in review: the design museum


After last week's much anticipated opening and the buzz (or mixed bag of reviews) that followed, I went down to the newly open Design Museum in Kensington High Street to get a first-hand impression.

- Marta Santambrogio


To my pleasure, I found it quite crowded for a random Wednesday morning. There were faces of designers around, but also youngsters, students and elderly visitors. As I entered the building, I found myself immersed in what I suppose one would expect from a museum that opens in 2016. A big open space, exposed concrete, asymmetric architecture, in a warm scandi-feeling cocoon of sleek oak and natural light. Navigation and signage were clear and before I even figured out what was on show, I was made well aware of where the shop, bars and cafes were located. For someone who works in the design industry and regularly visits design events globally, the first impression felt more that of a university library rather than the much-anticipated new London Design Museum - not much drama. The big central void seemed lacking a meaningful purpose and the overall space did not really touch me. The ceiling, however, did offer interesting angles - at least, very Instagram-able ones.

The main free exhibition is called Designer, Maker, User and attempts to illustrate the current interconnections between the three by unfolding a journey through a selection from the permanent collection. The theme is very current and felt like a good choice for the first show in the new venue, "This exhibition invites you to explore design from the perspectives of all three. It shows how designers respond to the needs of makers and users, how users consume and influence design, and how revolutions in technology and manufacturing transform our world."

Too bad, though, that even on that random Wednesday morning the entrance was congested. This 'main' exhibit is crammed in a corner of the second and last floor, which is accessible via the central system of stairs. Essentially, visitors would walk alongside apparently empty and unused spaces, before bumping into each other as they try to make their way into the actual display. At that point, I understood some of the bad reviews I had been reading. Whilst the display is relegated to a dark remote corner of the building, the front, more visible and accessible areas are dedicated to a restaurant and other 'activity centre’ type of functions. Quite different from, say, the V&A, where you basically hit samurai suits and antique statues whilst you are desperately trying to reach the cafe in the wing at the far back.

The exhibition was enjoyable. It definitely has the merit to address the role of design for what it is today, "When we think of design, we often think of established disciplines [...] but these categories don't do justice to the scope and diversity of design. [...] In essence design is a process or way of thinking that can be applied at any scale [...] from the spoon to the city." It felt refreshing to view a show that does not try to oversimplify things, to make them accessible for a truly diverse audience. Finally - a design show not meant for designers! On the same lines, the display had the acceptable mix of prototypes, objects, cardboard printouts, iPads and videos, material samples, interactivity, sketches and installations. I was slightly worried that everything would have been extremely cold and 'techy', but it wasn't. The show discusses ever-relevant design issues, such as the relationships between cost and value, style and fashion, choice and taste and the timeless debate 'what is good design?' - a question put next to a AK-47. The assault rifle that killed millions has been manufactured for almost 70 years and could in fact exemplify a design masterpiece: low-cost, easy to use, reliable in harsh conditions and almost unbreakable. I appreciated how, within a blockbuster frame, the potential but also risks of design were addressed openly. As well as the shared responsibilities with users and makers in dealing with the increasing challenges of climate change. The Pantone View book for 2018 was on display - a very straightforward way to expose visitors to the degree of forecasting everything they consume undergoes.

Some of the displays were still incomplete - too bad for a grand opening - and the spaces were narrow and jam packed as the way in. But visitors were enjoying themselves.  Things were presented clearly, featuring a nice selection of the good, old icons: the Eames and their chairs, the Vespa, Olivetti, Braun, the full Apple product range, London Underground graphic design and the Centre Pompidou building. Accompanied by a few younger brothers: Nest, Kickstarter, Citymapper and - of course - 3D printers. 

As I was making my way to the lockers on the lower ground, I was thinking of what a pleasing surprise it was to see that the exhibition was not too focussed on British-ness and British design - when I came across a giant, 3D map of the Commonwealth. Surely it related to the former purpose of the building - the Commonwealth Institute - but the scale did not feel quite right.  

Did the Museum blow me away? No. But it will surely attract visitors and have a crucial role in educating and helping the general public in navigating the multifaceted complexity of design. Something which ourselves as designer too often fail to deliver and communicate.