Behind the scenes at the museum

It was the first of its kind when it opened in 1989, but following a high-profile boardroom feud, London's Design Museum is in crisis. Stephen Bayley, who was its first director, lifts the lid on an almighty clash of egos and asks, has this once-dynamic institution had its day?
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The Independent Online

White, square, confident and uncompromising, the Design Museum sits on Butler's Wharf near London Bridge, the perfect monument to Machine Age consciousness. I know, I was responsible for it. At the opening party we ate miniature packets of fish and chips wrapped in the Financial Times and I danced with Akihiko Amanuma, the Sony engineer who led the team that made the very first Walkman. Remember, this was the 1980s.

Now the Design Museum is at a point of change. Like a Brunel leviathan stuck on a Bristol Channel sandbank, it is magnificent, but problematic. Admired rather than loved, there are now plans to refloat it. As in the past, the future of this brave, if misunderstood, initiative depends on some intricate personal relationships and the vanities and ambitions defining them.

'I don't find lampshades very exalting' was the reply to my patient enquiry. This was nearly 30 years ago and I was speaking to Alan Bowness, Dame Barbara Hepworth's patrician son-in-law, then director of the Tate Gallery. In those days - when you could still buy a brand new Ford Cortina, the Bee Gees' "Night Fever" was number one in something called the hit parade, new media meant cassette tapes, and the personal computer had yet to be invented - the Tate was a slightly snoozy picture gallery on Millbank. True, it had the country's outstanding collection of modern and abstract paintings, but its sense remained one of ultramontane refinement, a haunt of connoisseurs and critics, not a playground for neophiliac style-hounds, bravura sensationalists or brand managers.

I had asked Bowness if he would like to have a department of modern design to showcase masterpiece electric food-mixers, along the lines of New York's Museum of Modern Art. My question baffled and flustered the genteel director. In those days, design was generally consigned to the women's pages of national newspapers, somewhere between hanging baskets and recipes for lasagne. The realisation of everyday beauty, the fetishisation of objects, the ultimate triumph of pop culture and the democratisation of luxury, filling the economic vacuum left by the disappearance of manufacturing... all those things that made the explosion of design awareness so congruent with the mood of the 1980s, could not be imagined in the sepulchral calm of the Tate Gallery in the late 1970s. Strange and wonderful, then, that the Design Museum is now planning a £50m relocation to the Bankside hinterland of Nick Serota's very busy Tate franchise for 2012.

I was in Bowness's study as an emissary of Terence Conran, then, as now, the most persuasive spokesman for design as a joint expression of the Pleasure Principle and, to a lesser extent, of the Profit Motive. In the late 1970s, Conran's Habitat stores were routinely said to be "bringing Bauhaus to the High Street". Critics moaned about fugitive dyes in fabrics and legs with unresolved relationships to carcasses, not to mention the fictive "stripped pine" and the useful, if abused, chicken brick, but since I was old enough to remember the days when furniture shopping with my parents had been a depressing, involuntary (omega) immersion in chambers of brown nastiness lit by fluorescent tubes, the optimism and brightness of Habitat seemed like an epiphany. As a schoolboy, I devoured foreign architecture magazines, since they offered a vista of escape. I loved reading Fiona MacCarthy and Reyner Banham, then the only English writers taking design seriously. Or Tom Wolfe. After Habitat, it was amazing to discover that escape was not necessary, at least not for those reasons.

By the late 1970s, Conran found that he had enough money to do something substantial for design education. I was nearly demented with passion about world improvement through right angles and good lighting. I still am, in fact. Conran found me when he discovered I was writing a book about product design (eventually published in 1979 as In Good Shape). I was plucked from the richly deserved obscurity of the provincial university where I worked and sent, with amazing generosity and confidence, not to say bravura carelessness, around the world to check if a museum of design was planned anywhere else. After New York, Washington, Oslo, Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Munich, Berlin, Geneva, Zurich, Paris and places I may have forgotten, I returned to report a career-enhancing "no". I now became the very first, brand-new director of The Conran Foundation, an educational charity to be funded by the planned stock-market flotation of Habitat, whose ultimate purpose was to create that hitherto-missing design museum.

