London Design Museum


The financial crisis of 2008 (and its legacy) has drawn our collected attention into a magnified glare on our own respective nations’ our own day-to-day living expenses. In times of austerity, questions are raised over what aspects of our society are truly affordable or, to put it clinically, what aspects are “cost effective.” Certain institutions can be, and should be, measured in such a manner, with many falling under the umbrella of the civil service. However, when this rule is applied to institutions of culture, we are faced with a daunting problem, as culture is not bounded by the restraints of a spreadsheet—enlightenment provides a foundation that is more difficult to measure.

It is fitting, then, that London’s Design Museum is set to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2014, after its foundation by Sir Terence Conran in 1989. The museum’s current building was opened by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who, as writer Hanif Kureishi states, “has no understanding of what a central place the arts have in British life.” A striking condemnation, though one that appears to be held in a consensus. Famed for bringing the United Kingdom out of its last major recession, Thatcher believed state funding for culture was unnecessary and instead entrepreneurial endeavor and corporate investment should fund such institutions. Thatcher viewed Conran himself in exactly this positive light, as he was a designer and an entrepreneurial one at that. Conran opened the inaugural store of the now-major furniture retailer Habitat and created many critically acclaimed restaurants, before opening the Design Museum purely through private financial backing.

It is to be celebrated that the Design Museum has managed to survive several periods of poor economic climate and remain open to the general public. However, when Thatcher first opened the Design Museum in 1989, she proudly stated, “It is very interesting that more and more of these big museum/art gallery exhibitions are being sponsored by the private sector. Nor surprising, because the things we buy and the jobs we do are really the essence of the life in which we live.” In Margaret Thatcher’s eyes, culture featured very little in life unless it was to stir up her own sense of jingoism; instead it was plain and simple capitalism that defined the ‘essence of the life in which we live’.

Fortunately, the Design Museum did not become a pragmatic factory line of physical instructions of the assembly, sale, and use of great British design. Instead this magnificent museum has been host to a huge array of exhibitions and demonstrations of the inherent culture that lies within design. One does not buy fashion, sculpture, property, or any other form of creative design for its function. Designers, architects, and artists employ design to create and echo cultural sentiment, which appeals to our spiritual sense of aesthetic and our understanding of the world around us.

To mark the museum’s 25th year, there are plans for some of the world’s most influential and creative innovators, most of whom have been involved since its opening, to come to the museum to celebrate its anniversary and talk about developing trends and the future of design. Guests include the likes of Alberto Alessi, Ricky Burdett, and Peter Cook.

In addition, 2014 will see the museum open a highly anticipated major exhibition exploring the politics of dressing for power and success. The show presents exceptional women on the world stage, along with their wardrobes, to show how fashion can be used as a powerful tool to build reputation, enhance careers, and express modernity. While the list of women to be featured in the exhibition is yet to be announced, there should be little doubt that Margaret Thatcher will be included in the shortlist.

Text by Ben Blackburn
Photography by Ashley Woodfield