Design Museums: The grand tour.

Mar 12, 2009
  • Article by Online Editor

The museum, traditionally, is reserved for art. Design is for the (museum’s) shop. Yet in the last few years, that same shop has slowly taken over the entire museum. Designed objects have been reaching for the lofty heights previously only reserved for fine art, and collectors pay top dollar for limited edition objects or prototypes of design icons. Not so long ago, Mark Newson’s Lockheed Lounge fetched the highest price for a design piece ever, when an anonymous bidder paid one million dollars at auction house Sotheby’s. Architects are getting in on the game by producing custom-made designs available as limited edition projects, such as Zaha Hadid, who’s been designing limited editions with British furniture house Established and Sons. The designs have been selling through auction house Phillips de Pury and Company, a New York firm that has extended its portfolio to include design. Last December, Hadid’s Aqua table, also manufactured by Established and Sons, sold at auction in New York for US$296,000 – a record for a piece of new contemporary design.

Design is the new art, it seems. But unlike art museums, institutions and galleries specialising in design are few and far between. Their approaches, funding models and intentions vary greatly. An international survey of design museums and galleries has revealed that while each gallery and museum has their own story, there are a few characteristics many share. There is the ‘Applied Arts Museum’ approach, whereby an established decorative arts collection is expanded to include design. Meanwhile, the 1980s saw the opening of the specialised design museum, often through funding of larger furniture companies, not least to boost the reputation and prestige of their output through displaying it alongside design classics. The most prominent examples, the Vitra Design Museum and London Design Museum, have by now established themselves as must-see destinations for every design lover. These institutions not only display design classics, but positively steer the development of contemporary design through being able to support and publicise the work of single designers or groups.

A third wave of design galleries and museums have opened their doors more recently. Design galleries have been recognised by local governments, scholars and businesspeople as playing a central role in promoting local design and being at the heart of a ‘designer city’, which in turn boosts local economies and encourages tourism. Institutions devoted to displaying and debating design add value to real estate and transform entire districts. Examples of this third wave are the Holon Design Museum in Israel and Tokyo’s 21_21 Design Sight. Last but not least, museums originally devoted to art only are embracing design and continue to expand this focus; MoMA in New York is the most prominent example. Here are the key players:

h2. The representative

*Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany*
It opened in 1989, and was initially dedicated to the exhibition of chairs. Not to anyone’s surprise of course, it was initially set out to add value to Vitra’s prime products. The museum originally consisted of around 1000 pieces, which had been collected over the years by Vitra’s director Rolf Fehlbaum, central to which was the work of Charles and Ray Eames, as well as George Nelson and the private collection of Danish design legend Verner Panton, whose designs Vitra has been producing for more than half a century. Designed by Frank Gehry, the museum is just across the Swiss border in Germany.
Over time, Fehlbaum’s focus on design and research developed into a more comprehensive exhibition program, which started to tour around the world from the small standpoint of Weil am Rhein. Today, many of the museum’s exhibitions are conceived with the intention of touring the world – for ages. Financially independent from Vitra’s manufacturing company, the touring shows generate their own profits. Among the best-sellers are a retrospective of Verner Panton and the ‘100 years – 100 chairs’ show. More recent star shows include ‘Under the Crescent Moon – Domestic Cultures in the Arab World’ and ‘Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture’.

h2. The visionary

*London Design Museum, London, UK*
It was in 1982 that design magnate Terence Conran, who had amassed a fortune with his Habitat store, diverted some of his millions to refurbish the boiler house of the Victoria and Albert Museum to provide a learning facility for designers. It was a physical manifestation of the vision he had established a year earlier: the Conran Foundation, an educational charity. Initially, it wasn’t destined for the public. Seven years later, a purpose built design museum threw open its doors at a refurbished warehouse at Butler’s Wharf, on the south bank of the Thames just east of Tower Bridge. A chair-heavy permanent collection was accompanied by a first exhibition titled ‘Commerce and Culture’, exploring the history of everyday design. At the time, it claimed to be the first museum in the world devoted to industrial design (as reported in the Financial Times, 15 April 1989).
The museum also does something for coming generations; together with Kingston University, it offers a masters degree for design curators. Since 2006, the museum’s director has been former journalist and author Dejan Sudjic, former publisher of Blueprint magazine and ex-editor of the seminal Domus. The museum likes sharing the expense with other institutions, like it did for the large ‘Design Cities’ exhibition that’s about to open. The show displays more than 100 artefacts from more recent design history. Former curator Libby Sellers left the museum some months ago to open a roving design gallery.

