind of facilities that would allow us to move from being on the edge of a conversation to being at the heart of it. When Habitat floated on the stock market in the early 1980s, our founder Terence Conran used some of that money to begin this crusade to remind Britain of the idea of design rooted in mass production. Initially he funded the Boilerhouse project inside the V&A, with Stephen Bayley as the first director, which was trying to remind the V&A that although it had become an exquisite museum of decorative arts, it began life as something else. I was appointed 10 years ago, when the trustees had already decided the time was right to do something on a larger scale. We wanted to move from 3,000sqm to about 10,000sqm.

Morag Myerscough The old site was just too small. The spaces were limiting for exhibitions and you didn’t have the conditions that you’ve got in the new space, which ought to provide a lot more scope. I think that this building will take the exhibitions to another level, much as the Barbican’s galleries changed a lot when it was refurbished in the mid-2000s.

Vicky With that in mind, how do you want to change the conversation about design in this country? Aren’t we already quite obsessed with it?

Deyan Contemporary design and architecture are usually discussed in two ways. One is in peripheral organisations, in which small, specialist work is done. Alternatively, they are covered as a department in a general museum, where they have to fight for space. So our strategy is to try and move from being small but perfectly formed to something more mainstream. We want to move from 250,000 to 650,000 visitors a year, of whom we hope approximately half will buy tickets to our exhibitions. And we want to reverse the typical strategy of nationally funded museums, which is to have 75 per cent of their space dedicated to the collection and a quarter devoted to temporary exhibitions. We’re doing it the other way round.

Justin McGuirk In its first incarnations, the Design Museum was very much about brands and people. Throughout the history of 20th-century design, the individual – the designer – was foremost and so the Design Museum has historically celebrated many individual geniuses, which it will continue to do. But there’s a sense now that design is not just about the individual, but rather a collective process and that idea is starting to filter up to a museum level. The Design Museum has always played a role in making design a popular and accessible topic. The very first exhibition at the old Shad Thames site, Commerce and Culture, was at pains to point out that everyday industrially produced objects are indistinguishable from culture and that the culture of making things to sell is not that different from a form of art. That was a very 1980s, postmodern position, which removed the distinctions between high and low. Thirty years later, however, we have totally absorbed that idea. Ours is a society that already very much appreciates design, both culturally and commercially. So it’s time for a different conversation.

Vicky With these considerations in mind, what brought you to the former Commonwealth Institute? There was quite a long period of exploring different sites, as well as a conversation with the Tate.

Deyan And one with the V&A and one with Potters Fields and one with Kings Cross; Gordon Brown even suggested that if we wanted to go to Manchester there would be no obstacles in our path. But it was opportunism that brought us here. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea said that it wanted to use the planning powers it had to bring the Commonwealth Institute back to life. I had known the building as a child, but when I first saw it again I wondered whether it was actually feasible to bring it back from the dead: there was a lake inside, the roof leaked and the walls were hopelessly inefficient. It was a listed building, so before taking it on we had to be confident that English Heritage would allow it to be adapted to make it work for our purposes.

John Pawson Deyan and I walked in at the very beginning of the process, when the building was a damp, doom-like place, but you could still see the potential.

Deyan The developer of the site, Chelsfield, had organised an architectural competition that was won by OMA, whose masterplan was very much about the geometry of the neighbouring apartment buildings that they have created. But planning consent was predicated on Chelsfield having a cultural partner on board, so we became linked to the project. That section in the agreement asks for affordable housing or another cultural good. There’s no affordable housing, but we are the cultural good and so we have a 300-year rent-free lease on the building. About £20m of work was carried out by Chelsfield on this building before it was handed to us, which was basically making it fit-for-purpose in terms of keeping the rain out, energy efficiency, putting in new floors and constructing two levels in the basement.

John But in spite of that I still couldn’t understand the building when we went there because there were no windows. You couldn’t look out and so you were immediately disorientated. To help, I got a model and as soon as I took the roof off I realised that the building was actually a simple square box. Everything I do is about designing things around the way people use a place or a building. I realised that being able to see the roof when you walked in was key – the whole design became about how to integrate that. This is my first public building, and my first building with free access. Architecture takes a long time and throughout you’re dealing with so many issues that you keep your head down. So it wasn’t until recently, when Terence Conran had his birthday in the atrium, that I realised that we’re now in the moment between all of the construction and the project actually being finished. It’s quite emotional.

