Futureproofing our design past

An important new role for Moira Gemmill, design head of the Victoria & Albert Museum, could lead to exciting changes, says Sarah Balmond

An important new role for Moira Gemmill, design head of the Victoria & Albert Museum, could lead to exciting changes, says Sarah Balmond

Design has always been at the heart of the Victoria & Albert Museum, influencing almost every aspect of the museum’s 5ha labyrinth.

Throughout the V&A’s 150-year history, it has provided the momentum to drive forward a plethora of refurbishment work, new-build projects and exhibition launches. However, an expanded role for Moira Gemmill, until recently V&A’s head of design, looks set to usher in a new phase for the organisation, which is undergoing its very own renaissance – a £150m Futureplan redevelopment to transform the South Kensington site for the 21st century.

Gemmill (pictured above) takes the helm from Gwyn Miles, who left to pursue a directorship position at Somerset House last year (DW 3 November 2005). Miles spent 20 years at the V&A, working as director of project and estates, but Gemmill will now work under an amended job title, as director of projects and design. She was appointed in December.

This subtle tweak of job title reflects an evolving job specification, but also hints at a different direction for the V&A, whereby design could take more of a centre stage. After all, Gemmill is herself a designer, having graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 1981, working as head of exhibitions at the Aberdeen Gallery and Museums, and head of design and exhibitions at the Museum of London for three years, before joining the V&A almost six years ago.

Having a designer in the client hot seat to steer through projects, briefs and commissions is an unusual situation likely to pay dividends. What is considered by many to be ‘risk taking’, could be viewed as a triumphant creative in the eyes of a designer, for example.

‘She understands both what we do and why we do things. It is a great thing that she is in her position, as a trained designer,’ says a colleague who works closely with Gemmill.

As a director of the museum, Gemmill has the immediate task of delivering the V&A’s Futureplan. The ambition to rationalise the museum into a ‘city’, with a series of quarters, has shaken the very foundation of the V&A, upturning exhibition layouts, displays, leisure and retail spaces, as well as overhauling graphic and interpretative representations.

Many projects have already been completed or are underway, but much work remains to be done, and the commissions and appointments are still coming thick and fast.

Currently, Gemmill says she is considering redesigning the V&A’s ceramics gallery, which has remained untouched for 20 years. A feasibility study has already been carried out, but no designers have yet been appointed.

Gemmill hopes to dovetail the opening with the launch of the Medieval and Renaissance gallery in 2009, currently being designed by architect Muma. Holmes Wood has been appointed to work on a four- year project to design graphics, signage and supporting print material for the gallery.

The sequence of collections will be redisplayed in a broadly chronological order, and four themes will provide a recurring framework, setting objects in a cultural context. Alex Wood, director at Holmes Wood, says the commission will involve designing interpretative elements for each object.

‘We are starting work this month. The graphics will be very elegant, fresh and consistent. We want to create a feeling, so that whenever you enter the area, you are immediately aware that it is the Medieval and Renaissance gallery,’ she explains.

Gemmill is also drawing up a brief to create a state-of-the-art temporary gallery, which will be located in the V&A’s Boilerhouse Yard. The structure will showcase the museum’s major temporary exhibitions, such as its forthcoming Modernism show.

The flexible installation will accommodate a range of objects and have an adaptable lighting system, taking into account air conditioning and circulation space. Gemmill says she will be looking to work with an architect on the structure.

The V&A is also considering appointing a design consultancy to create graphics for its forthcoming jewellery gallery, which is being redesigned by Eva Jirnica Architects.

Gemmill prefers to work with a mixed-economy design, drafting in consultancies when appropriate, shunning a formalised roster in favour of a more flexible framework in order to cherry-pick the right person for the right job.

‘We will continue with good practice and will not be nervous about using new designers to create exciting designs,’ she adds.

This pragmatic approach, coupled with Miles’ legacy, is likely to generate yet more thrilling design solutions for the V&A.

Key highlights of V&A £150m Futureplan:

2009 – Medieval and Renaissance gallery due to open, designed by Muma, with graphics and support print material by Holmes Wood

2008 – Jewellery gallery due to open, designed by Eva Jiricna Architects. Graphic designer still to be appointed

2007 – V&A’s new education centre to open, designed by Softroom

2006 – Museum shop, designed by Eva Jiricna Architects, opens in March. Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, designed by Softroom, opens in July. Restaurant by Muma, opens in autumn. Sculpture galleries, designed by Eva Jiricna Architects

2005 – Sacred Silver and Stained Glass gallery opens, designed by Ronayne Design

2004 – £10m V&A/Royal Institute of British Architects Architectural Gallery by Gareth Hoskins Architects. Kim Wilkie Associates appointed to create new garden

Latest articles