The exhibitionists

After conspicuous success in the late Eighties, Casson Mann weathered the storm of recession, and is now setting a trend: making museums more entertaining and involving.

Fifteen years after they first became flavour of the month on the British design scene with an ice cream shop in London’s Knightsbridge, Dinah Casson and Roger Mann are still waiting for their second retail commission.

Not that they’re too worried. As design consultancy of choice among the museum set, the Casson Mann partnership is currently designing two of the most important exhibition projects on the South Kensington campus in south-west London – the British Galleries in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Wellcome Wing in the Science Museum. “We’ve split the practice down the middle and we lob samples at each other over the Chinese wall,” laughs Casson.

For one small group of designers to be handling two such prestigious national museum projects more or less simultaneously is unusual. But Casson and Mann have a depth of experience which belies their youthful appearance.

They grimace at the term “veteran” – which was how they were recently described by one writer. “We prefer vintage, which suggests we’ve matured like fine wine,” says Casson. But they’ve definitely earned the right to be where they are today – helping to shape the intellectually-fertile future of the museum attraction at a time when many of their interior design contemporaries are content to farm the more lucrative pastures of shopping and leisure.

You sense, though, that fate has played as big a role as planning in the story of Casson and Mann. The trajectory of their careers over the past 15 years shows the precarious nature of the interior design profession in Britain.

Casson, 52, first met Mann, 39, in 1981 when she was teaching part-time at Kingston Polytechnic and he was a student there. That was the year of the influential Memphis launch in Milan. Three years later, their spectacular post-modern Gran Gelati ice cream shop owed much to Sottsass style, and signalled the arrival of a talented and determined new partnership.

By 1987 Casson and Mann, now darlings of the UK interior design scene, were invited by director Michael Sadler-Forster to design the London headquarters of the Chartered Society of Designers in Bedford Square. Their exuberant and quirky scheme in a building of such classic Georgian civility offended many, but it met the demands of English Heritage and established their ground-breaking reputation.

In 1988, The Guardian newspaper asked Casson Mann to upgrade its offices during the momentous David Hillman-designed relaunch of the paper. It did so with skill and sensitivity.

Then, in 1989, came the commission to design the UK Government’s British Design: New Traditions exhibition, at the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam. But this turned into a dead end. The recession sent the duo crashing to earth with a jolt. They cut the practice back to just the two of them, abandoned the studio and began working from Casson’s home.

“Between 1989 and 1995 we must have pitched for about 40 projects, even house extensions, but we didn’t get them,” says Casson, in a rare moment of world-weariness. She returned to teaching at the Royal College of Art, working alongside Derek Walker, Theo Crosby and Floris van den Broeke and even ran her own course for two years.

But the lure of practice still tugged at her shirt sleeves. “We were doing little things together,” recalls Mann. “Dinah’s parents were incredibly supportive during this period. The turning point came in 1995 when we finally won a project at the Science Museum.” That project, called The Garden, was to design a gallery in the Science Museum basement to explain simple scientific principles to three-to-six-year-olds.

The colourful basement was the brainchild of the Science Museum’s deputy director Gillian Thomas and new head of design Tim Molloy. As well as bringing Casson Mann back into the fray, it also marked a big break for the scheme’s master designer, Ben Kelly. “Gillian supported Tim in his decision to bring in new interior designers with fresh ideas,” says Casson. “We found ourselves working in the museum world at a time when it was beginning to rethink its approach in advance of Lottery money that would create many new projects.”

The practice, now growing again, was commissioned to design a small interactive science exhibit on Sea France’s cross-channel ferries. “It was part of the ferry operators’ response to the Channel Tunnel. It was a great idea but it was sandwiched between Duty Free and the bar, and it didn’t last,” says Casson.

Then came a project to create a liquid exhibit for the Science Museum’s Challenge of Materials show. Next up, a Lottery-targeted pilot scheme for the National Railway Museum, York, that sadly didn’t win the funding. No matter. By the time York ran off the rails, Casson Mann was involved with two of the most prestigious museum commissions of the Nineties.