John Pawson brought a model of the building to the conversation, which he had used in developing the interior scheme for the new museum. IMAGE Max Creasy.

Deyan The first Monday after we moved into the new office there was a sense of wow. I think people thought that a Pawson interior might be something like a stylistic, off the peg solution, but it’s far from being that. There was a sense that people suddenly understood how the acoustics were going to work, how they could hang their coat, how the lights function. It had all been thought about, not in a stylistic way, but in a what’s-it-going-to-be-like-to-work-here way.

Justin What John has done is create a context in which anything can happen, which I find helpful to think about as an ethos rather than a style. We want the building to do several things and we want people to enjoy it as soon as they walk in. That moment of entering the atrium and looking up is spectacular. But in my specific role as curator, I am working with an 870sqm gallery which, with the best will in the world, could have been designed by any number of architects because it’s essentially a white box – the basis of exhibition making. But I appreciate the fact that it isn’t trying to be more than that. Many architects are now creating galleries that are highly expressive places, but those are actually quite difficult to work around, as you see the architecture and not the exhibits.

Vicky For me, the noticeable thing about the new museum is how orthogonal it is compared to the old Commonwealth Institute, which was all about curves and had a certain sort of playfulness with ramps and staircases connecting different platforms.

John I always felt that the building’s interior was very disorientating and that it was confusing to have so many things off a central dais. Now, as soon as you walk inside, you see the soaring roof, but you can still orientate yourself very quickly because you have visual lines to the temporary exhibition spaces and to Morag’s permanent exhibition space at the top
of the building. If you turn around, you can see the education spaces, the restaurant and the café – they are all very visible. The other thing that I did was to open the windows so that you can see Holland Park on two sides.

Vicky But in order to access the museum, you either come through the park or, if you’re coming from the high street, you go through the portico of one of OMA’s apartment buildings. That means that the museum’s main presence on the street is its shop, which is based in the OMA building. So how are you going to give the Design Museum visibility?

John I suppose it’s a matter of opinion, but I think coming off of the high street and having that decompression of going through the OMA building and then coming out the other side is interesting. Of course, coming into it from the park is a very different experience. But you wouldn’t be able to build 10,000sqm in a park in any other central area of London.

Morag I actually like the lead-in and the way it’s set back as if it’s its own environment.

Justin Yes, I don’t see the context as a problem. This is how you can make a new museum – largely unfunded by government – in London in the 21st century: the museum is going to be occupying an extraordinary building that is three times the size of the original one, and that could only happen in this kind of context. In terms of it being in the old Commonwealth Institute, there’s also a resonance with the international ambitions of the museum. Regardless of its very rich and varied exhibition history, the Design Museum has always been associated with British design and the significance of being in this building is that we’ll have a more international profile. Also, if Britishness is an issue in the current context, then the fact that we’re having these conservations in London – even though the programme is global in its scope and quality – feels significant.

Deyan I’ve given 10 years of my life to this project and I want it to work, but initially I did think about whether a museum in a park would have the right relationship to the city. Should it be on the street, regardless of this particular arrangement? But as I got to know the building and the park, it felt like a privilege.

Justin For me there’s something uniquely London about the context – a kind of secret passage to something rather special, which is a very London experience. London is all about its hidden gardens and corners and mewses. And if you think about how you enter MoMA on 53rd Street in New York, that’s not a very special entrance. Here, there is an approach to the museum that’s been very much preserved, it’s an orchestrated promenade through landscaped gardens. The distance from the street is in some ways an asset, as it prepares you to enter a cultural moment.

John People have asked me whether I wouldn’t have preferred to have built a new building, which of course I would have been happy to, but I’m also very happy to learn from this building. You can think about where your ideal museum location would be – east or west? Park or street? – and what other buildings you would like to be next to it, but this is what we’ve got and I think it’s pretty special. To have saved the building is, in itself, also nice. A 1960s hyperbolic paraboloid roof wasn’t really my subject before this project, but it’s been rather amazing to work with.

Vicky Morag, you worked on the installation of the permanent collection. What was your thinking behind that display?

