Design Museum at 30: its most important moments from history

As the London-based cultural institution turns 30 this year, we look back at its story, from its beginnings as a small space in the basement of the V&A museum, its founding by Terence Conran, to its recent move to Kensington and the controversies that have shaken it along the way.

by Craig and Karl, for the Design Museum

The Design Museum turns 30 this year, and in its three decades, it has seen an awful lot of change. As well as tripling its visitor numbers when it moved out of its former converted banana factory space on the Thames, the museum has changed its vision dramatically and widened its scope.

Originally the brainchild of Habitat founder Terence Conran, the Design Museum was born in the basement of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum — later moving to its own home in Shad Thames — to celebrate functional and purpose-driven design, focusing on inventions, products and furniture.

Today, the museum has retained its roots but has significantly expanded its remit, holding exhibitions as broad as ones on protest and activist graphics (Hope to Nope) and the architecture of Soviet Russia (Imagine Moscow). Once a humble space, it now sees up to a million visitors a year, competing with the V&A itself and the likes of the Vitra in Germany.

It is difficult to encapsulate everything that has happened to the museum since 1989, and its growth — but to mark the institution’s birthday, here are 14 significant moments from its existence, from small V&A residency through to global, cultural destination.

1982: The Boilerhouse Project

The V&A museum, image courtesy of Sam Bush and dn&co

The museum was born when prolific industrial designer Terence Conran — founder of Habitat and Mothercare — set up the Boilerhouse Project in a basement at London’s V&A museum. Intended to bring modernism to the forefront in the UK and celebrate design’s ability to help society, the space was one of the first design showcases in the UK. Conran was advised by Sir Paul Reilly, then-director of the Council of Industrial Design, to set the makeshift exhibition space up, then worked with curator and author Stephen Bayley to bring the project to life. The impromptu gallery became one of London’s most popular galleries of the 1980s, and helped to bring design into the cultural consciousness of ordinary people. Focused mostly on product and industrial design, its seven-year tenure included exhibitions on Sony, Coca-Cola, Japanese designer Issey Miyake and radical, Italian collective, Memphis, which was founded by prolific architect and product designer, Ettore Sottsass.

1989: The first Design Museum

Design Museum at Shad Thames, image courtesy of Matt Brown

Throughout the ‘80s, the Boilerhouse Project became increasingly popular and outgrew its space at V&A. By 1986, Conran, alongside a group of funders including Bayley, had secured a building site on Shad Thames that would become the Design Museum’s new permanent home. Originally a banana-ripening warehouse from the 1940s, and more recently a store for South Korean military supplies, the building was in total disrepair. It was restored by architect Stuart Mosscrop and interior designers Paul Williams and Alan Stanton. Designed to be a “Bauhaus on Thames”, the team transformed the space to reflect the utilitarian, functional style of the German art school. Playing off the building’s previous industrial use, the restored space had white walls, marble floors and glass brick walls to let light in, its minimal style intended as a backlash against the Victorian architecture that surrounded it. It was opened on 5 July 1989 by then-prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The building would go on to be the Design Museum’s home for 27 years.

1993: The exhibition years

Eileen Gray

After the Design Museum had been given its own space on Shad Thames, Conran and co orchestrated a mix of exhibitions mostly focused on product design, cementing the institution as a space to demonstrate functionality and usefulness. This began with Commerce and Culture in 1989, an exploration of products made for market compared to those made for museums, and followed with retrospectives of furniture designer Eileen Gray, and French, product designer Philippe Starck, best known for his “democratic design” ethos of making products accessible to everyone. The Design Museum was one of the first organisations to delve into his work. These seminal shows were followed by one on erotic design, which had the highest visitor numbers ever seen by the museum up until that point, and an examination of the work of French, furniture design duo, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, otherwise known as the Bouroullec brothers.