It was appointed to design the British Galleries at the V&A in 1996, having replied to an advertisement in the European Journal which not only asked for credentials, but required a 1000-word text on the future of museums. Casson, who is leading this project, is convinced her essay won the day. “The V&A is rightly obsessed with the changing role of museum display in relation to different audiences and we addressed that,” she says.

The galleries had been practically untouched for 50 years since V&A director Leigh Ashton set up the English Primary Galleries in 1947.

The tired displays and general shabbiness of interior spaces were at odds with some of Britain’s finest national treasures. The British Galleries required a complete environmental overhaul, including new air-conditioning, and a conceptual rethink. As Christopher Wilk, the V&A curator leading the project, explains: “Half a century ago, many of the current concerns about museum conservation, interpretation and audience simply weren’t around.”

Casson says: “Since we began, our role has grown. This is one of the biggest and most complex jobs around. Access, security and conservation are all huge issues – every drawing has to go to 27 different people. But we’re protected from the inevitable institutional conflicts.”

Part of the environmental complexity derives from the densely packed chronological sequence of objects and integrating different media – from paper to furniture – in each display. But it is the unfolding historical narrative of the project that also engages Casson.

“We’re dealing with the first ever gateleg table, the first bookcase, and with all the products associated with the arrival of tea in Britain – including the first cups and kettles,” she explains. “And we’re tracing who led taste between 1500 and 1900. The Church was the first leader of cultural authority. Then the Court decided what was tasteful. Then it was the aristocracy, after William and Mary were laughed at and the Court ridiculed. Then it was the upper middle classes. Finally, we end this fascinating story on the high street, with Liberty’s in the late 1800s. If we were to try to answer this question today, the taste-maker would be the media – magazines like Wallpaper.”

The appointment to the Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum followed in 1998. “We thought we didn’t want it because we had York and the V&A and our plate was full,” says Mann. “But now we’re glad we’re doing it. It deals with such topical subjects as digital technology and genetic science that it’s difficult for the research team to keep pace. The stories are amazing, but are the objects out there to support them?”

A Casson Mann team led by Mann is designing the three main exhibition floors of the Wellcome Wing, with architect Chris Wilkinson responsible for the ground floor, which includes shop, café and small display spaces, and Fletcher Priest designing an Imax cinema. “In the past, museum exhibitions were done by graphic designers who put up text panels and let objects create their own space. But we’re much more into building complete landscapes. Exhibitions should be spatial experiences,” says Casson. Digitopolis, the information technology gallery in the Wellcome Wing, is a good example of this approach. It will be laid out in a matrix pattern with long supermarket-style aisles enabling visitors “to go anywhere, to steer their own route”, says Mann. “There is random access guided by colour and structure, more akin to a CD-ROM than a book.”

With an exhibition at the Natural History Museum, Dinosaurs of the Gobi Desert, also under their belts, Casson and Mann could claim to be the hottest names in South Kensington since Henry Cole. But that’s not their style. Looking through their portfolio, which includes the Charlotte Perriand and Bicycles exhibitions at the Design Museum, spectacular donation boxes for the Tate Gallery and David Chipperfield’s River & Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames, it is hard to find a non-museum project. (It’s there – a Soho media office).

But though they fret slightly at being typecast, you sense that they aren’t anxious for another ice cream shop. They appear to enjoy the focus of museums, especially Casson, who, as the older and better known partner, is relishing her current brush with history. “There’s something very moving about the itinerant designers featured in the British Galleries, the 16th century Hugenots who came to this country and became engravers, ceramicists, printmakers and silversmiths,” she reflects. “They humped their wares round the aristocrats and if the Devonshires didn’t want it, they scrubbed out the initials and flogged it to someone else. In a sense the lives they led are very close to our own experience as designers today.”

{storyLink(“DW199908200052″,”The British Galleries at the V&A”)}

{storyLink(“DW199908200053″,”The Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum”)}

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