Morag I prefer calling it Designer Maker User rather than the permanent collection because it’s about how you interpret objects and design. There have been many challenges: how do you interpret various parts of the collection; how do you physically build an exhibition in a space where you can’t attach anything to the floors, walls or roof? And although it’s called
a permanent exhibition, it’s actually only meant to last for seven years. After that it will be removed, with no mark left, so that something else can go in. Alongside this, we had to bring light into the space, because there’s not enough natural light to illuminate objects in an exhibition. To help with that we made prototypes of some of the structures to see if they could support lighting. I have always been obsessed with metal-frame furniture, because I like how fine the structures are and how they leave you with quite an open space. So we made these exhibition structures as fine as they could possibly be, such that you can still see the roof through them. We were hanging off them and had engineers coming in to check they were strong enough.

The strength and lightness of metal-frame furniture informed Morag Myerscough's design of the permanent exhibition spaces. IMAGE Max Creasy.

Deyan We spent a long time looking at other installations in museums around the world, looking at how they use objects to tell the story of design. There are a lot of chronologies with mute objects starting with the Thonet bentwood chair and ending up with an Olivetti computer or a Philippe Starck chair. But they feel quite glum. For us who know a lot about some of these objects, it’s fascinating to see Hans Ledwinka’s prototype for the Volkswagen Beetle in Munich or to understand the first typewriter Marcello Nizzoli designed for Olivetti. It means
a lot to us, but for a generation who don’t know what a typewriter is, those objects don’t communicate much. We wanted to do something di erent that wasn’t the greatest hits or a chronology, but which tried to tell a deeper story.

Vicky Notably, you have included things like the motorway signage system, which is a key design icon from the second half of the 20th century. But why should anyone come to a museum to see that when you can see it everywhere around the UK? What are you telling people about that object or how are you framing it to make it worthwhile coming to the museum to see it?

Deyan We’ve approached the subject by saying that design is everywhere – it’s all around us. We went through a crowd-sourcing route and the first thing you’ll see will be a wall of 200 objects selected by people who responded to our pitch asking: what do you think should be in a museum for design? Then we have 18ft-high, brightly coloured letters that Morag has designed, which will say “Designer Maker User” and will rotate. In a calm, quiet building, this is a deliberate insertion of something that’s not quite so calm and quiet.

Vicky But then you’ve cited as an influence on your thinking around the museum a book about the Japanese architect and designer Shiro Kuramata, who hardly seems to fit with that view of design. He’s not known for the sort of things that surround us – motorway signage and so on.

Deyan I don’t think design is just one thing. Design is about exquisite objects, and people who have a sense of connoisseurship and collect things at one end of the spectrum, and it is about motorway-signage systems at the other. I don’t think the Design Museum is going to succeed if it’s only one of those things. I wrote that book about Shiro Kuramata, who was
an extraordinarily gifted designer and whose career reflects the emergence of Japan after World War II. He was one of that small group of people who changed the perceptions of Japan from a place which in the 1970s was seen as responsible for cheap copies of western originals, to a country that was transmitting culture rather than absorbing it.

Shiro Kuramata's work represents a particular definition of design for Deyan Sudjic: the creation of exquisite objects by extraordinarily talented individuals. IMAGE Max Creasy.

Justin When the Design Museum started in 1989, creating exhibitions about brands and so on must have felt radical. But if you go back to 1976 you come to an exhibition that actually opened another design museum, the Cooper Hewitt in New York. It was called Man Transforms and was conceived by Hans Hollein. It was an attempt to reposition design and the way
we think about it, and was quite radical at the time by offering a poetic and open conversation about what the discipline can be. Hollein simply invited 10 interesting characters, many of them legends like Buckminster Fuller and Ettore Sottsass, to come and make an installation at the museum that in some way said something about design as a cultural activity, as opposed to just making commodities. So, for example, Sottsass exhibited his Metaphors project, a series of photographs of threads casting shadows that looked like furniture. Hollein also collected all the different breads that you could buy from the ethnic bakeries of New York and put them on a table, suggesting that those were design and that everything humans touch becomes design. That was a very mysterious show and I’m sure that audiences were scratching their heads, but it demonstrates that the idea that everything was design was a real position in 1976.

Justin McGuirk looked to the exhibition catalogue for _Man Transforms_, the inaugural show at New York's Cooper Hewitt in 1976, as an influence in developing his curatorial strategy. IMAGE Max Creasy.

Vicky But an exhibition programme is key in terms of fundraising for a museum. When the V&A is programming exhibitions focused around Pink Floyd and David Bowie – and clearly going down a pop-music and fashion route in order to get numbers in – how will you position yourself in relation to that? And how do you stand alongside places like the Barbican and the Royal Academy, which are also now staging design exhibitions?

Deyan We want to be populist and popular, but the V&A has a strategy which is based on very large numbers – they get about 3.2 million visitors per year. Luckily we don’t have to do that. I don’t think the fact that other places are doing design exhibitions is in any way a drawback, however. If anything, it’s widening the audience for such things and providing a sense
of a dialogue. The key to getting people to come somewhere is to give them something they’ll actually enjoy that they can’t get elsewhere. We see one of our crucial ways of communicating with our audience as being a strong exhibitions programme, which is why Justin was appointed chief curator. That programme gives us a chance to start conservations that resonate in the world of design and architecture, but which also resonate beyond that and make design part of the cultural conversation.

Justin We want to bring design to the biggest possible number of people and so there will be shows that reach out to a popular audience – about major brands and cars and so on – but that doesn’t mean we’re going to do that with every show. The other institutions that you mentioned might do a design show once every two years, whereas we will do five or six design shows a year. So the amount of ground that we can cover makes us supremely relevant as a place to explore how design culture is happening and changing, which is a conversation that people are interested in. This is London: if you do something good, you’re going to get an audience.

Deyan If you look at the questions that Fear and Love, Justin’s opening exhibition, is asking, you’ll see that they’re things that are not being asked elsewhere, but which are crucial to understanding what’s happening with us. It’s all very well to look at a smartphone in terms of how beautifully the edge is detailed and the scratch-proofness of the glass, but a more important question is whether it has abolished the idea of privacy. This is about scratching beneath the surface and seeing what things really mean and suggest.

Justin The big opportunity around Fear and Love is to show a broad range of ideas that suggest the scope of thought that the museum wants to engage with over the coming years. So there’s an industrial robot that has been programmed to interact with you; an installation about the dating app Grindr that’s exploring how we find love and sex in the city in the 21st century; an installation about Mongolian nomads moving to cities, and how one rethinks an entire culture and lifestyle in an urban environment. These are questions that are not about a single object, but about a context. The biggest thing that this show tries to do is suggest that design is about thinking about the context in which we make things, and not just how we make things because there’s no doubt that design is now operating at deeper levels than just the shape and function of an object. It’s connecting to systems that are complex and global in their scale. That’s the level on which we want to have that conversation and in an ideal world people will remember Fear and Love as a show that tried to capture the spirit and ambition of design in 2016. We want it to challenge preconceptions of what design is.

John Design has never been about the object for me. Of course, at one point you have to put a mark on paper – you have to design things – but you’re putting together those details so that something becomes a whole and then goes on to become an experience. For example, I wanted this building to be a place where people could go and hang out and collect themselves, even if it’s for a minute or for an hour. And then they could start to think about the ideas that are being put forward through the exhibitions and so on. I didn’t want it be a place for objects – a dry place.

Justin The second major show in the main gallery will be about California and its influence on contemporary design culture. Just as “Made in Italy” was a globally understood concept in the 1970s and 1980s and positioned Milan as one of the centres of design, we could say that “Designed in California” is that same idea for the early 21st century. So much of design now happens at the level of software, communications, devices and user interface, and this is one way of getting into that story and doing justice to the influence of companies like Apple in contemporary design culture. But it’s not a show that is about beautiful product design. It’s about an idea of what design is and can be. It’s about the fact that we’re all Californians now. But the challenge for all of us here, and for everything we’ve talked about, is to make this museum an essential location in London’s cultural life.

Morag If you look at the shop, which opened ahead of the museum, it’s already bringing different people to this area of London. You’re much more connected with the city’s other museums here than you were in Shad Thames, so you would expect a young-family audience. When you do something as ambitious as this, and which has a programme like this, it will become a new destination. That then filters out into the surroundings.

Justin I think it’s a world-class institution now and the new building puts the Design Museum on a global stage. It was always one of the leading design museums in the world, but it now feels like it’s something special.

Deyan When I got the job I got a postcard from the architect Phyllis Lambert saying: “Congratulations. Perhaps you can now turn a perfunctory institution into somewhere serious.”