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Images of Design Museum unveiled at Kensington Odeon

By Caroline Roberts

January 25, 2012 | 4 min read

The great and the good of the design world (well those that could be bothered to brave the wind and rain) gathered at the not very design-friendly Kensington Odeon for the launch of the brand new Design Museum yesterday.

The museum’s director Deyan Sudjic kicked off with an explanation of the project, which, by anyone’s standards is hugely exciting. Opening in 2014, the new Design Museum will be based in the former Commonwealth Institute, a Grade 2* listed building that has been empty for the past ten years. This will give it three times as much space (and a projected three times as many visitors) and an uptown location near to the V&A, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum (or ‘Albertopolis’ as it’s now being rather cringily branded).

Sudjic was joined on stage by Sir Terence Conran, the man who kickstarted the idea of a standalone Design Museum twenty five years ago (after he was kicked out of the Boilerhouse space that he ran with Stephen Bayley at the V&A) and put up a good deal of the cash needed to make it happen. Conran showed us a fascinating picture of the building that the original Design Museum was fashioned from, a grotty brick structure that was stripped down to the steelwork (instead of being completely rebuilt) to avoid paying VAT. It’s interesting that the new Design Museum, like its predecessor) will be fashioned from an existing building. And that’s not all the buildings have in common. The current design museum was originally a banana warehouse, and the new one was full of artifacts from countries that were once part of the Empire. So, in a weird way, they both started life as receptacles for stuff from the Commonwealth.

When the museum opened in 1989, it was a temple to Modernism and Minimalism, with gleaming white walls, shiny marble surfaces and no signs to identify the men’s and ladies’ toilets (these would spoil the aesthetics). Always a stickler for maintaining standards, Conran visibly winced when an image of the museum’s current graffiti-esque painted wall flashed up on screen.

The groundbreaking 1960s architecture of the Commonwealth Institute, coupled with a exacting planning department and a grumbling English Heritage obviously posed many challenges for the architect John Pawson. The existing interior with its crazy hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof is the antithesis of the now-traditional ‘white cube’ approach to museums and galleries. Likewise, it will be interesting to see how the very capable Studio Myerscough handles this when it designs the display for the museum’s permanent collection.

Stephen Bayley (who became the Design Museum’s first director) confesses that the original decision to use the word museum was driven by a need for status and a desire on his part to “dignify the subject by antiquarian associations”. Mrs Thatcher opened the Museum in 1989 and, according to Bayley, wagged a finger at him and said: “You must not call it a museum! Museums are things of the past!”. Bayley resigned soon after the museum opened.

Some will be sad to see the Design Museum leave its Shad Thames home and head up west—after all it has played a big part in the regeneration of that part of the South Bank. With the opening of the new Design Museum, Deyan Sudjic has been handed a fantastic opportunity that will throw up many challenges along the way—the most important of which is of course to prove Mrs Thatcher wrong.


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