After 27 years at Shad Thames, the Design Museum is upping sticks and moving west to its new home at the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington.
The Design Museum has outgrown its current location, unable to showcase the entirety of its ever expanding permanent collection. Before it closes its doors, we thought it would be nice to look back at the history of the museum and its wealth of designed artefacts and exhibitions over the years.
Culture and Commerce, 1989
The world was very different when the Design Museum opened its doors in 1989.
Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher opened the museum building, a converted banana warehouse in Shad Thames amongst the derelict and deprived docklands, once economically vibrant but long disused.
Current museum director Deyan Sudjic said: “Shad Thames was still a no go area, of abandoned warehouses, and empty lots. The whole area has been transformed in the last quarter of a century.”
The Design Museum originated from Sir Terence Conran and Stephen Bayley’s Boilerhouse exhibition space at the V&A, at a time when contemporary product and industrial design was beginning to gain traction in the discussion of popular and material culture. The mobile phone and the internet had both been born and though in their infancy were beginning to make headway, technology and industry were the words on everyone’s lips.
Looking back, Terence Conran says: “As a museum, our job is to show what is happening to our world through the focus of design, a world in which it seems that life is constantly accelerating, but also to explore and question the significance of that accelerating change.”
The first exhibition held at the opening of the museum in 1989 followed suit: Commerce and Culture came at a time when the Berlin Wall fell, China was opening its economy and the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union were in its last days. The exhibition considered the blurring distinction between the design arts and industrial consumption.
Zaha Hadid: Design and Architecture, 2007
The Design Museum gave Zaha Hadid her first solo show in Britain. The galleries of the museum were reshaped so as to accommodate the monumental work of she had completed over the years, including in its display: early design sketches, floorplans, models, renders and installations.
Having then been in the late stages of design and early stages of breaking ground on the now famous 2012 Olympic Aquatic Centre in London, the exhibition also looked to the future, exhibiting the most up-to-date renders and models of the national commission.
Lesser known work detailing her other creative avenues were also discussed, including limited edition product design she had undertaken for Established & Sons, featuring in the museum for the first time such artefacts as the Seamless Collection, Aqua Table and Swarm chandelier.
It is worth noting that the current Shad Thames building was purchased in 2013 by Zaha Hadid and will be converted into a lasting archive of Zaha Hadid and her firm’s work once the museum moves out.
Design Cities, 2008
Design Cities saw the Design Museum install modular display units thoughtfully design by BKD to house a curated selection of creative highlights from seven cities.
Frequent collaborators and exhibitors Graphic Thought Facility designed the signage, key to location.
Each was a snapshot not only in place, but also in time, with the design elements taken from their design peak: London (1851), Vienna (1908), Dessau (1928), Paris (1936), Los Angeles (1949), Milan (1957), Tokyo (1987) before a full-circle return to London for 2008, the time of the exhibition.
Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams, 2009
Senior Curator Alex Newson cites Designs of the Years, The Future is Here and Louis Kahn as exhibition highlights particularly influential to his career. Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams, his first curation for the museum remains his favourite though. He says: “It was a chance to work with one of the most important and respected figures within the design industry…Even though he largely worked in a pre-digital era, the rigour and simplicity of his designs still seem relevant to the products of today.”
Hello, My Name is Paul Smith, 2013
42 outfits and a whole menagerie of artefacts were installed as rooms in the Design Museum, mocking up Paul Smith’s archives as his office, studio, gallery and hotel rooms, fantastic versions expressing his creative mind. As with Commerce and Culture, the exhibition considered the dualities between the roles of designer and retailer, creative and commercial, through the lends of a man who is involved with every step of the business and creative process.
Desks and beds were piled with artefacts, sketchbooks and various tchotchke, while the 540 framed works covered the walls ceiling to floor, ranging from hand drawn designs to digital flats to fashion photography featuring the final products in their resplendent glory.
Sir Terence Conran says: "The Design Museum showed what Jonathan Ive could do before he met Steve Jobs. It is the place that Puma chose to launch Yves Behar’s groundbreaking shoe packaging that halves carbon emissions…It has launched careers, established reputations and transformed perceptions.”
Design of the Year, 2008-Present
In 2008 the Design Museum introduced the Design of the Year award, an annual section of the best designs across six categories: architecture, digital, fashion, graphic, product, transport, and one overall winner.
The Beautiful Meme conceived a suitably canny strapline for the campaign: “Someday the other museums will be showing this stuff.” Josephine Chanter, Head of communications at the Design Museum mentioned the unveiling of this as a personal highlight, saying: “I started laughing hysterically and slightly uncontrollably at its audacious tone and bold, uncompromising chutzpah. I loved it immediately. It was one of those rare moments when someone distils something very complex into something very simple.”
Design of the Year 2008: The One Laptop Per Child project, designed by Yves Béhar for Fuseproject
The inaugural Design of the Year was awarded to Yves Béhar for Fuseproject’s One Laptop Per Child initiative, a non-profit organisation set up at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The organisation designed and developed low-cost, energy efficient laptops made affordable for distribution to the children globally.
With a reported 90% reduction in energy usage, the device was able to be powered up kinetically via hand cranking, making it accessible to children in the most remote, most rural areas of developing countries.
A bright coloured rugged plastic form, functional Wi-Fi rabbit ears, integrated video camera with an LCD screen and a digital writing tablet meant that economy in money didn’t extend to an economy of resources, encouraging networking and interaction with each other and resources from around the world.
Design of the Year 2009: Barack Obama poster designed by Shepard Fairey
Throughout the US election year of 2008 there was one image circulating the internet, mass media and streets of United States which most encapsulated the mood and message of the time: Hope, Progress and Change. Designed by Shepard Fairey in a day and widely distributed first as a screen-printed poster before becoming the design that launched a thousand kinds of memorabilia, it soon became the defining propaganda of first the Democratic Primaries and then Presidential Election throughout 2008.
