How London’s Design Museum Brought Itself Out of the Dark Ages


What do you do with a leaky modernist masterpiece whose founding tenant has moved on? More importantly, what do you do with a soaring, manta-ray-like roof, one that seemed to stay aloft purely on early ’60s optimism at the dawn of really uncertain times?

The new home of London’s Design Museum has a few answers to those questions. The much anticipated space opened in November on the site of Kensington’s crumbling Commonwealth Institute building, built by the once-cutting-edge architectural firm RMJM. When it was built in 1960, the building was considered a modernist London marvel, but since its glory days, it has depressingly fallen into disrepair. The floating disc of a lobby once seemed like it could be the set for a futuristic superhero movie, but it has lain dormant and untended for over a dozen years. The swooping roof (a hyperbolic parabola, in architect-speak) lent a quirky touch to London’s skyscape, but the building seemed poised for irrelevance until the Design Museum moved in.

Under the obsessive oversight of the legendary Rem Koolhaas and his firm, OMA, the building’s concrete-and-glass exterior has been buffed to an unearthly blue sheen. The interior atrium is an upside-down ziggurat-shaped excavation by John Pawson (known in the US for his work with Ian Schrager). It’s clearly meant to be the ultimate museum party space, nudging the gallery space offstage.

OMA recruited who’s who among global architects and designers to help him with the project, including such top-shelf firms as Studio Myerscough, Universal Design Studio, Dinesen, Vitra, Vitsœ, and Studio Fernando Gutiérrez. With that much talent at hand, the results couldn’t be anything but stunning.

Of course, that hasn’t prevented lots of people from bitching. To finance the new museum, OMA built a neighborhood of herky-jerky luxury apartments around the museum. Others have compared Pawson’s oak-lined interior to something you might find at your everyday, wanna-be-sleek boutique hotel.

It’s true that this new home is a very luxe transformation for the museum itself, which Sir Terence Conran founded in a banana-ripening warehouse near Tower Bridge in 1989. The new headquarters give it the room to house an extensive library, a restaurant called Parabola, and 30,000 square feet of exhibition space.

The museum’s main collection includes all the expected winners of Good Design Awards, including a Tube map, an Olivetti typewriter, a Walkman, and an iPod. Other exhibitions are more exciting. The ninth annual Beasley Design of the Year exhibition showcases design trends in technology, graphics, and fashion, from adidas printed up in 3-D to a dystopian city of lecherous Legos.

Even darker is Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, an exhibit wrapped in black floor-to-ceiling curtains that lends it an appropriate sense of impending doom. Inside the show takes on everything from Internet-enabled sexuality to slow fashion to sentient robots. In one room, designer Hussein Chalayan shows off some high-tech wearables meant to betray your repressed emotions. Next door, OMA built a wet dream of a mid-century-modern living room with a wall-sized mural of a bombed-out ‘40s Europe looming behind multicolored vertical blinds. To cap it all off, Dutch product designer Christien Meindertsma has built mounds of ground-up wool sweaters, having made a point about textile recycling at the same time that she created the most beautiful object in the museum.

Haters gonna hate. But if you find a way to save a fantastic creature like the Commonwealth Institute’s exterior while also creating a home for both bleeding-edge work and design’s greatest hits—you can be forgiven for quite a bit.


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