The Design Museum in Kensington, London opened in November 2016.
LONDON’S NEW, FREE-TO-ENTER MUSEUM
When the Duke of Edinburgh opened the new Design Museum in November 2016 he had a wry smile for some of the 200 items nominated by the public as examples of good design. Not least, a red plastic bucket.
You might think you are not particularly interested in design (or should that be Design, with a capital D?) but chances are you will be entertained here and perhaps become more appreciative of what goes into designing things we see and use every day. If nothing else, it triggers memories of the items we’ve chucked out and now wish we’d kept.
PROS – This is an inspiring, free-to-enter new space that invites you to think about the past, present and future of design. It is disabled-friendly, and, for a shortish visit, child-friendly. It can be combined with a walk in delightful Holland Park. There are two shops, pricey, but interesting hunting-grounds for design books and stylish gifts. The upstairs Parabola restaurant/bar (see review) is an attractive place to eat/drink with a varied menu for snacks or full meals.
CONS – At busy times, the ground floor foyer and cafe and the free-to-enter permanent collection might be too crowded for comfort. There seem to be teething problems with some of the inter-active displays. The museum’s success will depend on income from temporary exhibitions, so staging shows that capture the public imagination will be key.
A visit to this new temple to design, on Kensington High Street, is as much about the building as its thought-provoking content.
It has taken over the former Commonwealth Institute, a statement ‘optimistic’ piece of post-war architecture that opened in 1962, backed by Parliament, to educate people about the cultures of Commonwealth countries. In the days when the glamorous Biba store and bohemian Kensington Market made Ken. High Street more of a trendsetting shopping area than it is today, you could pop in there to see art shows from far-flung places like Jamaica and Nigeria. I remember when an enormous reclining Buddha statue suddenly appeared outside, heralding an exhibition about Sri Lanka.
The building’s most striking feature is its unique roof, often described as tent-like, that suits its setting on the southern edge of Holland Park’s wooded acres. It is a complex engineering feat, its balancing act of ‘hyperbolic parabaloids in swept concrete’ creating swooping curves, both outside and inside, that to my mind resemble giant birds’ wings. By late 1990s, though, the Institute was past its sell-by date, the roof leaked and despite being Grade II listed its future looked bleak. It stood empty for years until, after much wrangling, a deal was struck with trustees, developers and planners for it to become the new home of Terence Conran’s brainchild, the Design Museum, which has moved to this much larger venue from its site near Tower Bridge.
During the mammoth £80 million renovation the roof had to be made good and propped up while the structure below was replaced. A series of photographs inside the museum captures this process. The interior, designed by minimalist architect John Pawson, is a great, square, 3-storey atrium, a theatrical arena of knotless oak floors, crisp white walls and glass, all over-arched by the star of the show, that soaring ceiling. This is a people-watching space and the main staircase doubles as seating where you can take stock of the scene – and use the free wifi.
Off the atrium are an upstairs restaurant (see review of Parabola), a small ground floor snack/coffee bar, a shop, offices and spaces for temporary exhibitions. While entrance to temporary exhibitions is charged for, and there will usually be two of these running at any time, it is free to enter the building and explore the displays from its permanent collection.
Called ‘Designer Maker User’, the free section occupies a relatively small space, considering the size of the building, and it packs in so much information, so many themes and objects, that it can feel both congested and overwhelming. I expected to whizz round quickly but became engrossed in the detail and was there for over two hours. As one of the explanatory boards says, the role of the designer stretches ‘from the spoon to the city’ and it feels like they have tried to cover the lot.
A timeline wall starts in 1759 with Wedgwood’s Etruria Works (‘the first modern factory’) and moves through Bauhaus, the VW Beetle, the invention of Helvetica, birth of the computer and on past the iPhone.
‘Ways of Making’ looks at design in manufacturing processes, from an old bentwood cafe chair to a digitally produced one, of yellow plastic. There are interactive, hands-on displays, aimed at both adults and children, but some were not working when I visited, nor was the large Big Rep One 3D printer. A volunteer guide was trying her best to explain how it had made the samples of woven wicker-ware-type vessels from molten plastic.
A series of wall-displayed objects, ‘The Evolution of Technology’ romps through the changes in TVs, phones, audio equipment, watches, calculators, cameras and computers. It was good to see old friends like the reel to reel tape recorder, the floppy disk, the portable TV and the Sony Walkman.
Along the way you are immersed in a mock-up of the first ‘Frankfurt’ fitted kitchen, an eye-popping collection of Olivetti advertising posters, and fascinating facts about familiar graphics and typography; did you know that the CND symbol is composed of semaphore symbols?
Kalashnikov’s AK-47 assault rifle is juxtaposed with a lightweight leg splint of moulded plywood designed by Charles and Ray Eames for the US Navy during WWII. Again, what is ‘good’ design?
There’s fashion, furniture and engineering. Transport, including a Vespa Clubman scooter, travel apps and a prototype of the new London tube train, gets a lot of attention, as does architecture. I loved the ‘City of Towers’, a group of pure white sculptures created using 3D software.
In an area where you can sit at tables and have a go at designing – a logo for your family, a light for the night sky, a park warden’s uniform – as many oldies as youngsters were leafing through design manuals and using the free materials provided.
The DESIGN MUSEUM. Open daily. Approx. 10mins. walk from Kensington High Street tube station.
Accessible for wheelchairs. Family trails and explorer kits – free.
Free entrance to building and permanent collection. Admission rates will vary for temporary exhibitions (approx £10-14). Concessions for over 60s and family tickets.
See the very informative website for details: