As a frequent visitor to the design museum when it was based at The Old Shad site on the south bank, I've finally had the opportunity to visit the new one in Kensington which opened last year. I've been keen to go as I always quite liked the old one and I suppose wasn't entirely sure we really needed a new one? However if Sir Terence Conran decides to donate seventeen million quid towards building one, then I guess it'd be churlish not to.
First impressions don't disappoint. The old one was inevitably constrained being a converted building whereas the new one is completely purpose built. Interior designer, John Pawson working with architects OMA, had a near blank canvas in which they've created a large, square central atrium with low angled staircases up to a series of broad open galleried landings which, in turn, lead to the galleries themselves as well as restaurants and reading rooms.
On entering, across the large open void of the atrium, are staircases which lead up either side of a simple stepped informal seating area. To the left are steps down to a basement with generously proportioned utilities areas and another exhibition space, currently housing the excellent Beazley Designs of the year. The atrium is a large, light, airy and theatrical space that introduces the museum and where visitors can be seen milling around up the square spiral of stairs.
The designer's aim was to create “a beautiful building that people will feel good in” and, to help achieve this, the impressively large space is complemented by a sophisticated level of luxurious finishes. These feel slightly Scandinavian with white walls, light oak linings and an elegant white and grey-veined marble sheet covered wall, which spans the first landing, The marble has been incorporated from the old Commonwealth Institute which stood on the site previously.
The atrium widens as it rises with an interesting juxtaposition of the old Institute’s elegant roof above with its curves and odd angles which are framed by the new angular forms to create changing views as you walk around. A minor bugbear, as you ascend and descend the elegant staircases, are closed handrails that return to the balustrade walls that trap your fingers as you walk down - why wouldn't these be open rails?
The museum is situated next to the greenery of Holland Park and is just a short walk from the other major museums in Kensington - The Natural History, Science and The Albert and Victoria Museums - which is great, for London and its overwhelming numbers of visitors, but it does beg the question 'do all these things always have to be in London?'
Don't get me wrong, I love London, I've lived there and I love to visit what's probably the world's best city, so I completely understand why people want to go there. But unless you put visitor attractions elsewhere, how else will you get people to visit 'elsewhere'? Shouldn't we spread these things about a bit? Not least the inward investment - the museum apparently cost £83 million in total. And spread the load a bit too - I went on to the Natural History Museum after visiting the design museum but saw the giant queue and wet for a pint instead. London's saturated, and the transport systems are creaking at the seams. Surely some of these fabulous facilities, such as the design museum, should be located in the regions to prompt people to venture out of the city? HS2 will ultimately make these journeys quicker, but what will there to be to see at the other end?