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  • Writer's pictureSara-Jane Armstrong, MA

A Brief History of the Design Museum in London

What is the Design Museum?

The Design Museum in London is the World’s leading museum dedicated to contemporary design opened in 1989, covering product, fashion, graphic, and architectural design.

Design Museum London

Design Museum History

The original intention of London’s Design Museum was to celebrate inventors. Innovation for everyday life, made possible by exceptional and functional product design, has been lauded at this museum since its conception. Today, it also features some exhibits that place a greater emphasis on the aesthetic than on the functional.

The Design Museum (originally called the Boilerhouse Project) was born in the basement of the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1981, a small passion project of visionary designer Sir Terence Conran that has expanded year on year. As it grew, it needed a permanent home. The museum initially moved to Shad Thames, and has recently upgraded to its current location in Kensington.

Its exhibitions range from fashion, film, technology, and product development, to sustainable innovation, and interiors; the Design Museum was never intended to showcase only one facet of design. Moving forward, they are positioning themselves as a centre of education, a place for innovative thinkers to gather and draw inspiration for future projects and products.

A quote from Italian designer Ernesto Rogers, featured in the museum, summarises this ethos: ‘the role of the designer stretches from the spoon to the city’. With exhibits celebrating seemingly trivial and everyday items, like spoons or signposts, the museum encourages visitors to reconsider the design process behind every item they encounter. The museum’s former chairman, James Dyson, is one of Britain’s most acclaimed inventors and product designers, specialising in these everyday, household items, and famed for designing the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner.

The museum has, in recent years, strayed away from the strict boundaries of functional objects. Displaying the work of radical activists, political poster designers, web designers and typographers, its rooms remind visitors that design does not take place in a political void.

The museum gained some extra prestige with the introduction of ‘Designs of the Year’ awards. In each category – Architecture, Digital, Fashion, Graphics, Product and Transport – the most innovative designs from across the globe are assessed. Previous winners have ranged from the Olympic torch to the British government’s website design.

Upon moving to Kensington, the museum upgraded to a building three times the size of their last premises. Free entry (for all but short-term exhibitions) was introduced to break away from the elitism that is often encountered in design spheres. In making education free, and easily accessible, the museum can inspire a new generation of British designers and innovators. The museum now attracts an impressive one million visitors each year, competing with the major cultural museums nearby in Kensington, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum.

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