The seal of approval

*Red Dot Design Museum, Essen, Germany*
In its 50 years of existence, the Red Dot Design Award has become an international seal of approval for products and furniture. The Red Dot Design Museum, designed by Lord Norman Foster in a disused building of the Zeche Zollverein, an industrial complex cum cultural paradise in the German city of Essen, opened in 1997. With its more than 1500 objects, displayed on 4000 square metres, the museum is known as the largest permanent exhibition of design in the world. The exhibition includes all products that received a Red Dot Design Award for at least a year. Since 2005, the museum also runs a branch in Singapore. Housed in the Red Dot traffic building – a centre of creativity that is also home to design studios and ad agencies – the museum is also intended to be a physical manifestation of the Red Dot Design Awards, providing “important orientation to businesses, design professionals and consumers on what or who has the best design”.

h2. The classic

*Bauhaus Archiv Museum für Gestaltung, Berlin, Germany*
For an institution that documents the history and impact of the Bauhaus, the 20th century’s most influential school of architecture, design and art, this 1970s building in a decidedly un-happening neighbourhood of Berlin is rather nondescript. This museum is, however, one of the last works of one-time Bauhaus director Walter Gropius. Underneath the distinctive air ducts sits a collection that was culled from numerous Bauhaus protagonists and actors. Though accommodated in a relatively small space, the museum houses the most exciting shows, often curated in collaboration with other institutions around the world. Although mostly dedicated to produce exhibitions concerned with the Bauhaus, the museum increasingly focuses on themes to do with contemporary issues in architecture and design in general.

h2. The embassy

*Designmuseo, Helsinki, Finland*
When it comes to a contemporary pastime of picking out the world’s ‘design cities’, Helsinki deserves a gong. Its Designmuseo sits at the epicentre of an entire – officially recognised and promoted – ‘design district’. The curators of Helsinki’s Designmuseo are pretty busy. The museum’s objective is to chronicle the development of Finnish design with exhibitions, photo archives, workshops and a registry of 1000 designers. The museum is closely connected to glassware company Iitalla, the entire collection of which was taken on by the museum in 2004. Although its history harks back to 1873, when it was opened as a study collection for the arts and crafts school, the museum has been in its present incarnation since 1989, when the Foundation of the Museum of Art and Design was established to support the activities of Designmuseo.

h2. The grande dame

*MAK (Museum of Applied Arts), Vienna, Austria*
As one of so many museums of applied art around the world, MAK Vienna is a pioneer in combining traditional industrial art and craft with contemporary design. They call it ‘lust for the present’. In other words, design – in all its forms and functions – is given equal weight to historic expositions. Originally called the Austrian Museum for Art and Industry, it was conceived in 1863 to emulate the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, another vanguard of the contemporary design gallery mania. The museum started to collect contemporary art and design in the late 1980s.

h2. The old vanguard

*Museum of Design, Zürich, Switzerland*
The original agenda of this 130-year-old museum bears a striking resemblance to the latter-day design museums springing up around the globe. The displays of well-designed objects in the museum were to strengthen local designers’ tastes and confidence in order to further (and moreover promote) the quality of Swiss design internationally. The museum’s original director decreed that applied art should be another field for collection. Very trailblazing indeed.
From the early days, the museum’s exhibitions were shaped by the particular zeitgeist of the time, ranging from displays of new shapes in furniture in the 1960s to the more sociological focus in the 1970s, where shows dealt with the relationship between the individual and society. Since the 1980s, the museum has focused on a broader understanding of the term design, thus also drawing on larger audiences. Design for death (coffins and so on) or sport design are two focuses of the recent past.

h2. The professor

*Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, New York City, US*
There may be more prestigious, larger or hipper institutions, but this one is the only museum in the US devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. With a massive collection, an extensive library, a 100-year history, its own masters degree program and as the home of the National Design Awards, this New York institution is a central entity in the world of design museums. This is where the celebrities from the world of design academia are at home. It may be a little conservative, but it certainly knows how to spruce up its stuffiness with a little bit of contemporaneity. A current exhibition stands testament to this: the Brazilian designers of the moment, the brothers Campana, have selected works from the permanent collection for display, including 16th century textiles and 18th century ceramics.

h2. The triumvirate

*21_21 Design Sight, Tokyo, Japan*
Directed by three of Japan’s finest designers, 21_21 Design Sight opened in 2007 to great fanfare. One of the founding fathers, fashion designer Issey Miyake, had started to discuss the idea more than three decades previously with its architect, Pritzker Prize laureate Tadao Ando. Although Miyake and his two co-directors, Naoto Fukasawa of Muji fame and graphics guru Taku Satoh, don’t see the space as a museum and, for now, don’t plan on accumulating a permanent collection, they still have a noble vision for the ascetic double-storey exhibition space. Their mission is to separate design from the mercantile world of branding, and give it its original, purer meaning: the creation of practical and beautiful objects that improve the quality of life.
Its first exhibition was all about chocolate; the next one ran along the theme of water. Very Tokyo like, the double-storey complex is part of a larger shopping centre, Tokyo Midtown. Much in the tradition of its architect, 21_21 Design Sight – a play on the medical term describing perfect eyesight, 20/20 vision – is an ascetic space, draped with what appears to be a single sheet of steel. This is, apparently, an architectural play on APOC, Miyake’s outfits made from one piece of cloth.

