Profile: Jeremy Myerson

From magazine journalism to lecturing at the RCA, co-founding the Helen Hamlyn Centre and the Worktech conferences, Jeremy Myerson is now helping at the helm of the Worktech Academy and doing a bit of curating for the Design Museum...

Words by Emily Martin

Journalist, director, lecturer, curator; these are just some of Jeremy Myerson’s associated job titles from his unparalleled career. Sixteen years of it was spent at the helm of the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the RCA, leaving a legacy that includes being at the head of the largest and longest-running research centre at the institution.

Though he has stepped down as director to pursue another project, he hasn’t stepped away completely. Last month saw the Design Museum, in London, host the New Old pop-up exhibition, which Myerson curated. He still undertakes research projects while working on his new venture Worktech Academy, an add-on to the Worktech conferences he co-founded in 2003 with Philip Ross.

Jeremy Myerson addresses a Worktech conferenceJeremy Myerson addresses a Worktech conference

Co-founding the Helen Hamlyn Centre in 1999 with Roger Coleman led to a number of research projects surrounding disability and design. The centre’s research was pioneering in not only addressing the needs of older people as well as the needs of people with specific disabilities through design, but also, crucially, teaching designers to rethink disability (and ability) altogether, by developing ideas around inclusive design.

‘The idea is that everybody ages, and it is not a disease; it’s a natural part of the life course,’ he says. ‘As you age, your abilities change and design needs to recognise that.

Either you are disabled, per say, in that you can’t deal with your physical environment for whatever reason, or your environment disables you. And these are very different positions philosophically.’

While working at his self-founded magazine Design Week in the Eighties Myerson visited an exhibition called New Design For Old. It was curated by Helen Hamlyn and was on at the Boiler House, the forerunner of the Design Museum. Some 30 years later, Myerson finds himself doing the exhibition again; this time to coincide with the reopening of the Design Museum and under the title New Old.

From the exhibition New Old at the Design Museum. Image Credit: Luke HayesFrom the exhibition New Old at the Design Museum. Image Credit: Luke Hayes

The original Eighties’ exhibition led Coleman to set up the Design Age Programme at the RCA in the early Nineties. Myerson, who had at this point left Design Week and was tutoring at the RCA, had also been inspired by the exhibition while also influenced by the designer Patricia Moore, who he had heard speak and eventually met. Dressed as an old woman, Moore (she was 26) lived on the streets of New York as part of an immersive research project about older people, and wrote a book about it.

‘I chaired a couple of panels and set up some design challenges; it was really very exciting’, recalls Myerson of his involvement with the Design Age Programme. He then put himself forward as a candidate for the co-director position of the soon-to-be founded Helen Hamlyn Centre, along with Coleman (taking over as director after his retirement).

Curating the New Old exhibition at the Design Museum, Myerson speaks of a desire to reawaken people ‘30 years after the initial wake-up’ of the Hamlyn-curated exhibition.

‘The new-old have had a better diet and better healthcare, are more travelled, are going to have to work longer and have had very different life experiences,’ he says. ‘This exhibition [was] more an exhibition of ideas, rather than products, and it includes all types of design.’

Divided into sections – Ageing; Identity; Home; Working; Community and Mobility – each featured a commission from a leading designer to produce work that would enhance later-life experiences. Konstatin Grcic, Yves Béhar and Priestmangoode were some of the big industry design-names who produced work for New Old, ranging from robotic clothing to a redesigned mobility scooter. ‘It’s not all about decrepitude, dependency and disease,’ emphasises Myerson.

Aura power suit/ Yves Béhar, Fuseproject and Superflex for New Old. Image Credit: Luke HayesAura power suit/Yves Béhar, Fuseproject and Superflex for New Old. Image Credit: Luke Hayes

And it’s this holistic approach to design, or rather people, that initially got Myerson and Ross organising a conference in 2003 about an inclusive workplace. ‘[Ross] was going to a lot of techy conferences on the future of work that didn’t mention space, interiors, furniture or buildings. It was all about widgits and devices! I was going to architecture conferences on the future of workplace and they didn’t mention tech. And nobody mentioned people. So Ross said “Why don’t we do a conference”?’

The first Worktech conference took place in the British Library. Addressing the workplace from a people perspective the event attracted 300 attendees. And they enjoyed it, but they liked meeting each other even more, From there Ross grew the conference into a global franchise and, once moving on from the Helen Hamlyn Centre, asked Myerson to rejoin him to grow the Worktech Academy.

Launched in September 2016, it joins Myerson’s seemingly countless new (and successful) ventures. A global knowledge community, with an online hub, the Workplace Academy organises a mix of online and live events, as well as networking opportunities for its members. It’s also a thorough capture of the research and ideas being discussed at the conferences, with members ranging from global property directors to a supply chain of software writers and manufacturers, and beyond.

Scooter for Life/ PriestmanGoode for New Old. Image Credit: Luke HayesScooter for Life/ PriestmanGoode for New Old. Image Credit: Luke Hayes

To some, this may look like a leap of subject matter – from design that addresses age and disability to the future of the workplace – but Myerson says much of his Helen Hamlyn Centre research crosses over into the workplace. For one, the age of retirement has increased since the centre was set up 17 years ago, leading to practical issues for older people in the workplace. And it’s these, along with many other issues, that Myerson is seeking to explore and discuss with a network of professionals in the Workplace Academy.

Will he be linking this back to a major research institution such as the RCA? While establishing connections with some leading European universities, Myerson says it’s not the focus: ‘Helen Hamlyn Centre is much more focused in the design area and pure research, whereas the Worktech Academy is a professional networking hub. It is a thought leadership programme, coming up with new ideas and thinking about those things.’

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