There was a strong sense of purpose to all this, but also a neat commercial logic: Conran reckoned, and I agreed, that if you could enthuse the public about design they would be more likely to shop in Habitat, thus creating a virtuous circle of inspiration leading to demand, leading to more profit and, hence, to more educational investment.

Bowness's insensitivity to lampshades was no deterrent to Conran's ample funds and my ambition, although the Science Museum was also not interested when I called: CP Snow's "two cultures" maintained vivid separate identities in South Kensington. We admired and looked at the newly redundant Battersea Power Station, but the estimate for re-pointing the world's largest brick structure was daunting. Milton Keynes gave us a site and I nurtured fevered futuristic visions of stacker trucks rushing up and down a warehouse lit by Holophane Prismatic Luminaires fetching Braun stereos off shelves for students to admire and analyse. And then what happened was Sir Roy Strong, under pressure to modernise and bring funds into the V&A, with a mixture of inspiration and a dash of opportunism, said we should get started in his own, great museum.

Since that institution had been founded to reform taste, it seemed an ideal opportunity and gave us instant credentials. What followed let me ride shotgun on a vehicle careening through the 1980s. We built the Boilerhouse Project in the museum's bowels to put on temporary exhibitions about design and all the while to advertise our plans to build a future design museum. The Boilerhouse Project opened in January 1982 and was a confrontationally bright, white space: my hard white office was shown during the credits for television's The Money Programme and was recced for a commercial for headache cures. No one had put a car on display in the V&A before because with the Victorian taxonomy no one could decide if a car came under "metalwork" or "sculpture". We did. It was a Saab.

With more than 20 exhibitions in less than six years, by some measures the Boilerhouse became London's most successful and popular gallery space of the decade: sometimes our attendances exceeded those in the V&A as a whole - to the chagrin of the more conservative keepers, one of whom banged a table and shouted, "You have traduced the Museum!" and walked out. There were tens of thousands of column inches, many of them by me. I went on Wogan twice to discuss taste. And all the while, we were planning our permanent museum.

The site was found for us by the late Max Gordon, architect of the original Saatchi Collection (converted from a paint factory in St John's Wood). Gordon identified a grim 1950s warehouse (at the time full of Korean War army surplus) in the neglected stretch of Dickensian London known as Shad Thames. Ford provided its Mayfair HQ to use as a fundraising shop window. Kenneth Clarke came for lunch and gave us DTI money. Fiat gave us money. Mrs Thatcher gave us her time. At a memorable dinner in Downing Street she scolded me that, "You must not call this a 'museum'." I was about to say, "But Prime Minister, we have considered all possible names and, notwithstanding the unfortunate antiquarian associations for so thrusting and relevant a subject, we feel 'museum' is best since it drags design into the arena of culture where we think it should be." But I never got the sentence finished as Mrs Thatcher, in front of many well-fed captains of industry (I had Simon Hopkinson do the food) said, "Don't 'but' me, young man." Still, it did not prevent her opening the Design Museum on 5 July, 1989.

Looking back, it seems this was the culmination of so much 1980s energy. I was immensely proud of a world first, but also a little disturbed by what had been created. It had been our idea to make a museum so people would take design seriously, but by the time we opened that process had already begun. Indeed, I remember standing on the Design Museum's beautiful riverside terrace and musing elegiacally that what we had made was not, in fact, so very different from a smart shop. We had built a fine monument to an argument that was already won.

And, significantly, the Design Museum even incubated one of the forces that began to undermine museums in general: long before popular access to the internet, we had an early version of Apple's HyperCard that allowed screen-based research. Why have a museum's collection when you can buy the items in the shops or scrutinise them online?