h2. The diplomat

*Design Museum Gent, Gent, Belgium*
Not so long ago, this museum also had a ‘Decorative Arts’ component in its moniker, which points to its roots as a showcase mainly of 17th and 18th century furnishings, as well as a superb art nouveau collection. The decorative arts pieces are now complemented, if not surpassed, however, by a growing collection of contemporary design classics and temporary exhibitions by national and international designers. Looking at the exhibition program, one can’t help noticing that there’s a particular focus on handmade objects.

h2. The newcomer

*Israeli Design Centre, Holon, Israel*
The English-speaking world is yet to learn much about this facility, the creation of which was announced in 2003, with the architecture courtesy of Brit Ron Arad. About to open, the museum – complete with library, mediatheque, conferences and so on – comes as part of an Israeli Government push toward promoting local design and establishing the city of Holon, not far from Tel Aviv, as a design centre. If the design of the building itself, with its dramatic sweeping bands of Cor-Ten steel, is any indication, we should keep our eyes firmly on what’s happening in the tiny Middle Eastern state.

h2. The all-rounder

*Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia*
As far as an all-encompassing design museum goes, the Powerhouse is Australia’s first address. While other spaces are devoted to particular aspects of design or its intersection with other fields, the Powerhouse Museum’s permanent gallery of decorative arts and design, ‘Inspired! Design Across Time’, includes over 500 objects from the collection dating from today back to the 1700s. Australian and international furniture, fashion, textiles, graphic design, ceramics, silver, glass and much more demonstrate how social, technological and cultural change have impacted on design and shaped our taste and creativity over time. It’s Australia’s largest museum, so of course there’s a broad focus that caters more to the general public than to the design aficionado. Unfortunately, the design-centric publishing program of the museum recently ceased.

h2. The queen

*Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK*
V is for vast and A is for all-encompassing. Although it’s predominantly a history museum, the V&A has created a great reputation for its focus on design, which is manifested not only in its exhibitions, but in the enthusiasm of its staff to conduct research and conferences to do with design. When it comes to furniture, the museum owns more than 14,000 pieces from the Middle Ages to the present day. As one of only a few to do so, the museum also focuses on printed matter, collecting everything from comics and children’s literature to the art, craft and the design of the book. The V&A program is renowned for its innovative approach to exhibitions and creating exhibitions that effortlessly bridge the old and the new.

h2. The shooting star

*La Triennale Design Museum, Milan, Italy*
The city of design and fashion has long been waiting for a dedicated, permanent space to showcase design. In December 2007, that day finally came. Set inside the historic Triennale di Milano Museum, the new space opened with a show displaying 100 iconic design objects set against films by British artist and filmmaker Peter Greenaway and six Italian filmmakers. The museum opened after three years of construction and restoration, and it also includes a new design library, historical archives and a documentation centre, as well as a conference hall.
Silvana Annicchiarico, long-time curator of design for the Triennale Museum, aims to make the new museum a dynamic space with ever-changing exhibitions. One very contemporary focus is a yearly exhibition that will explore the relationship between art and design, set to coincide with the annual Milan furniture show. One of the most interesting aspects of the museum is the studio of the late Achille Castiglioni, which is largely untouched and open to the public every day of the week.

h2. The reincarnation

*Museum of Arts and Design, New York City, US*
Formerly the American Craft Museum, this institution promises to no longer play second fiddle to the big design houses once it opens in the new premises in New York City’s Columbus Square. The new building, designed by Allied Works Architecture, will be triple the size of the old premises, where the institution has been situated since its opening in the 1950s, when it was still called the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. From September 2008, it will all change. One of the most exciting aspects about the new museum is, however, its old connection to the crafts. The new space will, for the first time in the US, have a permanent gallery for contemporary jewellery, an area on which it will specifically focus.

h2. The high priestess

*Museum of Modern Art, New York, US*
Is it coincidence? The temple of contemporary art is also the ultimate destination for contemporary design. Chief curator Paola Antonelli is famed for her quirky take on culling and presenting work from all around the work, giving space to the old masters as well as new talent. She’s been at the museum for 14 years, and one of her first exhibits, ‘Mutant Materials’, set the standard for what was to come and changed perceptions as to what a design show could be. The exhibit looked at new uses for known materials, and thus went far beyond the gloss and one-dimensionality (think decoration or retrospectives) of design exhibitions to date. In this vain, MoMa continues today, drawing in audiences that didn’t originally come to see the design show – and then don’t go to see anything else.

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