The Design Museum London

The Design Museum. Photo by Gravity Road

London’s Design Museum has opened in its new west London home, generating much interest, discussion and admiration.

Housed in the modernist former Commonwealth Institute and sandwiched between the stately grandeur of Holland Park and the more prosaic High Street Kensington, the building has been transformed by the thoughtful gaze of architect John Pawson, working with the structural expertise of OMA, Arup and Allies and Morrison.

Architect John Pawson. Photo by Cindy Palmano

Architect John Pawson. Photo by Cindy Palmano

This is Pawson’s first big public project – he is best known for his elegant Calvin Klein stores, the Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens and the Cistercian Abbey of Novy Dvur in the Czech Republic.

Pawson has skilfully remodelled the interior to create a series of calm, atmospheric spaces which cleverly incorporate elements from the original 1960s structure.

In a statement to DHub, he said: “There are ‘moments’ in the building that I relish every time I walk around, but I think it is really the way everything comes together – the news and the old – that gives me the greatest pleasure. I hope the Design Museum shows people that you don’t have to tear down and start from scratch to make exciting new cultural spaces.”

The new building, which cost £83 million to renovate and took five years to complete, includes two major temporary gallery spaces, a free permanent collection display, a restaurant, auditorium, studios, library, archive and new learning facilities.  It has also tripled in size to 10,000 sqm and is expected to attract 650,000 visitors in its first year.

Museum Founder Sir Terence Conran. Image supplied

Museum Founder Sir Terence Conran. Image supplied

Founded by the legendary Sir Terence Conran, the Design Museum began life in 1983 as the Boilerhouse Project in the basement of the nearby Victoria and Albert Museum.  In 1989, it moved to a former banana ripening warehouse on Shad Thames where it remained until June 2016, showing exhibitions dedicated to the work of design stars such as Dame Zaha Hadid, Sir Paul Smith, Christian Louboutin and Lord Rogers. The old Shad Thames building will now hold the Dame Zaha Hadid archive.

Speaking just before the Museum launched, Sir Terence said: “It really does feel like our moment has arrived and that the importance of design to our lives is now appreciated.  With three times the space and John Pawson’s beautiful architectural work I hope we can now educate, inspire and delight future generations and truly make a difference to the world around us.”

The Museum had been searching for a new home for a while when, in 2010, property developers Chelsfield were granted permission by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for the construction of three residential buildings and the development of the former Commonwealth Institute, which was located in the middle of the site.

Chelsfield originally hoped to convert the building into a high-end fashion store or casino but the Council, mercifully, insisted on a development with a civic purpose.  The Museum was then granted a 175-year lease for the Grade II listed building at a peppercorn rent and so the complex renovation began, with Chelsfield contributing £20 million to the Museum’s redevelopment.

Museum Director Deyan Sudjic, a former architecture journalist, told the Guardian:

Museum Director Deyan Sudjic outside the Design Museum. Photo by Luke Hayes

Museum Director Deyan Sudjic outside the Design Museum. Photo by Luke Hayes

“We are not a publically funded institute so we have to be agile and astute.  We would never had been able to build something of this scale from scratch.  It is a chance to bring some life back to Kensington, which was once the Hoxton of its day.”

Using radical engineering techniques, the original concrete floors were removed – a process which involved propping the roof on a temporary steel structure 20 metres above the ground.  The original façade has been replaced with a double glazed skin, improving insulation and allowing daylight to stream into the building.

Inside the museum, visitors are greeted in a warm central atrium with soaring views up to the original vaulted rooftop, built out of 25 tonnes of Rhodesian copper. Solid oak staircases allow visitors to navigate throughout the building, with strategically placed leather benches allowing you to pause and reflect.

Italian terrazzo flooring is used throughout the basement and ground floors, moving to Dinesen  oak flooring and wall panels as you rise up through the Museum.  A series of marble panels from the original building which were also used in the Institute’s precursor, the 1857 Imperial Institute, sit behind a signature Pawson design – an oak bench with concealed lighting, spanning one side of the Weston Mezzanine.  There are stained glass panels by Keith New, also from the original building.

Museum shop in front of Keith New stained glass windows. Phot by Luke Hayes

Museum shop in front of Keith New stained glass windows. Photo by Luke Hayes

The exterior has been carefully detailed to match the original blue skin of the building, with matching mullions and a fritted pattern of printed  dots.  A new landscaped public plaza, designed by West 8, has been installed at the entrance, opening the museum up to the outside world.

The Holland Green housing development which sits beside the Museum is designed by OMA, under the leadership of Reinier de Graaf.  The buildings, described by de Graaf as “discreet servants”, look like very luxurious cubes and, interestingly, a proportion of the costs of their development went towards funding the Museum’s remodelling.

Museum interior. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Museum interior. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Londoners are still getting to know the Museum again – it only opened a couple of weeks ago.  However, the remodelled building has already received critical acclaim.  Writing in the Times, Jonathan Morrison said: “There is perhaps something quasi-religious about the new interior…it is radiant in its precise simplicity…a triumph of restrained elegance.”

In the Financial Times, Edwin Heathcote commented that the building’s revival tapped into the current “reassessment of modernism” and the building’s interior was “a cocktail of concrete and pale oak, a blend of experimental 1960s structural optimism with the tasteful mainstream modernity of half a century later.”

Design Museum exterior. Photo by Luke Hayes

Design Museum exterior. Photo by Luke Hayes

The Museum will be an important addition to Kensington High Street.  The High Street may be part of one of London’s richest boroughs but has suffered in the past few years after a giant Westfield opened in nearby Shepherds Bush, draining the high street of custom and footfall – a similar situation to Paddington’s Oxford Street in Sydney.   The new building is also now just a stone’s throw from the ‘Museum Mile’ in South Kensington which includes the Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum and Natural History Museum – an important juxtaposition for both local, and visiting, culture vultures.