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NEW WAYS TO SEE The Design Museum’s new space in London was 10 years in the making. A peaked roof draws the eye up through the space and the mezzanine has been left empty save for benches from which visitors can enjoy the views outside. (Luke Hay)
NEW WAYS TO SEE The Design Museum’s new space in London was 10 years in the making. A peaked roof draws the eye up through the space and the mezzanine has been left empty save for benches from which visitors can enjoy the views outside. (Luke Hay)

Space for the future: Inside the Design Museum’s new London digs Add to ...

In 1989, when my grandmother left her split-level house in North Toronto she also left everything in it. Her sinuous sofa, commissioned in 1955 (and kept in mint condition under plastic covers) went to the scrap heap; there was no market for it, no sign that years on it might have fetched thousands, as midcentury seating does today.

That same year, in a Thames-side banana warehouse, Terence Conran opened the Design Museum to tell the history of contemporary design to a populace still stuck on William Morris. The notion that something mass-produced could have cultural value – regardless of the concept, skill or principle behind it – was anathema. Minimalism operated in a realm outside art. Technology was best hidden entirely.

The Design Museum disproved that notion. In its white Bauhaus-style home we learned that a lamp, typewriter, kettle, even a modernist sofa was something to be studied and admired for its capacity to reflect and shape our lives, and the London of William Morris gravitated to the centre of a changing scene. As current director Deyan Sudjic told me, “We’ve taught ourselves to believe London is a conservative place where change is resisted, but it’s actually closer to Shanghai or Singapore. In design terms, it’s managed to develop a critical mass of studios that work worldwide and allow a conversation to take place about the subject.”

The museum’s latest exhibition, Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, takes for granted our appreciation for contemporary design and delves into its political and emotional impact. It features a living room furnished by all 28 member states of the European Union; clothing that projects the sentiments of the wearer; a robotic arm that springs fearsomely to life when an interloper is near. But the most remarkable work on display is the museum itself. Its massive new home in Holland Park has been designed, from the bones of the yurt-shaped Commonwealth Institute, by John Pawson, certainly the most minimalist architect ever to take on a major public commission in the UK. “With a building such as this, which is already flamboyant, we needed an architect whose voice would be restrained,” says Sudjic. “Also, he’d not done a public building in London, and it was interesting to make that possible.”

The finished building, inaugurated on Nov. 24 after an investment approaching $140-million, is a wood-and-concrete expression of the museum’s ethos: debt to the old, awe at the new and, with thrice the space of the previous building, anticipation for the future.

Its sheer volume is staggering. Pawson heightened the impact of the 60-foot peaked roof with banks of new glazing that draw the eye up through an unfettered atrium. He also dug down two storeys and added a promenade that runs upward through the space with wide, shallow staircases and glass balustrades. “The light bouncing off the wood gives the white a different hue,” says Pawson.

Like the Tate Modern, the museum’s spiritual big sister, only the rotating exhibitions require a ticket (around $15 currently). Much of the robust permanent collection is out, proud and free to view (with thousands of archived pieces visible through windows in the basement). There is ample space for an entire Tube car and a full-sized cast-steel gerberette like the kind used by Richard Rogers in the Centre Pompidouin Paris. To reach them, you meander along the sunny upper floors of acoustic wood panelling to the top, then past a bold tri-board installation by Morag Myerscough. From here you can see the full extent of the roof (a rare hyperbolic paraboloid structure) and out to the wooded park.

Yet many spaces – like the entire marble-backed mezzanine – are devoid of objects entirely, just thick wood-slab benches and views to the outdoors. “I wanted it to feel more intimate even though it’s a very big space,” Pawson says. “I wanted people to feel at home.”

The museum was a long time coming. In 2006, Sudjic began snooping around for a larger, more accessible home to match the museum’s ambition. Around that time the Commonwealth Institute was liberated from a proposed demolition, after decades promoting culture and trade in the colonies, like a miniature World’s Fair. Developers were seeking a tenant whose business was slightly less doomed.

Gutting the old concrete core and preserving the leaky roof dragged on two years longer than planned. Architect Zaha Hadid, having purchased the museum’s former site for her studio, died waiting for the keys. But local enthusiasm for the project has only intensified. Sudjic expects visitor numbers will more than double to 500,000 annually.

The world those visitors live in – and their perception of it – has changed immeasurably in the past 27 years. Their awareness of stuff, how it’s made and how good design can propel us forward is greater. Contemporary design has become a legitimate figure at the art-world table. And the table is getting some notice, too.

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