XXY Reviews: The Design Museum

XXY Reviews: The Design Museum

With the reopening of the Design Museum at its new chichi location in High Street Kensington, avant-garde architecture and design are no longer the preserve of the regenerated riverside or edgier areas of East London. Now, the West is a player in the cultural stakes, too.

The museum is now situated in a formerly abandoned 1960s modernist structure at the bottom of Holland Park. Like the Southbank Centre before it, a prime example of post-war British engineering has been restored as a much-needed symbol of social revitalisation through the arts. In what was formerly the Commonwealth Institute, the behemoth ziggurat includes two temporary gallery spaces as well as a free permanent collection. Its singular concrete roof and distinctive facade have been regenerated and brought back to life with a new purpose: a forum to explore and understand the impact of design on society. The Design Museum’s new home is one of the main reasons to visit. Its free exhibitions are another.


Situated on the top floor, the museum’s permanent show, called ‘Designer, Maker, User’, has intentionally been made free and open-to-all. Telling the story of contemporary design, it begins with a crowdsourced wall consisting of over 200 objects nominated by the public. Altogether, there are almost 1,000 items of 20th and 21st-century design viewed through the prism of either designer, manufacturer, or end user. It covers design disciplines as traditional as architecture and engineering to the newer realms of graphics and the digital. Standout pieces include things as diverse as a Tube train carriage, a replica of the first modern fitted kitchen, and a pair of Louboutin Pigalle heels.

Through this most approachable of narratives, the display makes you realise how almost every object in your life has been designed with an innate purpose, combining utility, efficiency and aesthetic pleasure. But it is not only that. Where design was once purely the realm of form following function and beauty as decreed by those in the know, now it is also a story about where objects come from and what they do. Consequently, a motorway sign is as legitimate a piece of design as an Olivetti typewriter for the function it fulfils. The better it does this, the more design-worthy it is.

Descending back down to the ground level through epic double-height spaces, I stop to look upwards at the roof. Star of the whole show, the iconic ‘hyperbolic paraboloid’ structure rises to create an angular manta ray-like shape. Below it, the Bauhausian interior is starkly modern in its austerity. It’s all light oak, concealed lighting, sharp angular lines and sleek surfaces. Casting my gaze over it all is like another show in itself. Designed like an opencast mine, the space is easily navigable and a pleasure to drink in.


Back on the ground floor, I enter the paid exhibition, ‘Fear and Love – Reactions to a Complex World’. Featuring eleven thought-provoking installations by forward-thinking designers and architects such as Hussein Chalayan, Neri Oxman, Muji’s Kenya Hara and Rem Koolhaas’ OMA design studio, the exhibition is more conceptual and broader in outlook than the last one.

Hoping to once again stretch what we think of and expect from design, the newly-commissioned works explore a spectrum of issues that define our modern age. Standout exhibits include ‘Mimus’ – a sentient robot that watches people, Chalayan’s digital fashion that displays the wearer’s repressed emotions, Oxman’s bioengineered death masks containing microbes, Christien Meindertsma’s ‘Fibre Market’ with its striking piles of multicoloured recycled jumpers, and OMA’s pan-European living room furnished with objects from all 28 Eurozone countries (including Britain… for now).

As much as my vanity would have me pretend otherwise, I am someone who has always thought of the idea of design as only encompassing objects like chairs, lamps, toasters and buildings. So stretching my perception to include things like invisible computer networks was somewhat of a conceptual push. In my mind, design will always include objects you can see. Saying that, though, I now have a newfound respect for items such as tube trains, robots and motorway signs as examples of intelligent design. These objects are no longer purely bound by just their aesthetic appeal, but the thought processes behind their function and the efficiency in the role they perform in our lives.

Enlightened aficionado, complete Luddite or high design disciple, the Design Museum’s overreaching ambition is to pull in the public. Make what you will of its exhibitions. Majorly enlightening or entertaining enough to cast your eyes over for a couple of hours, but these aren’t enough on their own to entice people through the doors. For me, the main show-stealer will always be on the outside. And how could it not be? The building ultimately says it all. The revamped concrete, modernist leviathan is an optimistic symbol of the resuscitation of our city’s architectural legacy. Now that’s the real crowd-puller in my eyes.

The Design Museum is now open to the public following its inauguration on 24 November 2016. ‘Fear and Love – Reactions to a Complex World’ will run from 24 November 2016 to 23 April 2017.


Written by Vanessa Moore,

Features Editor

Image credits: Gareth Gardiner, French & Tye, Luke Hayes, Gravity Road and Helene Binet, courtesy of the Design Museum