After all, design is by definition mass-produced so no special value is inherent in a unique object. Besides, how best to edit the obscene fecundity of manufacturing industry? Nevertheless, we had painstakingly made 1:1 wooden models of Le Corbusier's car and a De Stijl modernist motorbike to compensate for the missing V&A's modern collection, once promised to us, but never realised. Perplexed by these paradoxes, demented by the raging publicity, our chairman (a Midlands industrial type who was not actually wearing a brown warehouse coat and tinkering with callipers, but should have been) said after a ferocious blaze of publicity began to expire: "That's all very well, Stephen, but are you going to stop going on television and writing articles and concentrate on being a curator?" Since my conception of the Design Museum was that it should work through the media, as grit works in oysters to form pearls, I certainly was not, so walked out in an existential funk. I bought chocolate and a girly magazine and sat on a capstan to wonder whatever next.

It was difficult for directors of the Design Museum in the 1990s to match the perhaps over-excited expectations that we had so energetically flushed up. Helen Rees and Paul Thompson did workmanlike jobs, but the museum lost its messianic sense of purpose, ate money and put on humdrum shows. Meanwhile, Terence Conran, hitherto an inspiration - sometimes belligerent, but never dull - was absent, building a restaurant empire which defined the taste of the 1990s as surely as Habitat had in earlier decades. The museum was predictable and unexciting, but survived. And then a Financial Times journalist called Alice Rawsthorn was appointed director in 2001. Rawsthorn, with (omega) a sort of tragic symmetry, was a product of the very popularisation of design that had been the museum's founding purpose. Flouncing in a blaze of designer labels (she can announce a preference for Prada without the irony necessary to make it acceptable), she used a journalist's awareness to focus not on art education, manufacturing processes or industrial art... but on celebrity. Suddenly, the Design Museum was blasted by the gusts of fashion, fame and celebrity. And the ghosts of Ruskin and Morris left the premises.

Rawsthorn was proud of her table at The Ivy, a celebrity petting zoo and the sort of place where bridge-and-tunnel folk text friends to say, "I've just seen Brad Pitt!" The bible for Conran and me was Siegfried Giedion's Mechanization Takes Command. Rawsthorn preferred Vogue or the breathlessly dans-le-vent Wallpaper, so was well-briefed about Manolo Blahnik and new macrobiotic tapas bars in Tallinn. If she cared anything for the historical, industrial and technological aspects of design, it was not apparent. I doubt that Rawsthorn could describe a catenary curve or a radius of gyration. If you mentioned a 6mm female hex drive, she might think it a sex toy.

Still, this passion for celebrity and sense of news and what's à-la-mode brought fresh energy and introduced popular new initiatives to the sleepy Design Museum. And, in so doing, Rawsthorn began to rewrite what design meant at the beginning of the 21st century. It was not a meaning either Conran or I much cared for, but it had as much pertinence as it had trashy absurdity. Thus, Rawsthorn was happy to rebuff proposals from Dieter Rams, a veritable god of Machine Age design, for an exhibition, while rather too assiduously cultivating Marc Newson, a cute Australian hipster specialising in making expensive, look-at-me furniture in small editions.

Then, in 2004, the museum suffered a crisis from which it is yet fully to recover: James Dyson, the chairman of the board of trustees, suddenly resigned... leaving a vacuum at the top. It is very odd for any chairman to resign since they are meant to represent stability and continuity. What is meant to happen is that directors resign when chairmen sack them, but they rarely sack themselves. That this should happen was shocking evidence of deep malaise in the Design Museum's internal culture.

James Dyson is an unusually successful inventor-engineer-entrepreneur. Like Conran, Dyson does not always resist the temptations of self-mythologising, but has strong beliefs and real achievements to his credit, and the world is a better place because of what he has done. Unfortunately, Alice Rawsthorn did not agree. Dyson's departure was notionally inspired by Rawsthorn's exhibition on Constance Spry, a flower arranger. Conran thought this crass because, in his view, Spry represents the artless bourgeois mediocrity he made it his life's purpose to eradicate. She is also not very interesting, even as a flower arranger. Dyson thinks flower arranging is ridiculous because, for him, it debases his interpretation of design as a problem-solving activity, based in technology, not a vase. But the dispute was really about what "design" actually means. To Conran, it is about making ordinary life more pleasurable for more people. To Dyson, it is about invention and manufacturing and engineering. To Rawsthorn, Constance Spry and her peonies would make a very amusing article in Wallpaper.

