Nestled on the south shore of the Thames just next to Tower Bridge and among the atmospheric Shad wharf renewals, where walkways cross overhead like something from a steampunk fantasy, the angular building of the design museum looks like a classy establishment and the top dollar prices for adult tickets will make you expect it to be just that. It is not a particularly large museum, there are two floors hosting exhibitions plus the ground floor shop and cafe. I’ve probably been spoilt by attending so many excellent free museums in London, so the £12.40 entry price perhaps jarred with me a bit more than it may to others. “It’d better be good”, I thought to myself, and it was good, but not great, and ironically I felt it suffered from some elements of poor museum design.
The first floor of the museum hosts rotating exhibitions, not normally something I look at in this blog, however I will discuss these later.
The top floor, where I recommend a visit is started, is divided between new designs and design classics from the 20th century.
I’m by no means an aesthete and good design to me often means those functional things I have long taken for granted -the simple things it’s hard to believe were once new, things which are intuitive and practical. A host of such items can be seen here, take for example the Angle-Poise Lamp. Were I to imagine the first time someone thought of an electric lamp, I would picture a thought bubble appearing above the head an early 20th century designer conveying exactly this design, as if it was the most obvious design. But the Angle-Poise was in fact a product of design genius in its flexibility and practicality. The museum walls are adorned with multiple wooden shelves or cases (vocabulary for this escapes me) which set out a path for visitors to follow. Across the centre of the room are a number of such cases reserved to tell the story of the Angle-Poise lamp, the first of which was created be George Carwardine in 1932. I found it interesting how designers focussed on improved practicality, then in later years progressed to improved aesthetics and ultimately the success of the design had made it so ubiquitous that designers began to experiment with ironic interpretations of the form – one designer whose name escapes me created the “No Poise, No Angle” lamp, like a melted-welly version of the lamp it lies horizontally across the floor like a flaccid version of its formerly erect self.
Amongst the other everyday items we can appreciate are British Motorway road signs, traffic lights, the classic red phone boxes and Biros. Also there are patent-heavy designs like the Dyson vacuum cleaner, which proved to be a tremendous success, on the other hand the Sinclair C5 electric car was less of a winner, nonetheless the design techniques for moulding the plastic are praised, something the likes of you and I may have never considered. There are loads more items which vary between “interesting but probably impractical” (some curiously shaped chairs) to “very dull but now I think about it really good designs”, with red plastic chairs which any teacher will recognise as still being used in classrooms worldwide and succesfully resisting the students’ urge to lean back on it to the point of no return. In my opinion this was the most enjoyable part of the museum – it also included the inevitable 2012 Olympics section and probably the 5th or 6th Olympic torch to have crossed my path amongst the 48 museums so far, maybe these torches will get moved on in 2014.
Immediately next to the stairs on the second floor is the section to new designers. I found enjoying/ appreciating this a bit more challenging as these designs were much more conceptual and it wasn’t easy for me to see exactly what they offer to the world – one of them was about replacing cold touchscreen controls with softer fabrics, not sure why, another was some sort of self-censoring internet device which seemed devoid of even intent to make it practicable would that be a desirable thing in any case, there were loads of interesting 3d printed vessels and figurines (my first exposure to 3d printed items so that was nice- my friend Andrew keeps going on about how great these things are) and finally the most thoughtful and useful new concept, a music box designed to connect physical objects from someone’s memories to music of a certain era, which offers a great deal to those who suffer from Dementia. I liked that last one at least.
Now I’m perfectly willing to accept I am a design philistine, the sort of person who would, in the old Sinatra song, have laughed at Edison recording sound and thinks I-pads are rubbish. However I feel qualified to criticise the decision to print the descriptions of the young designers’ designs directly onto the museums plastic tables is a strange decision – much of the text explaining each concept or item has been rubbed away by the elbows or fingers of successive visitors and is now illegible.
As much as I enjoyed the drawings of clothing designs other visitors had pinned, upon invitation of the museum of course, inside the little alcove dedicated to fashion design, I felt that the 30 minutes or so I had spent on this floor weren’t hugely fulfilling relative to the cost of entry. However that cost also included access to the first floor, which I have to say was an extremely high quality exhibition on Paul Smith. Bright, full of behind-the-scenes access, with loads of video and audio content, it was very immersive and in terms of production values was as good as anything I’ve ever seen in a London museum. So, presuming all the other temporary exhibitions are as good, then the entrance fee suddenly doesn’t look as dear as before, plus it’s still cheaper than it’s nearest neighbouring museum, HMS Belfast.
In 2015 the Design Museum will be moving to a much larger home in Kensington. It took me an hour and a bit to get round the museum in its current form, I’ll be interested to see what the new version offers, at the current cost of entry it would be a while before I considered visiting again otherwise.
Location: (until 2015) Shad Thames, a few minutes to the East of Tower bridge’s Southern end. Nearest Tubes: Tower Hill, Tower Gateway (DLR), Bermondsey.
Entry Times: Daily 10am – 5.45pm
Prices: £12.40 Adult
Entrance is free to members and children under 6