New will become old; classic lasts forever

It’s amazing how design’s centre of gravity has shifted over the past ten years. Where once the Casson Mann-designed London headquarters of the Chartered Society of Designers and the Design Business Association was considered a hub of activity, the Royal College of Art under Christopher Frayling’s enlightened rectorship has become a hot spot for “creative” events, with the Design Council’s Ben Kelly-designed offices in London’s Bow Street perceived as the industry’s “business” venue. Draw your own conclusions as to how this reflects changing attitudes in design.

Meanwhile, Glasgow has reaffirmed its place on the design map with the opening of The Lighthouse in June. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s newspaper building shows how interesting design can be, given the right setting.

One place still waiting in the wings is the Design Museum in London Docklands, which celebrated its tenth birthday last week. Opened by Terence Conran, it’s quietly gone about its business, hampered in its early years by lack of funds and battles to secure Government support.

The Design Museum is nevertheless doing great work, particularly in education. Its 1999 Annual Review shows visitor figures at an all-time high, up 46 per cent over the past six years, with figures for educational groups up 35 per cent over the past three. And with the opening of the Bankside Tate next May set to open up even further that stretch of river, it can expect even more visitors.

Museum activists are bullish about its prospects, with plans by director Paul Thompson and chairman James Dyson to extend Stanton Williams’ building, put across process rather than just object in its displays and take design education to the regions.

It is very laudable stuff, which should build the museum’s standing, entertainment value and influence. But there is one flaw in the proposals – the use in the Annual Review of the title New Design Museum. Ten years ago controversy raged over the name “museum” for a facility centred on such a living thing as design; to slap the word “new” on to the front is even more absurd. Like the titles New Scientist, New Statesman and, indeed, New Labour, it will date the venue as a late 20th century icon.

The Design Museum needs revitalising, not least in broadening its coverage and staging more short-run shows. But evolution is surely a better way than revolution. Innovation in this case might be more to do with boosting the museum’s standing as a “classic” than donning the mantle of the new.

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