Through a leak, the spat about flower arranging went public. There is a lot of unexplored middle-ground between Dyson's cyclonic chambers and Spry's chrysanthemums. Dyson was wrong to want to restrict the Design Museum to titanium lock nuts: you can have solids and fluff, as any owner of a bagless cleaner knows. But Rawsthorn was more wrong to clamour for curiosity and fashionable controversy rather than research, knowledge and belief. The problem with fashion, as Coco Chanel knew, is that it goes out of fashion. People began to mutter that the Design Museum's programme lacked balance and that Rawsthorn lacked judgement, insight and empathy. Still, she survived although chastened and diminished.

Then, in 2005, the Designer of the Year award (a typically news-led Rawsthorn initiative) went to Hilary Cottam, a Design Council official who had developed a pedagogic programme that influenced the architects of a south London school. This was certainly a bold way to advertise the enlarging concept of "design" in post-industrial economies, but it was like giving an Oscar to Citibank for funding a movie. This was yet another audacious misjudgement by Rawsthorn and it terminally alienated Terence Conran. For someone of his materialistic world view (he cannot pick up a peach without pointing out that the cleft reminds him of a woman's bottom) such abstractions as Hilary Cottam were nonsensical. And as a patron who sank £20m into the Design Museum, being rewarded with what he felt was contempt was intolerable. Rawsthorn left in February this year to return to journalism. Around this time, I asked a leading art director what he thought of Rawsthorn's Design Museum. He said "Why go there?" The problem with treating web design as a legitimate subject for a museum, as Rawsthorn did, is that you don't need a building to do it. You just need a laptop.

The new director of the Design Museum is veteran journalist Deyan Sudjic, himself a product of the sometimes unreflective 1980s design enthusiasms: his Blueprint magazine shared its niche in the Zeitgeist with the Boilerhouse. He made his name on the Sunday Times and retains a journalist's sense of a story. For his work at Glasgow's City of Culture he won an OBE, but lost some friends. Politically of a finer grain than Rawsthorn, he replicates her ambition and maintains superb contacts in very good condition. It is said that his referees for his new job included Nick Serota and Richard Rogers. In the incestuous world of trustees, this probably made his application a done deal.

Whether or not Sudjic finds lampshades exalting, "Why go there?" is a question he has to answer really rather quickly to meet the target of opening a meaningful new Design Museum in six years' time. The idea remains relevant, but can only recover credibility with the broad programme and intellectual depth it has lacked. In 1978 it was easy: there was a very clear target, a case to be argued, hearts, eyes and minds to be won. The answer to that question is now not so obvious. Thirty years ago there were no rivals. Now there is the well-established Vitra Design Museum at Weil-am-Rhein in Germany and others are planned in Essen and in Israel. Additionally, we are in a flat world where everything is available anywhere at anytime. Is it merely quaint to put stuff on display as if it were a Donatello Madonna when anything can be reverse-engineered in China overnight?

Why have an expensive permanent collection when you have access to eBay? The original Design Museum was built at the end of the Machine Age, but since then assumptions about the value of solid things have changed. In 2006 and even more so, one imagines, in 2012, the most valuable stuff in our economy is unquantifiable. It is electrons. The stylish legerdemain of presenting manufactured goods in a way that inspires excited sales - for so long a defining purpose of the design profession - is no longer a relevant business model. The big corporations that were design's patrons and, indeed, patrons of the Design Museum are in decline: I would not want to have to raise £50m from Ford, GM, Xerox, IBM or Polaroid, for example. As a result of intellectual chaos, design is becoming less distinct from craft and art. Who knows whether Thomas Heatherwick is a sculptor, an architect or a designer? Perhaps it doesn't matter.

These are important questions that the Design Museum must answer. Maybe it is enough to have Herzog and de Meuron build a faddish high-concept design palazzo fit for the post-Wallpaper generation. On the other hand, maybe - just maybe - Mrs Thatcher was right.

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