The Design Museum’s Brave New World

The British have always had a love of symbolic buildings. From the Palace of Westminster to the Millennium Dome, London is littered with buildings that make a statement about the state of the nation. The Commonwealth Institute in Kensington is one such example. Designed in 1962 by RM JM (Robert Matthew Johnson Marshall) it is a classic piece of post-war British modernism, designed to reflect the British Empire’s change from an old-fashioned Empire to a shiny new Commonwealth. The interior is a concrete shell focused on an open atrium with tiered exhibition spaces, designed to show Britain’s transition from Empire to Commonwealth. Those spaces are linked by walkways – a very modernist conceit seen in the Barbican, and, less iconically, old shopping centres – and a central dias offering a comprehensive view of the interior. But its most remarkable feature must be the swooping hyperbolic paraboloid roof.

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Architect John Pawson has been charged with bringing the listed building up to date, which has not been without its challenges © Luke Hayes

By 2002, the Commonwealth Institute was no more and its doors closed to the public. The building was left to lie fallow, home only to pigeons and dank pools of water. It became, rather like Battersea Power Station, a symbol of the difficulty of working with listed buildings in London. In 2010 The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea brokered a happy ending for the building, granting permission to Chelsfield LLP to develop the surrounding area. As part of the deal the Commonwealth Institute itself, plus some of the cost of refurbishment, was gifted to Britain’s much-loved Design Museum.

Conceived by Sir Terence Conran and opened in 1989, the Design Museum has devoted itself to becoming one of the world’s leading museums for architecture and design. It occupied an iconic spot on the Southbank, but the museum’s ambition and superb collection has always been stymied by a lack of space, relying on changing temporary exhibitions. Nonetheless its breadth of vision and inclusive attitude to design and what design encompasses means that it has showcased everyone from Charles and Ray Eames and Christian Louboutin to the late Zaha Hadid, and recently became the most followed museum in the world on Twitter. So the opportunity to move into bigger premises on Kensington High Street, bare minutes from the Museum Quarter which hosts the Natural History Museum, Science Museum and the V&A, was not to be missed.

It’s an ambitious project with a projected cost of £83 million. Half of this has been raised by private individuals and matching funds from the government, the rest by the efforts of the Museum and its director Deyan Sudjic. Not only will the floor space of the museum triple in size to 10,000 m², it will encompass two temporary exhibition spaces, a permanent design gallery, designer in residence workshops, restaurant, an education centre, library and auditorium.

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Deyan Sudjic outside the Design Museum

The celebrated architect John Pawson was chosen to lead the refurbishment and redesign. His aim was to preserve the iconic modernist space while allowing the public to move comfortably from the green spaces of Holland Park to the interior spaces of the building. Glazed entrances to the ground floor foyer increase transparency and existing stained-glass windows have been carefully moved to the north facade adjacent to a new entrance on Holland Park.

Design Museum Article

The Commonwealth Institute in Kensington was designed in 1962 by RM JM. Its most remarkable feature is the swooping hyperbolic paraboloid roof

Inside, the expansive space will draw visitors’ eyes through the atrium towards the roof. A central staircase leads to the mezzanine level/dias where you can view the whole building. Two new openings have been formed in the new top floor slab, one connecting the new Sackler Library to the main exhibition space, the other allowing further views up to the roof and down into the museum. Concrete terrazzo floors are found at basement and ground level, with hardwood used for floors elsewhere as well as on the walls.

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How the ground floor will look when the museum opens to the public © Alex Morris Visualisation

The museum is split across five floors, including a newly excavated basement which contains an exhibition space, auditorium, workshops and back of house areas. The main exhibition space is located on the ground floor together with the café, bookshop and shop. The first floor contains the administration and learning departments and library, while another exhibition space can be found on the second floor.

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A render of the redesigned first floor – with the distinctive roof still centre stage © Alex Morris Visualisation

Other renowned designers working on the project include Arup for structural design, Cartlidge Levene for the signage, Willmott Dixon for the fittings, Studio Myerscough for the permanent design display, Fernando Gutierrez Studio for the museum’s identity and Concord for its lighting scheme.

Originally planned to open in 2014, the refurbishment has not been without its problems. Dealing with the parabolic roof alone added two years. It will now open on 24 November, showcasing its collection in the free permanent display Designer Maker User. This exhibition tells the story of contemporary design through those three interconnected roles. A wall at the entrance gallery will feature some of the world’s most popular and affordable consumer goods crowd sourced via the Museum’s website. Its first temporary exhibition will be Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World. This display aims to be an insight into our hopes and fears about the pace and impact of change. And, unsurprisingly, the museum’s flagship exhibition Designs of the Year will return for its ninth outing.

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Vespa Clubman designed by Corradino d’Ascanio and made by Piaggio © Design Museum

As you might expect, the museum’s team and its director Deyan Sudjic are hugely excited. Deyan says, “Design is the way to ask questions about what technology is doing to us, to explore how the world will look and work as well as to define new aesthetic approaches. The museum will have a challenging programme that encourages new work and new thinking.”

It is the perfect union of an architectural gem needing proper care and a world-leading institution need of larger space. As John Pawson says, “There is particularly nice symbolism in the fact that in making this legacy for future generations, we are saving a work of iconic architecture. I hope the result will demonstrate that you don’t need to demolish old buildings to make a wonderful new space.” Roll on November – we can’t wait to get to get inside.

For more information about the Design Museum’s move, visit the website

To help raise money for the Design Museum, visit Phillips to learn more about the philanthropic auction Time for Design taking place on 28 April.

Top image © Alex Morris Visualisation

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