A storm in the cappuccino cups down at the Design Museum. Chairman of the trustees James Dyson resigns and there follow rumbles of discontent from founder Sir Terence Conran. The reason: a profound disagreement about the choice of exhibitions under director Alice Rawsthorn. The final straw, it seems, was the current display celebrating the life and work of florist Constance Spry. According to the museum's website, "few people have had such a powerful influence over the way we decorate our homes". And there you have the very nub of the matter. Mr Dyson and Sir Terence would surely beg to differ with that extraordinarily pretentious waffle, and I, for one, would have to line up on their side.
But this dispute isn't simply a case of style versus content. The museum's original raison d'être was to celebrate industrial design in all its forms, and to educate the British public about how important design is in every aspect of our lives. That celebration has recently taken a form the old guard most definitely objects to.
Since Ms Rawsthorn, a former design journalist, was appointed director in 2001, she has been an undoubted success if you judge her tenure in terms of visitors (up 20 per cent), visits by schools and colleges (up 90 per cent) and the 88 per cent of visitors who say they will visit the place again. She has managed to get the grants from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport doubled (still only a paltry £340,000). Not a week passes without a thick envelope bearing another set of press releases from her efficient PR machine landing on my doormat.
Ms Rawsthorn is bright, energetic and a manic worker. She once told me she bought all her clothes in advance of production by ordering from the designers the moment their latest ranges were shown to press and buyers. A determined fashionista and superbly organised, Alice doesn't trudge round the stores like the rest of us. Immaculately coiffed and dressed, Ms Rawsthorn is obsessed with style and the latest ideas.
In many respects she's the perfect choice to run the museum, because she so perfectly reflects our current obsessions. She's expanded her remit with hugely popular exhibitions of shoes by Manolo Blahnik and hats by Philip Treacy. The film posters of cult graphic designer Saul Bass are currently on display. Before Christmas there will be "Good design for under a tenner". Recently the museum inaugurated its Designer of the Year award.
Why she's fallen out with her trustees reflects perfectly the two stark choices in the world of design today. It's Alice and the fashion-driven stylists versus Terence and the functional purists.
As a culture we are label obsessed. We couldn't tell you which industrial designer engineered the Mini or the Smart car, or which product designer came up with the latest Smeg fridge or range of cutlery for Habitat. But we are obsessed with one set of names, and they belong to certain magical brands. For the first time since the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the companies making luxury goods are reporting a rise in sales.
From Burberry to Tiffany, Gucci to Louis Vuitton, sales of "accessible" goods made by these brands are fuelling increases in profits of up to 14 per cent. But no one is buying a Dior handbag or Gucci key ring because it's a great piece of industrial design. They are just using the logo as a drug to make them feel good, and get a buzz from the proximity to imagined luxury. If we can't afford a dress or a coat like Gwyneth or Madge, then Dolce & Gabbana knickers are the next best thing.
The big revolution in the way we live over the past 10 years has not been a general acceptance of good product design (as promoted by the Design Museum when it started) but the depressing way the mass market has lapped up badly designed logo trash from T-shirts to luggage.
Designer logos in all their vulgarity are the lifestyle Prozac of the 21st century. It's enough to make Sir Terence and Mr Dyson smash up their Tom Dixon sofas with rage. The public may watch endless programmes about decorating and interiors on television but the demise of Vittorio Radice's much-vaunted Marks & Spencer "Lifestore" in Gateshead, a temple to modern design if ever there was one (masterminded by high priest of minimalism John Pawson), was a defining moment in the current battle raging between instant-fix fashion and the opposing camp where design for a purpose rules.
Sir Terence Conran has dedicated his entire career to promoting the benefits of good industrial and product design. He truly believes that it enriches our lives. James Dyson is just as passionate about the products he invents to clean our homes. But depressingly few of the British public are the slightest bit concerned why one cup or chair is a better and more elegant piece of design than another, why one knife is ergonomically pleasing and another a crass failure.
Nevertheless, British design still contributes a huge amount to our economy and our designers and architects command respect (and commissions) worldwide. Which is why the Design Museum has an important job to do in drawing the young into choosing a career in design and raising their taste above the seductive kicks offered by the logo culture.
This Government, too, should recognise that industrial design is an important discipline, and fund the Design Museum properly, so that it can establish a core collection of great British work (Ms Rawsthorn disbanded the original one established by Sir Terence) and stop bringing pressure on the place to be "accessible" and achieve visitor targets. Museums have to be places that offer depth of research, archives and quiet places to reflect and think. Under current thinking they are lightweight websites, gorgeous cafés, places you can hire for a party and members' clubs.
Funnily enough, a lot of the most fashionable people in Britain agree with me. They want museums to be places that offer the visitor a long-lasting, not an instant, experience. Manolo Blahnik was surprised to find himself fêted in the Design Museum. He sees himself as a master craftsman, in the tradition that is best honoured at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Philip Treacy would probably agree, and Constance Spry is about as relevant to modern British design as my Auntie Vi. The choice just reeks of ironic post-modern desperation.
There's a lot to celebrate about British design, and it's not necessary to skip down a road lined with copies of Wallpaper* magazine to get there. I believe it's possible to exhibit and discuss the best kitchen design or public seating, stadium construction or the latest street lighting without losing one of those visitors that currently flock to the Design Museum to buy a sandwich or a postcard. Behind every piece of great design is a story of discarded options, cost controls, public feedback and marketing concerns which is easily as good as any soap opera.
That's what I want to find out about, not how Constance Spry stuck a load of twigs in a tureen and brightened our lives. You're not really telling me that a Manolo slingback is the equivalent of a classic 1780 Wedgwood teapot, are you Alice? Bad design makes me feel physically sick, which is why I don't want the Design Museum to be fluffy and fun when it has such an important job to do.Reuse content