It’s been ten years in the making, but finally the new Design Museum is open, and it certainly was worth the wait. At its former location in Shad Thames, the concept of the Design Museum was once described by director, Deyan Sudjic, as a ‘prototype’ – reaching a mere fraction of its potential. What we initially thought a peculiar thing to have said about such a concrete and longstanding place, now makes total sense. The move has done exactly as founder, Sir Terence Conran had intended – allowing the museum to grow from a niche player into an important international voice in design and architecture.
A week before its doors opened to the general public, we were invited to the former Commonwealth Building to delight in and learn about the new face of the Design Museum. Indeed a very proud moment for Sir Terence Conran, who delivered a heartfelt and poignant speech about the lengths gone to and feats achieved to realise his dream. He spoke of its exponential importance to him over the past few years, its relevance now, and the crucial role it has to play in our futures.
His primary wish is simple – to resurrect and solidify Britain as the number one creative economy. This does not mean championing only British design, but being champions of ALL design, and cheering the loudest. He truly believes that the new Design Museum will ignite this process, endorse its progress, and ultimately achieve its (his) goal. We do too.
Sounding clear as a bell against the acoustically-enhanced walls of the conference room (design - it's a wonderful thing), his words became cemented as we simultaneously took in the physical architecture with which his message resonates. The design, the engineering and architecture within the new building are a physical manifestation, almost a metaphor for this re-engineered conceptual framework that is intrinsic to the goals of the new Design Museum.
Perhaps one reason we were so blown away upon first glance of the interior, is that its shell – the former Commonwealth Building – appears somewhat unchanged from the exterior. No one could have prepared for the extraordinary ways design has been implemented inside. Before building works, the site was reticent and listed (the two often go hand-in-hand). A new design could therefore not be implemented from scratch; foundations had been laid and legalities set in place around which the new design had to take shape. More often than not, (in a much broader sense) any modernisation of an existing design will go through a similar process; there are fewer blank canvasses in design than we might think. John Pawson and his team, the creatives behind the architectural revamp, have worked with these restrictions to add intrigue to their design, although they were ready to admit that the process was not without its challenges!
When asked at what point they decided to take out all of the floors, Jan Hobel (of the design team) alluded to the temperamental nature of the process –“There were initial scenarios where more parts of the building were kept but as usability was determined and technical demand needed to be met, what started as a refurbishment turned into a radical reconfiguration of the Design Museum”.
Three times larger than its predecessor, the new building wows with an Olympian atrium – delivering a beautiful, clean space that draws focus to its iconic epicentre – the original ceiling. In this, the designers’ mission to create an interior that wouldn’t compete with its shell is brilliantly apparent. Already casting an interesting shape externally, the underside of the roof is a beautiful swoop; a parabolic hat or manta ray which almost seems to float independent of the walls. Finding ingenious ways to integrate exhibition spaces amongst the unique peaks and troughs of the ceiling (which soars to heights of 60 metres at certain points), the architects only found one instance where a ‘pseudo-ceiling’ was necessary. Even this works towards celebrating the previous structure, where glass coffers allow visitors individual vignettes up into the original structure, while the palate of materials remains cohesive with its surroundings.
Other parts of the old framework have been used. The back of the mezzanine level – aided by soft accent lighting – is clad in a creamy grey marble that was once part of the floor in the Commonwealth Building, and the Imperial Institute preceding that! Spanning one façade of the ground floor, there are also stained glass windows from the 1950s which celebrate the history of the building. They also speak rather appropriately to Sir Conran’s likening of the building to a cathedral.
At its core, to fulfil its greater purpose, the Design Museum has been designed as a civic space. This is apparent through the plethora of ambiguous (yet inviting) seating spaces, which could be masquerading as stairs, windowsills and bannisters. Not immediately apparent, several unexpected rooms, halls and gallery spaces will appear quite intuitively as one navigates the space.
The Swarovski Foundation Centre for Learning plays a key part in furthering the design conversation and is available to people of all ages, at all stages. Although so full of surprises, the building, like its message, is also wonderfully transparent in its earnest efforts to enthuse and teach.
Keen to encourage footfall, the Design Museum’s permanent installation, Designer Maker User will be open free of charge to the public. It focusses on the cyclical nature of design, and its prevalence in our everyday lives – rather an appropriate lure for the everyman on the street. Their two current touring exhibitions however, Fear and Love: reactions to a complex world and Beazley Designs of the Year, are absolutely worth exploring regardless of charge – we would pay to go and see them again!
This is the start of a fantastic new initiative, and we are thrilled and honoured to have been included in its inaugural moments (that’s right, we were also at the evening launch party!) Watch this space for more to come on Fear & Love: reactions to a complex world.
Design Museum; designmuseum.org