It is not often you get to view not just a new exhibition, but a whole new museum. The Design Museum, originally based on the south of the river at Shad Thames, has now found a much larger and grander home at the end of Kensington High Street, in the premises of the old Commonwealth Institute.
The new museum is triple the size – a whopping 10,000 square metres of rescued space. The grade II* listed 1960s modernist building had been empty since 2002 when the Commonwealth Institute moved out. A five-year construction process resulted from a much longer 10 year dream by Sir Terence Conran, the museum’s founder, and Deyan Sudjic, the museum’s director to really give the museum a chance to educate, inspire and delight on a much larger scale. Getting to hear an emotional Sir Terence Conran speak on the media preview day was a real privilege. You could see how much this meant to him, to bring design to the front and centre of our economy, not just our everyday lives. To showcase design that is all about optimism, surprises and making a difference to the world around us.
On entering the museum I was a little overwhelmed and not sure where to start. I vaguely remembered visiting the Commonwealth Institute many years ago, I hazily recalled a round central staircase section, but in this re-engineered space nothing is familiar. It is only after hearing from the architects, OMA, that all the original floors were removed and seeing some original black and white photos by Koto Bolofo of the old interior that I realised I definitely had been here before.
Sir Terence Conran calls it a ‘cathedral of design’ and it certainly has the ‘cathedral’ effect. All original internal floors were removed to open up a massive central atrium that makes the most of the unusual hyperbolic paraboloid roof (yes, I had to look up what that meant). It is nice to see some original elements of the building remain, the original opening plaques and Commonwealth map are on the lower ground floor, as well as the stained glass windows, found in the corner of the shop, that represent different countries of the Commonwealth. However new the interiors appear, the building has an old soul and it is good to see echoes of that former life remain.
As I am not sure where to go first, I walk straight forward into the ground floor exhibition space, currently housing ‘Fear and Love – reactions to a complex World’. This is one of two ticketed galleries, I know I have a lot to see so I drift through the exhibition. As you would expect, exhibition and design elements are intriguing, with a raised map to help navigate the space and text panels on fabric. I struggle to get engaged but think it is just in the knowledge that I have so much to look at.
There is a robot that follows me around the room and some displays where the urge to Instagram overwhelms the urge to understand. But it is really interesting how technology can be adapted for use in different ways. The section by Andrés Jaque on how refugees used Grindr, not to meet in the real world, but to connect online – sharing information on avoiding police and how to get to refugee camps was really interesting. Even with these advances of proximity based software it was eye-opening how social norms and cultural behaviours can still be evident and restrictive even outside country borders.
The one part of this exhibition that really grabbed me was the stunning designs of 3D printed death masks designed by Neri Oxman and produced by Stratasys Printers. I have never seen this level of ultra-high definition 3D printing before, the masks called ‘Vespers’ revive the ancient cultural artefact of the death mask as a speculative piece of wearable technology.
The three series of masks that Oxman has created represent a different phase at the end of five imaginary people’s lives. It is hard to describe, they are like some futuristic ‘Predator’ from outer Space. The mix of design and technology is beautiful and fascinating but also kind of frightening, I love the ideas they are trying to convey. I am frankly in awe of the mix colours and texture that these 3D printers can produce.
I spoke to a representative from the company who makes the printers and he talked me through some of the processes, how each mask took two days to print and how the different colours and different textures are printed simultaneously. He also expanded on their application in different types of industry, from the medical world replicating CAT scans for trial operations, to the printing of complex parts in the aerospace and automotive industry. He even talked about a dress they produced for New York fashion week.
This is where, for me, design reaches all those expectations that Sir Terence take about. It is exciting and surprising, so many uses and adaptions. I was aware of 3D printing but I have only seen and handled fairly basic examples. It is here in the Design Museum that I have really seen its potential for the first time, I think I am surprised by how beautiful it can be.
I go on to visit the Beazley Designs of the Year in the lower ground floor, another ticketed space. There are so many clever, innovative designs to see, I recognise some in my own home. We have the Echo, a kind of voice activated personal assistant, it has been fascinating and very funny watching my children interact with ‘Alexa’ the software interface. From the youngest, who is always asking for her to tell him a ‘Knock Knock’ joke to the eldest who feeds off her ‘fact of the day’. Only this morning I found myself saying ‘Ask Alexa’ when my middle child wanted to know who invented the mobile phone.
Finally I take my time to reach the top floor of the museum to see the free ‘Designer Maker User’ display, sadly not all was quite finished which always provides a good excuse for a return visit. But there are some design classics to enjoy and it is great fun to pick out your favourites.
It is only as you go up to the top floor that you really get a sense of the eye-catching lines of the roof and the way the interior design has tried to emphasise the natural light. It is cathedral like, but the problem with cathedral spaces is that, although awe inspiring, they can often feel a little intimidating too.
For all the 10,000 square metres of space, the exhibitions do feel a little pushed out to the sides. Museums are never just exhibition spaces these days. The need for auditoriums, cafes, restaurants, offices, libraries, members rooms, and learning spaces are very apparent. For me it is just a shame you only get to appreciate the views of Holland Park from the restaurant and members room. There is something about the interplay of inside and outside space that I think museums can do much more with.
But the Design Museum is trying to do and be much more than just a museum with spaces dedicated to designers-in-residence, workshops and studios to really provide inspiration and fertile ground for designers of the future.
As I spend my last few minutes looking over the airy atrium enjoying the swoops and curves, I realise that the biggest exhibition is in fact the building itself, a showcase, not only of best practice in museum design, but how to re-engineer spaces. How to bring 1960s modernism into the 21st century. Sir Terence Conran’s Design Museum is a fitting and exciting space that I have no doubt will inspire the next generation and give them the opportunity to design our future.
The Design Museum opens on Thursday 24th November 2016 for more information and ticket prices please see the website – http://designmuseum.org
3D Printed dress debuts at New York Fashion Week – https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/3d-printed-dress-debuts-new-york-fashion-week-95736/