2001: Alice Rawsthorn is appointed director

Journalist, design critic and writer Alice Rawsthorn was appointed director of the museum 11 years after its opening, and facilitated a change in direction for the museum. Building on Terence Conran’s initial idea for the Design Museum as a space to showcase products, furniture and industrial design, she began introducing a wider variety of exhibitions across disciplines, such as on graphics, fashion, shoe design and even flower arrangement — a decision which was scrutinised by some, including the museum’s founder. Under Rawsthorn’s tenure, the Designer of the Year award was launched, and some bold decisions were made, such as the closure of invention display, the Conran Foundation Collection, to make room for an exhibition on 1950s flower arranger, Constance Spry.

2003: Designer of the Year launches

Jony Ive (L) is one of the previous winners of the Designer of the Year award

The museum launched its first awards scheme in 2003, lauding one individual annually with the title of Designer of the Year. The first ever winner was Jony Ive, former chief creative officer at Apple, who is behind many of the tech giant’s biggest inventions, including iPod, iMac, iPhone and MacBook Air. Winners went on to include the likes of social designer Hilary Cottam and comic artist Jamie Hewlett. The award was discontinued in 2006 when Deyan Sudjic took over as director of the Design Museum.

2004: James Dyson quits as chairman

Dyson’s existing technology centre in Singapore. Image courtesy of Dyson

The museum’s change in direction under Rawsthorn’s tenure ruffled a lot of feathers, including those of chairman James Dyson, who had held the role since 1999. In 2004, the industrial designer stepped down from the position, at what he saw as the Design Museum’s pursuit of “empty style over substance”, which he felt was moving away from its original purpose of showcasing “function-led, problem-solving design”, which was “Terence Conran’s original ethos”, he told The Telegraph at the time. He added that, while he was “keen on all forms of design”, including graphics and fashion, the right “balance” of exhibitions was needed. There are several examples that reflect the shift away from product design, including the closure of the Conran Foundation Collection to make way for a flower arrangement exhibition, and temporary shows such as one on the typography of magazine Harper’s Bazaar and a retrospective of American graphic designer, Saul Bass. Despite Dyson’s — and others’ — criticisms, Rawsthorn’s leadership had seen a 20% boost in visitor numbers by 2004, and she had managed to secure the museum’s first ever government grant towards an education programme for young designers.

2006: Rawsthorn steps down — Sudjic appointed

Current Design Museum directors, L-R: Alice Black and Deyan Sudjic, image courtesy of the Design Museum

The clash in vision between Rawsthorn and Conran eventually led to the director stepping down in 2006. Former journalist, writer and broadcaster Deyan Sudjic took the reins, and is currently still co-director of the museum. The Designers of the Year award was scrapped, and later replaced with Designs of the Year, which celebrated projects over individuals. Prior to taking on the role, he started out his career as the design and architecture critic for The Observer, later becoming the dean of the faculty of art, design and architecture at Kingston University, then co-founding architecture magazine Blueprint, going on to become its editor.

2008: Designs of the Year award launches

Beazley Designs of the Year 2017 exhibition, at the Design Museum, image courtesy of Luke Hayes

As part of his directorship, Sudjic launched Designs of the Year, which sees a judging panel of experts across various disciplines nominate projects across different categories. The award has since been refined, narrowing down its category list and gaining a new exhibition sponsor, and now features six categories of architecture, fashion, graphics, digital, product and transport. As well as an awards ceremony, the museum puts on a yearly exhibition of all the shortlisted projects. Previous winners include activist illustrator Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama poster in 2008, the London 2012 Olympic Torch by furniture designers, Barber & Osgerby, and the website design by the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2013.

2012: Design Museum reveals that it is moving

Hyperbolic paraboloid roof
Image courtesy of Luke Hayes

By 2012, the museum’s director and board of trustees had decided the museum needed to move to a bigger space to meet increasing demands. It first revealed designs of its new home in 2012, which would be the former Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington, West London. The space would be transformed by architect John Pawson and was initially due to open to the public in 2014, though this ended up being pushed back by two years.

