The Designed Life

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  • Picture of Graham Henderson FRSA
    Graham Henderson FRSA
  • Design
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Almost without anyone noticing, the Design Museum has joined the ranks of our greatest museum brands.

The Design Museum in London now inhabits the listed Modernist building which was once the Commonwealth Institute. I have a distant memory of the row of national flags that used to flutter in front of this magnificent building whose design somehow combines the airy spaciousness of a cathedral with a tent-like canopy worthy of Kublai Khan’s pleasure dome. I can think of no better home for the Design Museum. The High Street Kensington structure, much larger and grander than its previous site – the former banana warehouse on Shad Thames – is also a singular piece of architectural design in its own right. With other members of the Oxford Cultural Leadership alumni network, I recently had the privilege of getting an inside account of the Museum and its transformation from its co-director, Alice Black, and its Head of Visitor Experience, Paul Gibbons.

What I had not appreciated before my visit was that, as well as the challenges of a physical relocation and redefinition of what the Design Museum is as an institution, the move also represented something more fundamental, the transformation of a wonderful but quirky small museum into a globally-minded museum brand and major international visitor attraction. I used to be a frequent visitor to the Shad Thames museum when I first moved to London in the 1980s, having followed it from its first home as the Boilerhouse Project in the basement of the V&A to its stylish new home on the South Bank. But even still, I regarded it as a ‘hidden gem’, a museum presenting some of the best of British design from the red telephone box to the latest in kitchen appliances. It was something unexpected to show my visitors, somewhere that was cool, artistic and original. Somewhere small too, which was often blissfully quiet and a bit off the tourist track.

Since then British design has come a long way, and the idea of ‘a designed life’ is no longer a novelty. As well as its permanent collection, the new Design Museum is now able to showcase some of the greatest design in the world, ranging from eco-houses to the latest contemporary fashion, from sleek motor cars to digital applications. The move into the new building in High Street Kensington was completed only in 2016, the result of 8 years’ worth of planning. It required an £82m capital redevelopment project to transform the former Commonwealth Institute into the Design Museum’s new home. In the process the Museum went from 44 to 100 full-time staff (equivalent) and from 3,000 to 10,000 square metres in size. Nor was success preordained; the financial crash in 2008 meant that nothing could be taken for granted.

However, the Design Museum did have some excellent assets. Most notable of all, perhaps, was the continuing support of Sir Terence Conran, who saw the Museum as a part of his own design legacy. Having leased the Shad Thames building to the Museum for years he now donated the property, creating a valuable asset for the organisation to sell. This major gift, together with the support of some key sponsors and donors, ensured that the Design Museum has remained largely self-funded. From 2005 the Museum was also blessed with a dynamic new leadership team. Its new Chair, Luqman Arnold (the former Chair of UBS and Glencore), appointed the distinguished writer and editor Deyan Sudjic as the Museum’s inspirational new director. Alice Black (formerly at the Imperial War Museum and the Cabinet War Rooms) was appointed as his deputy (she is now co-director) and brought charisma and practical common sense to the management of the move. And Paul Gibbons, Head of Visitor Experience, provided principled leadership, maintaining the morale and energy of the Shad Thames Museum team even as the change got underway. These personalities clearly helped to provide strong and imaginative leadership at a time of great upheaval and change.

Most interesting to me is the way in which the leadership team has sought to preserve everything positive and exciting about the Design Museum and its culture whilst engineering a seismic shift from a multi-tasking small museum culture to a fully professionalised and properly resourced international museum brand. Alice Black had to decide when to bring in new people as the larger organisation took shape. At one point, as the cash-flow grew tight, she insisted on approving every item of expenditure, no matter how small. Designing a design museum is perhaps particularly challenging. The standard of excellence expected of you is very high indeed. If the lifts do not work or an interactive exhibit breaks down it feels especially critical to the brand. Nor was there any clear blueprint for how to do it. What was important, says Alice, was to innovate and make money simultaneously. In doing so, the Design Museum has sought to professionalise itself whilst retaining an informal, collegiate culture. She says that this ‘guerrilla spirit’ has been a vital ingredient in its success, allowing all team members to contribute, and allowing good ideas to be enabled. Of all things a design museum needs to have its finger firmly on the zeitgeist.

In the event, good judgment and luck have combined to help the Design Museum get off to a great start on its new site. For instance, it programmed a Zaha Hadid exhibition at the very moment when her designs were becoming recognised worldwide, which in turn helped to confirm her superstardom as an architect. Moreover, its Ferrari motorcar exhibition demonstrated how the Museum can benefit from sponsorship whilst retaining an authentic commitment to great design. Additionally, although it has 3,300 objects in its permanent collection, the Design Museum is not a collecting institution as such. Instead, it has made a policy of placing new commissions at the heart of its exhibitions and shows, thus reflecting the world of design and contributing to it directly.

In the process the Museum has helped to persuade the public that it is not just a specialist or niche museum for design aficionados, but rather that we are all living with design every day and that good design enriches our lives. Just as importantly, perhaps, the Design Museum is winning the argument about the importance of design for life, and about the central role it plays in the success of the UK economy. In the age of digital design and 3D printers this is a case that should be increasingly persuasive. A campaign to secure £1m Government funding is being formulated and will probably be launched later this year. The funding will enable the museum to have even more of a positive social impact by developing design skills amongst young people.

The commercial imperative has had to be strong, and the ability to adapt has had to be deeply ingrained at a time when culture and technology are subject to rapid change and volatility. The Museum also has to appeal to new audiences in a strong and positive way, and it cannot be too precious about what it does. In short, it must be open to new ideas and must programme confidently in advance. To enable this, the Museum has developed some innovative tools to help it assess both the financial potential of its forthcoming shows and whether they will enhance the Museum’s brand and reputation. Visitor numbers suggest that these tools are working effectively and that its ability to gauge public taste and interest is strong. Since opening in November 2016, the new museum has been visited by over 1.3m visitors and is on track to achieve a target of 650,000 visitors per year, compared to a peak of 250,000 at the old site.

In the process of this transformation, it is fulfilling its vision of becoming a new national museum and a hub for design, and furthermore of making a major contribution to the quality of our society and our everyday lives. Almost without anyone noticing, the Design Museum has joined the ranks of our greatest museum brands.

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