New Design Museum hopes to attract general public – not just designers

The new Design Museum, which will open to the public on 24 November, wants to appeal to a wider audience and break down elitist ideas of “good design”.

© Gareth Gardner
© Gareth Gardner

The new Design Museum was revealed this week at its location on London’s Kensington High Street.

The new museum, which is three times the size of the last, aims to diminish outdated ideas of design as elitist and reflect on its role in people’s everyday lives instead.

It has taken five years to construct, and replaces the previous Design Museum based at London’s Shad Thames.

It sits at 10,000m2, and is based in the grade II listed previous Commonwealth Institute building, which has been redesigned by architect John Pawson. Architectural practices OMA and Allies and Morrison, and design consultancy Arup, restored the building’s concrete roof and exterior façade. Consultancy Cartlidge Levene has designed the wayfinding for the building.

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© Gareth Gardner

Spread across four floors, visitors walk into a central atrium and can see directly up to the highest level because of the open-plan design.

A temporary gallery is based on the basement level, and another on the ground level.

A permanent exhibition space is on the second level, and a shop, restaurant, auditorium, designer in residence studios, library, archive and meeting and learning rooms are based throughout the rest of the building.

The vision for a bigger, more inclusive Design Museum was conceptualised 10 years ago, when current museum director Deyan Sudjic joined the organisation.

“I was hired 10 years ago with a brief to grow the museum,” Sudjic tells Design Week. “Technically, it’s been quite a feat – constructing the basement, preserving the concrete roof. There were times when it looked like the construction of a Soviet Union-era power station – but now we’ve got a wonderful building which feels so warm and welcoming.”

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© Gareth Gardner

The museum, based close by to South Kensington’s thriving cultural district, will differentiate itself from other organisations nearby by being agile and changing exhibits frequently, says Sudjic. “Our uniqueness is the ability to be light on our feet,” he says. “We’re not trying to be a small V&A, we’re not the Science Museum – we’re the Design Museum.”

He adds that the museum’s expected visitor number will be 650,000 a year, which is less than the other bigger cultural organisations nearby. “They have audiences measured in their millions – it’s not our aspiration to do that,” he says. “Our task and ambition is to maintain and keep our sense of authority with our existing audience from Shad Thames, who are people who know quite a bit about design already, but grow and expand into the wider public.”

Sir Terence Conran, who co-founded the Design Museum 27 years ago, says that moving the Design Museum into Kensington “is the most important moment of my career in design so far”.

“This will be a new cathedral of design,” he says. “The importance of design to our lives and economy is now truly appreciated.”

The space opens with two new exhibitions: Designer Maker User, a permanent curated selection of the Design Museum’s 8,000-strong product archive; and Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, a temporary gallery which includes 11 installations from international designers.

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Fear and Love, curated by Justin McGuirk, aims to epitomise the international viewpoint the museum hopes to take, says Sudjic.

“The exhibition is borderless,” he says. “It’s laying out the territory of subjects we think are important, and includes designers from China, Japan, Columbia, the Netherlands, America and Britain. It’s a world perspective. Anything else is unrealistic in the way that the world is.”

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Exhibits include The Pan-European Living Room, designed by architectural practice OMA, which recreates a living room containing furniture from each of the 28 EU member states, in a response to Brexit.

It also includes Mimus, a 1,200kg robot designed by Madeline Gannon, which has been programmed to mimic living beings’ actions and reactions, and draws on fears around the increasing intelligence and humanisation of robots.

A simpler installation is Staples by Columbian architecture practice Arquitectura Expandida. It is a linear display of staple foods from around the world, showing everything from bread to dumplings, grains and noodles.

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© Gareth Gardner

Permanent collection Designer Maker User has been curated by Alex Newson, and exhibition graphics, 2D and 3D signage has been designed by Morag Myerscough, including a giant, colourful sign outside the space which alternately reveals the words ‘designer’, ‘maker’ and ‘user’.

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The collection aims to demonstrate the connection between designers and consumers. A crowd-sourcing wall showcases objects that visitors have submitted as being “designs that resonate with them”, says Newson. It aims to break down set ideas of what “design” is. In response to this, the exhibition is arranged thematically rather than split into traditional sectors of graphics, branding, furniture and product design.

“Design is a perspective,” says Sudjic. “It’s not a thing, it’s an understanding. It’s always there whether it’s acknowledged or not. The way we dress, the things we choose to use, the way we use objects and possessions – these are all things which are shaped by design.”

Newson adds: “The museum isn’t saying, ‘This is what we think design is’. We wanted to hear visitors’ opinions.

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“We asked what a modern museum of design should be – it needed to speak to the general public. It’s intended for people who think they don’t know much about design, but actually they do because they use objects all the time. We wanted to help people understand where their lives intersect with the design world. Design isn’t necessarily about working in different disciplines – it’s about process, it’s a way of thinking.”

Newson adds that he wants the exhibition space to appeal to professional designers too.

“The exhibition has to function on multiple levels,” he says. “It won’t dumb subjects down, but at the same time has to help people understand the role that design plays in their lives. I hope designers can see some things they’ve enjoyed looking at and that this will be an exhibition that reflects them as professionals”.


The Design Museum is based at 224-238 Kensington High Street, Kensington, London W8 6AG, and opens to the public on 24 November. Entry to the permanent exhibition space is free, temporary exhibitions have a ticket price.

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