Sophie Campbell



Design Museum reopens in W8

November 29, 2016

Kensington’s faded Commonwealth Institute building has come back to life with a stunning £83m, 10,000 square foot conversion.

What a rollercoaster.

First the news that the Design Museum, founded in 1989 by Terence Conran at Shad Thames, was to move to the Grade II*-listed former Commonwealth Institute on Kensington High Street, W8. Hurrah!

Then the realisation that its home-to-be, a Modernist landmark that wowed Londoners with its soaring roof and concrete canopy when it opened in 1962 was to be jostled by three new white cubic apartment blocks, obscuring the crucial apron of space facing the road. Oh no.

Finally, the public opening on November 24, when I approached (via one of the apartment blocks) behind two men. ‘It’s not elegant,’ muttered one. He didn’t mean the exterior: it looks wonderful. He meant the setting: one of the original buttresses anchoring the roof is metres from the second cube of apartments. Sigh.

But inside – what a relief. John Pawson has created a perfect backdrop for stuff. White walls and pale oak soared up to the canopy, which floated above us like a flying hanky, diffusing gentle light from hidden apertures in its sides. Visitors ascended, descended and lounged between staircases as if the museum had been open forever.

A free display of 1,000 objects from the permanent collection, ‘Designer Maker User’, occupies half the top floor, starting with a wall of crowdsourced familiar objects. Visitors stand in front of it, pointing at windscreen squeegees, Nokia mobiles and Paper Mate pencils, going ‘You had one of those!’ and ‘I remember that!’

Objects hang from racks and reassuring timber panels, like a potting shed owned by a very stylish hoarder; typefaces so familiar we no longer notice them; logos in orange plastic twirling gently on high; Frank Gehry’s sinuous S-shaped corrugated cardboard chair; crystalline 3D-printed skyscraper models by Zaha Hadid; the gleaming front of a Tube train.

Before ‘Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World’, one of two temporary shows, I’d never heard of Ma Ke, a celebrated Chinese designer who has rejected fashion to work with textile communities and create garments of immense beauty, in this case displayed dimly lit on a bed of rich, dark earth.

Installations commissioned from established designers included heaps of recycled wool, vivid as powder paint, and 3D-printed ‘death masks’ clouded with colour like Murano glass.

Downstairs, the Beazley Designs of the Year show hummed with optimism, full of ideas ingenious, witty and sly, including Adidas-Parley trainers made from recycled fishing nets.

For me, the highlights were seeing a 3D printer creating a vase, hearing a young Italian in the display studios explain his crazy hairdryers made using found objects and skills sourced from a tiny local area, and the sheer, airy joy of the revitalised space, set in easily one of the loveliest parks in London.

Most of all I loved walking along Kensington High Street afterwards, seeing shop fascia and logos and traffic lights and bicycles and ski wear and shoes with completely new eyes.

Apartment blocks? What apartment blocks?

  • Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High St, London W8 6AG. 10am to 6pm. Admission free, temporary exhibitions £10-£14 adults.
  • Also see my Design Museum Pinterest board.

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Sophie Campbell

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