Designing a new Future: London’s new Design Museum

Designing a new Future: London’s new Design Museum


After 5 years of tantalising rumour, the Design Museum has finally opened its doors at its new home on Kensington High Street. Housed in the grade II* listed Commonwealth Institute building, the Museum has succeeded in bringing the landmark back to life after over 10 years of neglect. Following an investment of £83m, a complex renovation has transformed the structure into a space capable of housing a world-leading institution dedicated to contemporary design and architecture.

The project has seen some of the world’s leading designers, manufacturers and patrons come together to collectively create the London design hub.  With architectural and structural expertise from OMA, Allies and Morrison and Arup, they have succeeded in restoring the building’s spectacular concrete roof and distinctive facade. Remodelling the interior, architect John Pawson has created a striking oak- lined atrium, which contrasts and enhances the original roof structure.  Many others have also contributed: there is a permanent collection designed by Studio Myerscough, way-finding by Cartlidge Levene, and furniture by Vitra. It is an outstanding example of interdisciplinary collaboration, which exemplifies how the museum has operated since its inception.

Founded by Sir Terence Conran, the Design Museum started out in 1981 in an unused and dilapidated space in the basement of The Victoria and Albert Museum. Previously named the ‘Boilerhouse Project’, the gallery aimed to promote a better understanding of the commercial and cultural benefits of good design. In 1989 the project metamorphosed into the Design Museum, and it found a permanent home in a former banana factory at Shad Thames, Bermondsey. In a move back near its origins, the Design Museum has gained over three times as much exhibition space in a much more accessible location.

The new museum sits at the southern entrance to Holland Park, and forms the heart of the new Holland Green Residential development. Following the terms of the Section 106 agreement for the housing scheme, the Design Museum was granted a 175-year lease of the listed Commonwealth building. The site masterplan and residential buildings were designed by OMA to complement the original building. As explained by OMA Partner, Reinier de Graaf: “The new museum is flanked by the new residential blocks; like discreet servants, their restrained, orthogonal geometries pose a contrast to the dramatic hyperbolic lines of the historic exhibition hall’s roof.”  The site is tight, and the new residential blocks play a critical role in framing the new museum and creating a connection to Kensington High Street that is sure to encourage footfall.  

The complex renovation of the museum saw the team work together to bring the landmark back into use. The original concrete floors were removed and replaced in order to provide the load bearing capacity required of a modern museum. This engaged radical engineering techniques to prop the roof on a temporary steel structure 20 metres above the ground. The original façade was also replaced to significantly improve its insulation standards and allow daylight into the interior. This however came with its own challenges; meticulous detailing to resemble the blue skin of the original façade. To call the building a refurbishment is an understatement; the new Design Museum is in fact almost an entirely new building.

The Design Museum is the first major public work of John Pawson, an architect known for producing simple yet sensuous spaces of a refined quality.  Inside the museum, Pawson has created a spectacular atrium, with striking views up to the iconic hyperbolic paraboloid roof above. A “cathedral of design”, as described by Sir Terence Conran, the space is monumental.  Resembling an “opencast mine”, visitors are able to navigate the oak clad space level by level, visiting galleries, learning spaces, event spaces and libraries as they go. All the while, the anticipation of reaching the extraordinary roof above intensifies.

Learning is at the heart of the new building. The gallery continues to provide an important resource for students, designers and the public to stimulate design awareness and discussion. Educational spaces are woven through the museum, encouraging and promoting an engagement with the process of design. For the first time in its history, the Design Museum’s Design Residency scheme, which provides designers “with time and space to research and consider new ways of progressing their work and practice” actually resides on site. Located in the midst of the space, it provides an international showcase for new designers.  

The museum’s commitment to fostering culture and creativity is reflected in annual exhibition of the Beazley Designs of the Year, which forms part of the opening programme. Comprising of over 70 nominations, the exhibition celebrates the best designs from around the world over the last 12 months. It extends across a range of categories including architecture, fashion and product design. In January a winner will be selected in each category and one overall winner will be announced.

Walking around the nominations, one is filled with an overwhelming sense of optimism; that the new generation of designers is keen to make a difference. Projects include: a sexual health testing kit, a flat pack refugee shelter, trainers made from recycled fishing nets and a number of new community projects and buildings. Despite their diversity and varied scale, the vast majority of the designs have one thing in common; a desire to make positive social or environmental change. The exhibition successfully reiterates the Design Museum’s fundamental message; that good design can improve people’s quality of life. With the new Design Museum, this message is now centre stage, on the world stage, and that is exciting.

A space built by generosity; the new Design Museum reveals its own generous heart. In Sir Terence Conran’s words: “Design is about optimism and this is what this space is about… I hope we can educate inspire and delight future generations to come.” It is space that encourages hope for the future at a time when we really do need it.

The Design Museum is located on Kensington High Street and is open from 10:00 – 18:00. Last admission is at 17:00. Current exhibits include: Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, Beazley Designs of the Year, and the Design Museums free permanent display: Designer Maker User.

About author
Profile photo of KCW Today Editors