Created in 1989 by Sir Terence Conran, the Design Museum recently reopened in a new location in High Street Kensington, on the west side of London. Cradled in the former Commonwealth Institute dating the 1960s, the structure has been revamped by OMA and Allies and Morrison, while the internal space has been entrusted to the minimalist interior designer John Pawson. The construction boasts over 10,000 square foot shared between temporary and permanent exhibition spaces, a restaurant, a café, a learning centre, a library, an auditorium as well as the expected gift shop.
Tripling the surface of the previous edifice on Shad Thames on the riverbanks, the latest iteration’s somewhat cold, modernist shell is anything but deceptive. Once inside, visitors are greeted by a majestic atrium – a “cathedral of design” as Conran puts it. Made out of wood and concrete outlining graphic, industrial perspectives, the building manages to feel both welcoming while commanding respect. It is crisp, clear, timeless and yet deeply rooted in the 21th century. In a word, it is exciting.
The museum’s current displays don’t disappoint either. On the ground floor, the temporary exhibition ‘Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World’ – open until 23 April 2017- addresses contemporary issues, from the spreading of information to interactive design, new technologies, fashion and even modern-day dating. On the second floor, a permanent wall proudly displays objects chosen by the public ahead of the museum’s opening. A cover of Vogue, London’s ‘Underground’ tube sign, a pair of Stan Smith, an Eames chair, and Salif -Philippe Starck's juicer- hint at iconic branded items, while a rotary phone, an electric screwdriver, a plastic bucket, a paper bag and even a mop remind us that design is everywhere... and everything?
Well aware of the expectations surrounding its opening, the new Design Museum invited members of the press to wander around the building a few hours before its official christening. As journalists get busy taking notes, observing and filming from every possible vantage point, I am quietly ushered into a private room to meet with the pioneer that started it all.
Inside, Sir Terence Conran finishes a quick lunch, obviously energised by the buzz coming through the thick wooden door. He appears in good form despite his wish to hide from the crowd. At 85 years old, the founder of the Habitat stores, who wrote over 50 books on Design and has amassed a fortune large enough to be able to donate £17.5m towards the new museum, acts like a little boy who was just given his first bicycle. Beyond the adrenaline rush, there is a clear urge to test the new toy.
As we seat side by side, Terence takes my hand and warmly thanks me for being here. A graceful gesture that is obviously unnecessary, but which reveals a lot about the man’s ability to bring people together around his cause: beyond his unique vision, kindness and humility is probably what turned a smart businessman into a world leader in his field.
Maïa Morgensztern: Sir Terence Conran, we are here to celebrate the new Design Museum, opening in the Kensington area. The building itself is fantastic. Can you tell us about the architecture?
Sir Terence Conran: I am very proud of what we achieved. John Pawson did an amazing job at designing the interior. We wanted something clear and a bit like Tate Modern, which can attract large crowds. We had reached our capacity in the previous building and would like to welcome 400,000 visitors per year here. Deyan Sudjic, the museum’s director, was instrumental in working with the various teams to create a sense of unity for the building and its content.
MM: What is the mission of the museum?
STC: Our aim is to tell the story of Design, how objects are made and used, as well as provide a platform for young talents. We are less interested in displaying series of greatest hits just for the sake of it. Thanks to the expanded space we will be able to put on six exhibitions a year, always keeping in mind this is an active conversation with the audience. Who else can do that?
MM: Your first attempt at displaying design objects for the public was in 1981, in a space called the Boilerhouse at V&A in London. What was the original idea behind it?
STC: At the beginning of my career I would regularly go to Milan to see the Triennale exhibitions, which I loved, and wondered why there wasn’t any place for Design in my country. We were good at celebrating our glorious past, but I could not see anything about the Now or the Future. I wanted to do something about it. I had recently launched Habitat as a public company and had some money saved up from it, so I talked to Paul Reilly, who was the head of the Design Council and my mentor. It was him who suggested making a museum. Roy Strong, who was the director of the V&A at the time, offered to host us in the Boilerhouse you mentioned. The cultural critic and Art History lecturer Stephen Bayley became the first curator. The space we had then was a fraction of what it is today.
MM: The museum quickly moved from the V&A to Shad Thames, on the south side of the riverbank. It stayed there for 27 years before moving again, back to the west part of town where we are today. How do you think these various moves impacted on the way Design is presented to the public?
STC: When I started, I was called an ‘industrial artist’, then the word ‘designer’ started to creep into the vocabulary. It was a misleading term though, as before the 1960s people thought it was linked the French world dessin and only referred to drawing. They didn’t get the whole business side going on behind it, how it had a lot to do with manufacturing. Everything we use is designed in some way. France, on the other hand, was ahead with people like Philippe Starck and the Pompidou Museum. I remember working with Prisunic there, which was a chain of popular convenience stores. I believe this is when Design became an important part of any business, not just for the happy few. People started to understand that Design is everywhere, for everyone. We always tried to integrate this notion in all our projects, also including new interests and developments in the field.