2013: Zaha Hadid buys old Design Museum building

Design Museum at Shad Thames, where it was based until 2016. Image courtesy of Luke Hayes

In 2013, the museum sold its Shad Thames building to late architect Zaha Hadid, who went on to use the space as an archive of her studio’s architectural projects. At the time, the architect said the space would allow her practice to “consolidate its archive in a single location”, and exhibit the “research and innovation” behind its projects. The sale, which was allegedly worth £10 million, helped to consolidate the Design Museum’s move to Kensington, Sudjic said at the time.

November 2016: Design Museum opens in Kensington

The Design Museum in Kensington, image courtesy of Gareth Gardner

Two years after originally intended, the Design Museum opened its doors at its new site on Kensington High Street on 24 November 2016. Three times the size of its former Shad Times building, the new museum features an open-plan design and the first ever free display of objects, which was a decision made by Sudjic to help make design more inclusive of a wider audience and banish elitist ideas about the industry. He told Design Week at the time of opening: “I was hired 10 years ago with a brief to grow the museum. Technically, it’s been quite a feat but now we’ve got a wonderful building which feels so warm and welcoming.” The space, designed by a roster of architectural practices, deviated from the style of the previous building, now taking on a square shape whereby visitors could see all the way up to the roof from the ground floor, making it feel more spacious and making navigation clearer. The museum smashed its original target of 650,000 visitors a year, hitting one million visitors in a year and a half after opening.

November 2016: Design Museum offers free entry

Image courtesy of Gareth Gardner

As part of the opening Sudjic decided to offer a free permanent display for the first time, designed by Morag Myerscough, allowing people to visit the museum without a fee. This display now sits alongside paid-for, temporary exhibitions, with the launch show having been Fear and Love, a showcase of work from 11 international designers in response to global, political and social issues. This has followed with an array of exhibitions over the last three years, including the colourful research of Dutch graphic designer Hella Jongerius, protest design produced by activist creatives, and an exploration of the monuments created by celebrated architect David Adjaye. The breath of topics now covered shows how the museum has expanded its remit in recent years, covering everything from architecture and interiors to graphics, print and digital design, which is also celebrated through its annual, Beazley Designs of the Year showcase.

December 2016: Alice Black appointed co-director

L-R: Deyan Sudjic, Alice Black and Lord Peter Mandelson

Following the museum’s move, deputy director Alice Black was promoted to co-director alongside Sudjic in 2016, after she helped to orchestrate the museum’s relocation to Kensington. Now sharing the role with Sudjic, the museum’s former chairman, Luqman Arnold, said at the time that she had been an “outstanding deputy director” who had helped to “deliver the building project on time and on budget”. While the museum’s opening was later than originally intended, the initial budget of £80 million was kept to.

2018: The museum faces controversy over a sponsor

Design Museum’s Hope to Nope exhibition, image courtesy of the Design Museum

While the museum has become increasingly popular, one event last year saw the institution face criticism and backlash. After it hosted a private event by defence and arms company Leonardo in 2018, many of the exhibitors in the Hope to Nope exhibition decided to pull their work from the show in protest at the museum’s collaboration with the company. The group of designers, artists and activists wrote a letter to the museum stating they were “appalled” that it was hosting the event, adding that it was “deeply hypocritical” to hold it at the same time as running a protest design exhibition, which celebrated the work of “radical, anti-corporate artists and activists”. The museum responded at the time by saying that it “[did not] endorse the private event”, adding that the Design Museum was a charity and relied on profits from sources including event and venue hire. The museum ended up finishing the Hope to Nope run with much less work than it started with, so made it free as a result.

The Design Museum is celebrating its birthday with a special temporary display, which showcases 30 different designers’ and illustrators’ interpretations of the number ’30’. For more information, head here.

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