Design Museum Location: 224-238 Kensington High Street, W8 6AG [map] Open: 10am - 5:45pm (last entrance 5pm) Admission: free (but two of the exhibitions cost) brief summary: showcase for contemporary design Website:designmuseum.org (& Twitter) Time to set aside: at least an hour
The Design Museum started out in 1989 in a converted banana warehouse on Shad Thames. We never quite hit it off. Getting any further than the shop cost money (£6 in 2005, £11 in 2012), and the restricted gallery space upstairs meant a visit to the ever-changing pair of exhibitions never felt like good value. I rarely went.
The Commonwealth Institute opened on Kensington High Street in 1962, an amazing building with hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof and a series of ethnic treasures within. I went once as a child and then, a decade after the place went into liquidation, was first in the queue when they opened up the shell for Open House. Still wow.
Over the last few years the Commonwealth Institute has been gutted and transformed into a new home for the Design Museum. A completely new interior has been installed, with three times the floor space of the old museum, and exhibits have been brought out of storage in readiness for last week's grand opening. But has the upgrade been worthwhile?
It's no longer so easy to see the Grade II* listed building from Kensington High Street, as a substantial sum for the refit has come from plonking three large apartment blocks into the former grounds. Only residents on the upper floors get a good view of the whizzy copper roof, and the size of some of the cars nosing out of the underground car park suggests they've paid a hefty price. Mere mortals can access the museum's entrance from Holland Park, or by dipping under one of the new blocks where the flagpoles used to be, past a shop and some dribbly fountains. The original setting wins hands down.
Walking into the building still brings a wow, but in a different way, the interior no longer a cohesive whole. A new expansive rectangular atrium rises up to roof level, its purpose to showcase the ribs and swooshes careering overhead, which otherwise would be lost to view. A sequence of open stairs and balconies loops up and round to the second floor, a shared circulation space which'll be appearing in thousands of Instagram photos before the end of the year. The first staircase has terraced seating as does the first mezzanine, a visitor-friendly facility other museums often lack. But a lot of the doors you'll pass lead to event spaces, offices and other off-limits facilities, for economic reasons, and the proportion of the building's volume given over to display is disappointingly small.
As a freeloader you can make your way all the way up to the second floor, and the permanent Designer, User, Maker gallery. A lot of this stuff was in the old museum, but more of it wasn't, and end result is a dense comprehensive celebration of global design. An opening timeline skims from Wedgwood to 3D printing, including a forelock-tugging nod to museum sponsor Sir Terence Conran along the way. There is a fair whack of 3D printing in the exhibition, because it's modern and quite cheap, positioned alongside the actual 3D printer on which it's produced. Yes, there's a tube map - they've gone for the 1968 version which looks boss - and also a section on Kinneir and Calvert road signs, including the museum's ginormous blue 'M1 J25' sign propped up above.
All aspects of design get a look in, from the first fitted kitchen to Olivetti posters to a selection of chairs. The Design Museum has always liked chairs. You'll like the evolutionary wall of gadgets, where all the branches (be they music, time, photography, communication or whatever) appear to end up at a Samsung smartphone. I remembered the modernist lemon squeezer from the previous DM's display, and wasn't surprised to find it again later in the museum shop. Almost everything's well labelled, and educationally so, although there are several hints that some of the displays aren't quite finished yet in the rush to get the place open. The filmed interviews on the big video wall, for example, are very interesting but aren't listed in sequence alongside, so felt like they'd probably have gone on forever if I'd stayed to watch. So much has been crammed in that this gallery's going to get quite squashed at weekends, so be warned that staff with clickers are poised to close it off if density passes critical.
So, what else can you see for nothing? The upper floor also has a wall of crowd-sourced design classics, and a small gallery devoted to a selection of Designers in Residence, some of whose goodies can be touched, and others merely admired. Clementine Blakemore has an additional exhibit outside in the one corner of the garden that isn't flats, a small geometric pavilion covering a bench, which on my visit absolutely no other visitors had spotted. Back inside the building there's a surprisingly cramped and downbeat cafe, technically a Coffee & Juice Counter, and a first floor restaurant whose absence of menu keeps all but the gilded of Kensington safely without. Oh, and don't forget to peek in the basement, where the Institute's opening plaques and its lovely Commonwealth map have been retained.
And then there are the paid-for exhibitions. One's in the underground gallery, a two-storey showcase of the Designs of the Year, and the other's at the back of the ground floor and more general. Neither is cheap, and if you want to see them both it'll set you back more than £20, which is the privileged Kensington aesthetic writ large. I skipped the downstairs and treated myself to Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World. Eleven different scenarios are given space within, each with an emphasis on 'design in context', although you'd be hard pushed to guess the connection simply by wandering round.
The most memorable installation is an industrial robot whose arm follows you around, then gets bored and goes off and follows someone else. The meatiest installation is a 20 minute multimedia presentation about Grindr, the gay dating app, and how its location-based functionality has liberated millions but targeted state oppression on others. I was most unnerved by a series of crystalline death masks, Alien facehugger-style, artistically created to capture the wearer's last breath. I learnt a bit about Mongolia and recycling clothes by colour, and stayed an hour mostly by watching all the videos through to the end, but overall found the exhibition disjoint, inextensive and a bit hit and miss, so hardly a £14 must-see.
The must-see is the building, obviously, and the excellent free galleries on the second floor. Hurrah that the Design Museum is now housed somewhere worthy of the name, and that some of our country's finest technologies have been proudly recognised. If you have any youngsters with a creative bent, bring them, and have some plastic bricks or tools out ready to funnel the inspiration when you get home. But maybe avoid the next few weekends, because it's going to be rammed, and rightly so.