The stories behind the V&A Dundee’s Scottish Design Galleries

The Scottish Design Galleries at the recently opened museum in Dundee aim to shine a light on the impact and legacy of design in Scotland.

The permanent gallery, which includes more than 300 objects, explores design across many disciplines, from graphics to transport, looking to both capture the history of Scottish design and inspire future generations through contemporary exhibits. We explore some of the most intriguing pieces.

Video game design

Lemmings, designed by DMA Design, published by Psygnosis. © Sony

Dundee’s long-standing links to video game design are highlighted with a projection of 1990s video game Lemmings by DMA Design, as a video of the game being played by one of its creators Mike Dailly.

Lucy Clark, senior architect and designer at ZMMA Architects, which designed the Scottish Design Galleries, says: “Dundee has a very strong video gaming culture. There was a club of enthusiastic amateurs in Dundee [in the 1980s] that met and started designing video games for Spectrum, which is a very early computer. The people who invented Grand Theft Auto were part of that culture.”

The group, known as Kingsway Amateur Computer Club, would go on to form DMA Design, and create Lemmings, a game published by Psygnosis, which involves guiding lots of small creatures through obstacles. It has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, according to the V&A Dundee.

The same design studio was also behind the first and second versions of the hit game Grand Theft Auto. The studio later changed its name to Rockstar North, becoming part of Rockstar Games.

Another example of Scottish video game design in the gallery is a contemporary point-and-click game called Beckett released in early 2018 by Glasgow-based studio The Secret Experiment, which features “dark, abstract” designs and relies heavily on storytelling. The player chooses the narrative of the game, which is set around an elderly detective on a case in a “surrealist” setting.

Exhibition Video games: Design, Play, Disrupt, will go on display at the V&A Dundee from 20 April to 8 September. Ahead of the launch, the museum is calling on designers with a link to Scotland to submit game proposals that focus on character development. The winning game will be developed for the museum’s website.

Interior design and architecture

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Oak Room © HuftonCrow

At the centre of the gallery is the newly restored Oak Room, which was originally designed by Scottish designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh as part of Miss Catherine Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearooms in Glasgow in 1907.

The tea rooms were set up at a time when women were beginning to meet out and about socially, without the company of men.

Visitors can step inside and immerse themselves in the room, which is complete with dark-stained wooden panelling, coloured glass and low, atmospheric lighting.

The room is at the centre of the gallery, but it is surrounded by other exhibits so it cannot be easily seen until visitors reach a discrete door, through which they can enter it.

“We placed it so that as you are moving around the galleries, you are not fully aware of where it is or how to get into it,” says Clark. “There is a sense of surprise.” 

The Oak Room is culturally significant because it is “a very complete example of Mackintosh’s work,” she adds. “It has been nurtured by Glasgow for a long time and there has been this big drive to get it restored and recreated.”

Stored in pieces by Glasgow City Council after its destruction in 1971, the room was reconstructed in a £1.3million collaborative project between the V&A Dundee, Glasgow Museums and Dundee City Council, and is now on permanent display at the V&A Dundee.

Graphics, printing and craft

Artwork for Dennis the Menace strip (The Beano & Beano Studios)
© DC Thomson & Co Ltd, Dundee

With publisher DC Thomspon, creator of The Beano, based in Dundee, “there is a very strong graphic design and printing industry” in the city, Clark says.

One display features a Dennis the Menace comic strip designed by David Law in 1960 for The Beano. It is drawn in black, white and red, with words written in large graphic type to represent loud noises, such as “crash” appearing to almost leap out of the page, in a style the V&A Dundee says has been “widely imitated”.

The hand-coloured piece with written annotations and “glued-on” speech bubbles represents an “important stage in the design process”, according to the museum, as though comics are mainly created digitally nowadays, the process remains “largely the same”.

Illustrators at the Dundee-based comic book publisher DC Thompson, which was founded in 1905, are also behind characters including Desperate Dan and Oor Willie.

As part of the gallery’s aim to inspire the next generation of designers, it is also showcasing a project that does just this: on display are five posters for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from various years, created as part of the Schools Poster Competition event, which invites Scottish kids to design an official poster to advertise the festival.

These appear on the wall of the “design and the imagination” section of the gallery, which explores how design is used to tell stories and in performance and entertainment fields.

Another highlight here is a theatre set designed and painted in 1973 by John Byrne, created as a life-sized pop-up book for a theatre company that toured around Scotland with the set.

Fashion and textile design

A digital projection of a fashion show by Alexander McQueen

Fashion designers and companies with links to Scotland feature heavily in the gallery, from a costume from the film Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, by Scottish designer Trisha Biggar, to a 1930s swimming costume created by McRae Knitting Mills, founded by Scottish-born, Alexander MacRae. This brand would go on to become Speedo.

Hunter wellington boots from 1980 are also on display, as these were originally made in Scotland by the North British Rubber Company, which was founded in 1856 by American-born Henry Lee Norris, who emigrated to Scotland. The Edinburgh-based studio created the boot from 28 pieces of rubber, based on a 1956 design that has remained the same ever since.

Specialising in waterproof design, the company also designed footwear prior to this which helped many soldiers avoid trench foot during World War One.

Video footage of a catwalk fashion show by Alexander McQueen, who has Scottish heritage, is projected digitally onto a perforated screen.

“Alexander McQueen’s design for his shows is a very important part of his story,” Clark says. “We really wanted to show his work how it would appear on the catwalk.”

Past catwalk shows by the late fashion designer have included models stomping through large puddles of water, machines spray-painting dresses, giant chess board sets and models appearing as holograms.

Industrial and transport design

A display looking at Scotland’s history of ship-making

In the “story of Scottish design” section which explores various influences on how designs came about, a display takes a look at Scotland’s expertise in ship-making, with scale models of sea-faring vessels alongside hand-drawn designs of ship parts.

The displays in this part of the gallery each tell a story and there are connections between each case, she adds.

For example, historic links are explored between Scottish ship-making, its “strong import-export culture”, its “whaling” past and the design and production of jute, a coarse, natural fibre often used for making rope and sacks, which also appears in a display.

This section of the gallery encourages visitors to explore for themselves, with glass cabinets letting them get close to displays, “touch tables” allowing for interactive play and a large “inspiration wall” showcasing a multitude of objects together, Clark says.

Other examples of industrial and transport displays include a historic photograph of the Forth Bridge by an unknown photographer.

The 2,400-metre cantilever bridge across the Firth of Forth, which was designed by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker and completed in 1889, is considered a Scottish icon and was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2015.

The bridge shortened the train journey from London to Aberdeen from over 13 hours to around 8.5.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, a temporary exhibition which further explores the theme of ship-making, is currently on display at the V&A Dundee until 24 February 2019.

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