London's New Design Museum Installations With A Purpose By Edward Lucie-Smith
The new Design Museum is, architecturally at least, a curious hybrid. The gull-wing roof of the old Commonwealth Institute survives, but pretty much everything beneath it, in the new facility designed by the Minimalist architect John Pawson, is new. He seems to have managed the apparently impossible feat of building from the roof downwards, rather than from the ground upwards. Meanwhile, the Museum has achieved a measure of financial independence by building a block of rather banal flats on what used to be the Commonwealth’s Institute’s old forecourt. You don’t see much, or indeed anything, of the revamped building from the street.
The sacrifice seems well worth it, as it appears to have liberated the Design Museum financially from our now ever-present and over influential cultural bureaucracy, personified here in London both by the two Tates and also, to some extent at least, by the nearby Victoria & Albert Museum. Long may this condition of independence last.
Some elements in what you see a new facility do recall things familiar from these grandiose official rivals – for example, ample areas where you can socialize if you don’t feel much like looking at art. Or, in this case, at Design with a capital D. A suitably bountiful gift shop, placed where you can’t miss it, full of design-approved tchotchkes, A wall display that’s a great clutter of familiar objects, paying tribute to the Great God Collage, rather than to the objects themselves, as individual solutions to specific design problems.
The guts of what the museum offers are, however, to be found in the series of eleven installations that make up its opening exhibition. It’s worth quoting what the press release has to say about then:
“These newly commissioned works explore a spectrum of issues that define our time, including networked sexuality, sentient robots, slow fashion and settled nomads. The exhibition shows how design is deeply connected not to commerce and culture but to urgent underlying issues – issues that inspire fear and love.”
Fear and Love is, in fact, the title chosen for the whole display. Take away the word ‘design’, prudently suppress the word ‘commerce’, and you’d get something that you do just as well as an introduction to the current Turner Prize show at Tate Britain, which also consists entirely of somewhat moralizing installations.
One installation, for example, is called The Pan-European Living Room and is furnished with a ‘piece of design’ from each of the 28 EU member states. Another uses custom software to transform a large industrial robot into a mopping and mowing creature called Mimus, that reacts to and interacts with its audience. Another is a protest piece about whaling. Yet another, the work of an architecture collective, is a replica of a school for disadvantaged children in Bogota, housing a series of videos by young people from the school, “who are reflecting on fear and love in their neighborhood.”
If the authors of all these were British, rather being of diverse nationalities, none of the installations here described would seem out of place as part of a Turner Prize display. Nor would anyone find it strange if they re-appeared, re-classified as ‘art’, in the upcoming 2017 Venice Biennale. The one way in which they triumph over the current Turner Prize is that their authors seem clearer about what objectives they are embracing and are much more efficient about actually conveying information.
You are left with the thought that, in the new electronic age, radical design has largely abandoned the old High Modernist aim of looking like art while at the same time being ready to serve some visibly practical purpose – sit on it, drink from it, ride around in it or on it – and now, in the Post Modern epoch, wishes to be primarily a focus for interactivity. If you engage with what you’re shown, the main objective has been achieved.
The fact is, however, that what still calls itself design tends to do this a lot more efficiently than what calls itself art. Go to the new Design Museum. Go to the current Turner Prize show. And make the comparison.