Client File: London’s Design Museum


Pamela Buxton talks to Alice Black, co-director of the newly relocated Design Museum, about the move and what she looks for when commissioning design.


Words by Pamela Buxton
Main Shot: Gareth Gardner Gift Shop: Luke Hayes

What was it about the former Commonwealth Institute building that appealed to you as a potential new home for the Design Museum?

The process started 10 years ago when the trustees took the view to look for other locations that would allow us to do more. We looked at options in Manchester, Milton Keynes and then at Potters Fields close to our old home and also next to Tate Modern. But none of these came to fruition.

Then we were approached separately about the former Commonwealth Institute by both the developer and the local authority. We took one look and thought it was a match made in heaven. It’s a very beautiful, special building and we felt it was an amazing opportunity for the museum, although we knew it wouldn’t be a straightforward project to convert it.

New home for the Design Museum is in the former Commonwealth institute building in Kensington
New home for the Design Museum is in the former Commonwealth institute building in Kensington

What does the new venue enable you to do that you couldn’t before?

We’ve trebled the amount of museum space. Having more space allows us to operate almost like a multiplex cinema with, at any one time, different shows for different ranges of knowledge about design. There’s a wide audience for design – it’s not just for an audience of designers and architects, but for everyone.

Our free display on the top floor, Designer Maker User, is intended as the gateway into the subject of design. We’re all users and consumers of design, so we chose to tell the story of design from that point of view. We want to show exhibitions that are interesting and challenging for visitors who are designers such as the opening show, Fear and Love, which was a manifesto about how design is changing to address current issues. There are also two more exhibition spaces as well as 500 sq m of learning studios (compared with 90 sq m before) for different activities for different audiences.

The design museum’s shop incorporates original stained glass windows, relocated as part of the conversion of the building to its new useThe design museum’s shop incorporates original stained glass windows, relocated as part of the conversion of the building to its new use

Why did you choose John Pawson to lead the design?

Back in 2009/10 we ran a competition for architects to work with us on our new home. We chose John because he had a very calm approach to what could have been be a very complicated building. He really understood the constraints of this listed building and the opportunity it afforded, as well as how to create an inviting interior for visitors.

The Pan-European Living Room by Oma, an installation from the opening exhibition Fear and Love – Reactions to a Complex WorldThe Pan-European Living Room by Oma, an installation from the opening exhibition Fear and Love – Reactions to a Complex World. Photo Credit: Luke Hayes

What sort of environment do you think is appropriate for a design museum?

We didn’t want a bland background to our programme (although it would be hard to imagine that would be possible with that roof!) Instead, we wanted to enhance the architectural features of the building by revealing them in unexpected and very subtle ways as [the visitor] walks up and around the atrium to the top floor. John did this fantastically well.

Use of material was critical. We used oak to soften the hard concrete of the roof. It gives such a warm interior. Our top priority was that the museum would be welcoming and you do get the sense that visitors feel at home in the museum – people love to mill around the staircase and lie on the benches on the mezzanine.

Ma Ke’s Wuyong project, which creates clothes with a connection to rural China’s land and traditions, from Fear and Love – Reactions to a Complex WorldMa Ke’s Wuyong project, which creates clothes with a connection to rural China’s land and traditions, from Fear and Love – Reactions to a Complex World. Photo Credit: Luke Hayes

Did you enjoy the collaboration?

I loved it – it was a great experience. John Pawson and his team were great to work with. They listened to us – we never felt that his views were being forced on the museum. He always found a clever way to accommodate our many demands. John was the lead architect working with a large professional design team. They were all really open to the collaboration – there was no rivalry. The museum is a great place to be and it’s been very rewarding to have been involved in a project like this.

What has proved to be the biggest challenge throughout the design project?

Coordination – there are so many different elements and activities to get into a coherent whole. Keeping the strong, authentic vision that we had at the start, all the way through to the end of the project, while retaining a creative license, is hard. But it’s also the best part.

Would you do anything differently if you could start the project again?

Hindsight is wonderful, but I strongly feel we made the best choices every step of the way with the constraints we had. We’ve achieved the best balance. There were trade-offs – the cafe on the ground floor is a little small and we are still working that through. But would I have wanted a bigger cafe and a smaller gallery? No. Nor would I have wanted a smaller shop – the shop is critical for generating revenue as we have very little Government funding.

Did you work with any other designers on the interior of the new museum?

We worked with Universal Design Studio that designed the members’ room and restaurant, and with Studio Myerscough that designed the permanent exhibition. Cartlidge Levene did the wayfinding and Studio Fernando Gutiérrez did an identity refresh.

As a design museum, do you see yourself as having a responsibility for encouraging new design talent and being an exemplary design client?

Yes – it would be hard to say anything else! We wanted to be a model client and give as many opportunities as possible to architects and designers. A lot of our activities aim to promote new talent and to give opportunities to students from school through to university and beyond, and we’ve created spaces that will allow us to do just that. In our previous building we were not able to give our Designers in Residence their own studios to work from and carry out residencies. Now, we have two studios for residents on the top floor of the museum, by the permanent display, from where they can work and also engage with the public.

Fibre market by Christien meindertsma, from Fear and Love – Reactions to a Complex WorldFibre market by Christien meindertsma, from Fear and Love – Reactions to a Complex World. Photo Credit: Luke Hayes

What strategy do you have for choosing your exhibition designers?

We have a curatorial team led by Justin McGuirk and his role is to keep an eye out on what’s going on in the design and architectural world to make sure that we’re having the right conversations and are working with thought-provoking designers and architects.

We have between six and eight exhibitions each year and we commission designers through call-outs for expressions of interest. We try to bring in new talent and design that is suited to each exhibition. There’s no set template but we use design to communicate in a pertinent and very accessible way. On Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution exhibition we are working with Kellenberger-White (2D design) and Kuehn Malvezzi (3D design) and on California, we’re working with Barnbrook (2D design) and Plaid (3D design).

We look for designers who can respond to the brief in a creative way and help convey the exhibitions’ key messages. We’re also looking for designs that consider the sustainability of the exhibition and how its components could be recycled.

Apart from exhibition design, what other opportunities are there for designers, particularly emerging talent, at the new Design Museum?

There are plenty of opportunities for different kinds of designers to become involved with the museum – we’re always designing new things. We’re working with designers on developing some of our learning activities and we’re also looking at commissions for the plinth outside the museum. We’re also going to start populating different parts of the museum with other commissions.





Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial