Design Museum Location: 28 Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD [map] Open: 10am - 5:45pm (last entrance 5:15) Admission: £11 (includes £1 optional donation) brief summary: showcase for contemporary design Website:designmuseum.org(& Twitter) Time to set aside: about an hour
It's been years since I visited the Design Museum, or at least any floor higher than its excellent shop, so yesterday I went back and reacquainted myself with its contemporary collection. The far end of Shad Thames isn't somewhere you'd visit by mistake, not unless you're a tourist walking the South Bank east until it goes no further, in which case it's precisely the sort of place you'd end up. A converted banana warehouse in the shadow of Tower Bridge, revamped in Modernist style, opened for public display in 1989. The man behind the founding of the museum is Sir Terence Conran, who owns several of the restaurants hereabouts, and he's the subject of the main exhibition on the first floor.
Terence Conran (16 November 2011 – 4 March) He's 80 now, which provides the excuse for a full scale retrospective of his works, his legacy and his influences. Young Terence's interest in design sprang from visiting an exhibition of austerity exports at the V&A in 1946, thinking I could do that, and slowly working his way up. Some of his earliest scribbles are on show, plus a variety of Fifties fabric designs of the kind your grandparents might have had had they been beyond trendy at the time. I settled down to watch a short 70s documentary about Sir T's work, filmed by Peter Greenaway no less, only for the room to be invaded by a pair of arty middle class parents and their offspring. Mother was semi-keen to watch the film, whereas the two young daughters only wanted was to sprawl all over the seating and scribble in their kiddie quiz leaflets. Both parents then attempted to use the mini-theatre as a kind of babysitter while they went off to look at some chairs, but soon had to return to remove their ill-behaved progeny, whose plaintive cries of "but I want to watch the film" could be heard from outside for several minutes afterwards. There were a heck of a lot of chairs to look at. From Conran's iconic 1960s wicker cone to later curvaceous leather curves, they provided an excellent opportunity to view his progression in style through the decades. A major section dealt with Habitat, the iconic High Street store which brought affordable design to the masses (I'm sure I recognised the cover of the 1974 catalogue from my parents magazine rack). Food also merited its own corner, combining utensils, crockery and Tezza's various high-dining restaurants. I lost interest slightly in the penultimate part, focusing on some sculptor bloke that Conran is promoting, then perked up rather at the recreation of his study complete with shelving units filled with hundreds of his actual books. Worth a look.
This is Design (24 August 2011 – 22 January) (i.e. until today!) The top floor exhibition isn't always a hot ticket (I believe a roomful of shoes is threatened for later in the year). But this is a winner, an assemblage of design icons from a broad range of product categories, laid out to show creative progression. A whole wall of chairs, obviously, because chairs define design defines chairs, or something. A big chunk of anglepoise lamps, obviously, because this is a design museum and that's what they do. But also a few less obvious selections, like a brief history of powered fans (from swirly blades to Dyson hoops) and an entire calculator retrospective. The museum owns half a Mini, sliced lengthwise, so that's on display between a Vespa and a Moulton. And for lovers of graphic design there's a wall of road signs, Kinneir & Calvert style, including a full size motorway sign (blimey, full size is big) and the small scale mockups that Jock and Margaret used in their initial presentation to a sceptical Ministry of Transport. Nearby stands a red phone box, as you'd expect, but also a single UK traffic light, designed in the mid Sixties by David Mellor (not that David Mellor) and still ubiquitous today. The crowd looking around on Saturday seemed appreciative, in a respectfully middle class way, although I think I'd have fitted in better if I'd had a beard. Exhibition closes this afternoon, last chance to see.
It's hoped that even more of the Design Museum's collection will be on display from 2014, when the entire operation ups sticks from the South Bank and moves into new premises in Kensington. That'll be the old Commonwealth Institute, whose empty shell museum staff proudly showed off last Open House weekend, much to my delight. Best of all the new place will be three times larger than the old, which means they can get much more of their collection out of storage and there'll be much more to see. I'm still never convinced that there's enough to see in the current building, which is why I don't go more often. Two floors of exhibits is all you get, and whether that's value for money depends entirely on whether an interesting pair of exhibitions is scheduled.