Design Week talks to RCA rector-in-waiting Paul Thompson

Emily Pacey talks to Royal College of Art rector-in-waiting Paul Thompson as he prepares to take the reins at a transitional time for the school

Designers are celebrating last month’s appointment of Paul Thompson as rector of the Royal College of Art. They regard the former Design Museum director and current head of New York’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum as one of their own.

But as the South Kensington college forges ahead with plans to move its arts faculties to a new site across the river in Battersea, Thompson, who has been criticised for lacking experience in the arts, might find keeping the RCA’s art students and teachers happy a challenge.

Oxford-born Thompson has been running the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt museum since 2001. He was considered a rank outsider for the task of succeeding current RCA rector Sir Christopher Frayling, with many observers believing it would be a shoo-in for the college’s Helen Hamlyn Centre director Jeremy Myerson.

In fact, Myerson didn’t go for the job, and instead sat on the selection committee that appointed Thompson. Myerson calls him ‘the candidate with the most coherent and persuasive argument about where the college should be going in the future’.

Thompson wins ringing endorsements from his colleagues at the Cooper-Hewitt. Director of education Caroline Payson says, ‘He is very collaborative and seems to truly value other peoples’ experiences. As a manager, he likes to create teams of people with different expertises, and on a personal level he is

friendly, warm and funny.’

Speaking to Design Week ten months before he picks up the reins at the RCA, Thompson’s ideas are broad brush-strokes rather than detailed renders, although he does identify some contacts he hopes to bring on board for RCA projects.

‘I am a great believer in collaborations, networking and forging partnerships and alliances on an international scale,’ he says. ‘I want to continue relationships with Google and Ideo forged in the US at the RCA, and perhaps collaborate with the Cooper-Hewitt. This is the sort of structural expansion that I would like to see at the RCA.’

Thompson is likely to use his key qualities – persuasion, inclusion and listening to others – to put his expansive plans into action.

It must have taken no little persuasive talent to move from being a schoolteacher to running the Design Museum within two years. ‘I was always fascinated with design and architecture, but was on an academic route from school onwards,’ Thompson offers by way of an explanation for his dramatic career change.

He showed his might when, during his tenure as Design Museum director, he helped to convince the UK Government to make it the first state-sponsored museum in more than a decade. These negotiating skills might be useful for raising the remaining £12m needed to build the new Battersea campus.

The charisma that assisted Thompson in presenting a regular segment on design for the 1989 BBC education programme Techno may also serve him well at the RCA. He is aware of the challenge he will face when the arts faculty moves to the new Battersea site in 2013, with the design department remaining at the Kensington Gore site.

For starters, Thompson intends to look for a flat that lies between the two sites. ‘I will use a pair of compasses to find the exact spot for it’, he says, not altogether jokingly. He adds, ‘It is essential that I prove that the RCA is not a bifurcated site. It will take very skilful cross-stitching to maintain the collegiality and cross-fertilisation of ideas between the two schools.’ He says he is ‘used to’ policies of decentralisation – followed by centralisation – at the Smithsonian, and can adapt to the ‘swing of the pendulum’.

The RCA is set to undergo a radical review of its research hubs, an area where Thompson is also keen to stamp his mark. The rector-in-waiting wants to make the college a thought-leader on issues of sustainability and design for the developing world.

He says, ‘I want to sit down with Myerson, and ask him what areas of pressing global concern there are that we feel design can address and the RCA can take a lead on’.

Thompson says the US and UK design industries are banging their drums to the same beat, despite the few channels of communication between them. ‘The industry feels similarly under-used in the US, and designers are as vociferous about how design matters,’ he says. ‘But the US does not have the benefit of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Design Council, which espouse the creative industries.’

Paul Thompson’s CV:

1959 Born in Oxford

1980 BA from Bristol University

1980 to 1983 Taught English and French at St Bede’s Preparatory School in Eastbourne

1984 MA in Modern European Thought, University of East Anglia; PhD awarded in 1987

1987 to 1988 Researcher at the Design Council

1988 to 1992 Curator of contemporary design, Design Museum

1989 Presented a segment of the six-part BBC TV design and education series, Techno

1992 to 2001 Director of the Design Museum

2000 Honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Art

2001 to 2009 Director of the Smithsonian Institute’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

September 2009 Becomes rector and vice-provost of the Royal College of Art

Latest articles