First look at the Design Museum is one of awe and excitement. Then the captivating space is hard to leave. The old Commonwealth Institute, a London icon since the 1960s, has been given a new life and purpose as a creative centre nurturing the next generation of designers.
The £83 million museum is three times the size of the former Design Museum at Shad Thames. At it’s opening an emotional Sir Terence Conran said: “Moving the museum to Kensington has been the most important part of my career. It’s a dream to me, a dream that has been a long time materialising, 10 years in fact. The little museum in Butlers Wharf became too small for all the things I wanted to do. [The new museum] is truly international with the size and scale for serious promotion of design and architecture in this country. I don’t think there is anywhere in the world that comes up to this museum at the moment. Perhaps China in the future. I am full of excitement as we open this amazing cathedral of design.”
Reinier de Graaf of OMA was the architect responsible for the structural refurbishment of the building’s shell and the stunning new interior is the work of local architectural design genius John Pawson. “The owners wanted to bring the site back to life,” says de Graaf, pointing out the limitations that were imposed on the architects as it is also listed. The original building, by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, completed in 1962, marks the transition from British Empire to Commonwealth and is regarded by English Heritage as an important modern building, but it has stood empty and been closed to the public since 2002. Then, in 2006, the grade II* listed building was threatened with demolition after a failed government proposal to delist it.
Pawson and his team learnt a lot about the building from English Heritage and kept the marble and stained glass windows and the old map many of us remember well. A main concern was keeping the openess of the building so you see the parabolic roof above you. Pawson says: “Having decided to keep the atrium and the amazing view of the roof, [the next thing] was to try to make a building that was beautiful for people as well as objects.” As Sir Terence says, it has been done with quality and intelligence and he adds: “I think the museum is friendly and full of surprises. I feel like I could live here.”
Apart from fabulous exhibitions, there will be a learning programme in big open design spaces sponsored by Swarovski. The museum hopes to attract a wide range of learners for hands on design and would like to here from any local schools who would like to use the facilities. Head of Learning, Catherine Hitman-Smith, says: “We want to encourage young people to step into the shoes of the designer, take on design briefs. A lot of it is to do with questioning why does this chair work? and how do designers solve problems for us?.” Being creative and being neighbours also means there will be collaborations with the Serpentine.
As Pawson says: “Its marvellous to save the building and to have it as what is now a World class centre for design.” As local film maker Margy Kinmonth observes: “It’s the new Guggenheim with square edges.” You’re in for a treat, it opens today, 24th November. There is the Beasley Design of the Year winners in the basement, an amazing exhibition called Fear and Love on the ground floor and a permanent exhibition at the top. And there’s a great new restaurant too. designmuseum