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery acquired the design shortly before Obama’s inauguration in 2009, in a rare move to maintain an office portrait before the president had even taken office, while the design itself has been copied, parodied and appropriated ad nauseum, testament its wide reaching cultural influence. It is perhaps the most famous poster of our time.
Design of the Year 2010: Folding Plug designed by Min-Kyu Choi
The everyday got a makeover in 2010, as Min-Kyu Choi walked away with the Design of the Year award for a plug which folds flat.
Space saving and transportable for travel, it was designed to be a long-lasting for the home too. USB compatible, the plug was designed to be reapplied to various devices, in a one-size fits most approach, further allowing space to be saved with the disconnect able cord. The plugs were designed so that they could be adapted and combined within the socket with ease.
Chair of the 2010 award jury, sculptor Antony Gormley famously responded “It’s about how imagination can be applied to the most basic and everyday problems.”
Design of the Year 2011: Plumen 001 lightbulb, designed by Samuel Wilkinson and Hulger
The everyday got a second makeover in 2011, as Samuel Wilkinson and Hulger walked award with the Design of the Year award for their refresh of the basic lightbulb. The near ubiquity of the product was reimagined to become attractive functional ornamentation.
Importantly, the bulb was designed with economy and ecology in mind, produced to be energy-efficient and long-lasting in addition to its aesthetic considerations.
And since recognition at Design Museum has gone on to be included in the permanent collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Smithsonian, MoMA, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Design Museum in Helsinki, proving Design Museum’s canny branding accurate: other museums would be showing this stuff before long.
Design of the Year 2012: The London 2012 Olympic Torch, designed by BarberOsgerby
For London’s third Olympic games, BarberOsgerby designed the emblematic perforated honeycomb torch, featuring 8,000 circles which the team explain: “symbolise the 8,000 individuals who took part in the Olympic Torch Relay and also create a unique level of transparency in the torch, where you can see right to the heart of the flame.”
The gold gilded aluminium design was seen throughout the country, across a 8,000 kilometre course conceived to reach a prospective 95% of the population of UK, in the hands of these 8,000 torchbearers. 800 metres in length, it weighed just 800 grams, a design feat in itself.
Design of the Year 2013: GOV.UK, designed by the Government Digital Service
“Simple, clearer, faster” was the mission slogan for the Government Digital Service’s streamlined government services website that was award the Design of the Year award in 2013.
Clean and functional it was designed as a single, encompassing access point to HM Government services and information. The notoriously byzantine Directgov and Business Link were obsoleted and superseded, with the websites of all 24 ministerial departments soon incorporated. An ongoing initiative, it aims to migrate and merge the individual satellite websites of the government organisations and public bodies to the service.
Patrick Burgoyne who nominated the project says: “It may not look particularly exciting or pretty, but that is not the point. This is design in the raw, providing vital services and information in the simplest, most logical way possible for everything from renewing a passport to understanding your rights as a disabled person.”
Design of the Year 2014: The Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan designed by architect Zaha Hadid Architects
The late, great Zaha Hadid and the talented team at her London-based architectural firm received the award in 2014 for the Heyday Aliyev Centre in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
A major addition to Baku’s architectural landscape, the conference hall and gallery complex features a sweeping, Möbius strip-like roof with tall glass windows across the front façade. Responding to the brief set by the former-Soviet independent Republic, the firm say: “[the design] breaks from the rigid and often monumental Soviet architecture that is so prevalent in Baku, aspiring instead to express the sensibilities of Azeri culture and the optimism of a nation that looks to the future.”
Zaha Hadid became the first woman to win the award.
Design of the Year 2015: Human Organs-on-Chips designed by Donald Ingber and Dan Dongeun Huh at Harvard University
Notions of the future continued in 2015’s Design of the Year selection, with a revolutionary bio-technological innovation designed by Donald Ingber and Dan Dongeun Hun at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. Human Organs-on-Chips is an experimental technology designed to replicate the functions of human organs for use in biological drug trials, cosmetic safety and toxicity testing as well as the development of safe new vaccines.
This ethical, economical solution seeks to replace harvested human and animal organs, while allowing for expedition of trials, data collection and dissemination. This humane solution is also an elegant design, as the institute explains: “Each individual organ-on-chip is composed of a clear flexible polymer about the size of a computer memory stick that contains hollow microfluidic channels lined by living human cells. Because the microdevices are translucent, they provide a window into the inner workings of human organs.”
The Design Museum Tank
In a previous effort to expand their exhibition space, public reach and inventive display, the Design Museum set up the Tank in 2013: a pop-up glass installation space on the riverside walk outside the museum proper. Creative agencies, artists and design studios are invited to take over the Tank, renaming it and reworking it in their image.
Against the dramatic backdrop of Tower Bridge and the river Thames, such design artefacts as Design Ventura and Plumen lighting installations, Paul Smith suits, a studio set-up showcasing the workbench and work process of Anna Glover and Temper, a stained glass driverless car and a curation of British road signs.
Weekend Punk, 25-26 June 2016
Before the Design Museum closes its doors on the Thames, it is throwing a leaving party this weekend. In response to the ongoing year of punk retrospectives and revivals, and the do-it-yourself approach the content of the museum inspires, the Design Museum will be hosting an exhibition on the design artefacts the music inspired, and the design elements that inspired the music.
Alongside these visual materials, the museum will be hosting a series of hands-on activities and talks, complete with live music, DJing and cocktails on 25 and 26 June.
The museum will reopen in Kensington on 24 November.