>> Regardez notre diaporama du nouveau Musée du Design à Londres.
MM: Speaking about these developments, designers were Initially addressing the issue of ‘Form over Function’ -and vice versa- whereas today they seem more concerned with the challenges arising from contemporary contexts: our environment, technological advancements, etc. When do you think this shift happened...And why?
STC: I think this was in great part provoked by new technologies. Today people are fascinated by the web and everything it stands on. With the development of computer software, social media and other forms of communication became part of everyday life. Designers naturally started to create visual manifestations that can be put on the web. The older generations tolerate it, but might not be comfortable with it. This is why our first exhibition at the museum is called ‘Fear and Love’. It addresses the segmentation of the population according to their level of engagement with Technology.
MM: Among these new technological developments, which one do you think is key to the Future?
STC: Robotics. Quite clearly. Just look at the drones flying above Syria, controlled from remote places in Hertfordshire in England. People are at war with places located thousands of miles away, while sitting comfortably in an office in the British countryside. This, to me, is the Future.
MM: Historically, we tended to associate Design with beautiful objects. Do you think Technology is slowly shifting this definition and that Design will become something entirely different?
STC: I don’t think so. It is true that technology is skewing things, but there are plenty of ‘normal’ designs to be done with everyday objects. People will always want a new drinking glass. Designers will have to think about this problem and invent something new, comfortable to use, and why not make it bounce when we drop it! This new museum, where we are now, is the perfect place for these objects.
MM: After being influenced by various currents and designers in your formative years, like the Eames for example, you turned around and became a reference yourself. Among many other awards and distinctions, you were knighted in 1983 by Queen Elizabeth II; you are now part of a collective History. What would you like people to remember you the most for?
STC: Well, I want to leave this Design Museum behind! What I also want people to remember is my story, how designers should be entrepreneurs and follow their dreams. When I started, no one cared about my products.
MM: How so?
STC: Well, I was trained as a textile designer and enjoyed it immensely. I would go to the V&A textile department two days a week, just to learn the history, look at patterns, etc. When I finished my studies, I became interested in furniture - mostly because my student room was so ugly I felt I had to do something about it. I had learned how to weld in school and used my skills to make my own furniture, which I managed to sell privately. I even sold two chairs to Picasso!
MM: Do you know what happened to these chairs?
STC: I met Picasso’s daughter at an event and while telling the story I drew the chairs for her. She looked at the picture and said, “I remember sitting on these chairs!” They apparently were in her father’s studio. Sadly, I sold them for money rather than in exchange for his paintings! Joking aside, I was amazed someone like Picasso would buy my furniture, but it also pushed me to want more for my designs. I soon moved to a new factory in Norfolk and created my first range of domestic furniture, Summa, which came flat pack - something close to what Ikea does today. I travelled around trying to sell it, but at the time retailers’ shops were dreadful, empty places. The commercial furniture was successful, but the domestic range was a total disaster at first. I promised myself one day I would be able to afford a shop and sell my own range there.
MM: So this is how Habitat was born in 1964?
STC: Exactly. I used the money earned with the commercial range to invest in the domestic range. In the 1950s there was a famous writer called Elizabeth David who specialised in Mediterranean food, with a focus on delicacies from France and Italy. In her books, she was also talking about the variety of kitchen equipment, the beauty of the utensils, the range of pots and pans… and how nothing like that existed in England. This gave me an idea of what Habitat could become: a well-stocked kitchen department. Good china, good glasses, and most importantly good take-away furniture. I wanted something you could carry away at the back of your car or a taxi. I opened my first shop in Chelsea, West London. I believe the store grew popular as international food, promoted in David’s books, became available in the UK. All of the sudden people needed proper storage for new ingredients like dried pasta, or a garlic press, when the population learned how to use the condiment. We were the only ones to cater to this growing market.
MM: Interestingly, Habitat also became popular in France, where you still have a lot of stores. Beyond the food itself, what influenced you in the way you approached Design?
STC: France taught me a lot. My first trip was with a chap who worked for Condé Nast as a photographer. He knew a lot of people and we drove around all the way down to the South. We also spent some time in Dordogne…It was fantastic. I learned a lot looking at food markets, how produce are displayed and sold. I tried to replicate this in my shops. It was a life changing experience… You know, I could go on and on about my love for France.
MM: Maybe you should make an exhibition about it in the new building!
STC: Yes, maybe I should!
>> Ecoutez notre interview exclusive d'un autre Designer de génie, Ron Arad (en anglais)