Design Museum

London is one of the best cities in the world for free museums. The British Museum, the Science Museum, the V&A, the Natural History Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the Horniman Museum, the Geffrye Museum… I could go on. While some of the big names have paid exhibitions that come through, like the British Museum’s Vikings exhibit or the V & A’s highly anticipated Alexander McQueen exhibit, they also have permanent collections that are free to browse.

This autumn, the Design Museum will be taking its rightful place amongst its museum peers in South Kensington in a beautiful, newly refurbished building. Like the other museums in the area, it will have a fantastic, extensive permanent collection, as well as the series of rotating exhibitions it has become renowed for, and designers-in-residence. Until the Design Museum moves to its new home, though, you can get a great deal at the one in Shad Thames. Unlike other museums, which require you to pay for each showcase exhibition, when you buy a Design Museum ticket, you get to view all the exhibitions on offer. It’s a great deal, especially when you consider the shows that are on right now. Rob and I went this past weekend, so let me give you a little preview.

Following our visit to White Mulberries, Rob and I strolled back across Tower Bridge to the south bank just in time to see a ship pass through. People lined up along the bank, iPhones and DSLRs at the ready, as the leaves of this famous bascule bridge  swung ponderously upward. In my three and a half years in London, I have not yet seen any ships passing through Tower Bridge. I imagined majestic tall ships breezing through, pennants waving in the wind. Imagine my disappointment when a passenger clipper was all that went by. Oh well – there will be other days and other boats (and I won’t wait another three and a half years to come see it again).

Disappointments aside, the weather was decent, with blue skies peeking through the heavy gray clouds and just enough sunshine to take a bit of chill out of the spring air, given that the wind wasn’t blowing. We approached the Design Museum, a building that stands out amongst all the others on this stretch of the south bank, with its sleek, white profile jumping out of the line-up of dark brick buildings.

The reason Rob was so eager to visit the Design Museum last weekend is because he knew that the In the Making exhibition was ending soon. Having received a Masters in Product Design, and generally being a geek for all things relating to all branches of design, he was especially intrigued by this exhibit which showed products at various stages in their manufacturing. What I didn’t realize until we bought our tickets is that, unlike the other major museums in London, buying a ticket doesn’t just get you access to one exhibition. At the Design Museum, the price of your ticket has always given you access to every exhibition showing at the time.

Currently on are three interesting and varied exhibitions with enough between them to pique the interest of both passers-by, casual design fans, and hardcore design aficionados and professionals: HELLO, MY NAME IS PAUL SMITH; In the Making; and Designs of the Year 2014.

Up the stairs, past the model of the new Design Museum building, we came first to the HELLO, MY NAME IS PAUL SMITH exhibition. At the front of it is a cubicle, 3m x 3m with barely enough room to fit two people in simultaneously, that represents the space of Paul Smith’s first shop in Nottingham. He opened it in 1970, and at first it operated only on Fridays and Saturdays – the rest of the week he was “doing anything to earn some money.” Another quote written on the wall really resonated with me: “It is important to have a dream but also to be able to support that dream.”

Past the tiny mock shop room, you were drawn deeper into the world of Paul Smith. Anything and everything having to do with his life was on display, from mock-ups of his current Covent Garden office and old sewing rooms; to a selection of collaborations he’s done with other designers, brands, artists, musicians, and more; to an impressive collection of art, photographs, letters, and other paraphernalia he’s accumulated over the years, which turns out to only be a small fraction of what he has. I enjoyed finding out that he is an avid photographer in addition to being a designer, and has even shot some of his own campaigns. I drooled for a few minutes over the Rolleiflex on display before Rob quietly herded me into the next room so he could drool over the Paul Smith x Talking Heads collaboration.

The last two rooms in the exhibition focused the most on his finished products as a fashion designer. First, we ran a gauntlet of some of his most iconic designs from throughout the decades. Finally, we entered a dark room to watch a video that Sony created specially for the exhibition. I was ready to move on to the other parts of the museum, but I’m glad we stayed. The video, shot in vibrant 4K HD at 60 fps (think the same technology that The Hobbit films used, but without that cheap, “uncanny valley” look), takes a look at all the preparation that went into his S/S 2014 Menswear show.

Overall, the exhibition is an in-depth look into the mind of one of the 20th century’s most recognizable fashion designers, which feels more personal than other exhibitions because of the first-person explanations written by him for each section of the exhibit. It genuinely felt like Paul Smith is inviting you into his world and giving you a friendly tour around it, which I’m sure is exactly what they were going for.

Next, we went upstairs for the two exhibitions Rob was most excited about. At the entrance to In the Making, curated by influential designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, was an imposing metal frame, vaguely reminiscent (to me at least) of those giant shark jaws that tourists pose underneath in towns along the gulf coast. It was, in fact, the front of a Tube carriage frame, “paused” 50% of the way through manufacture. The aluminium frame was unpainted, but still recognizable as the iconic front of the Tube. The exhibition itself was in a single, dark room with each of the 24 objects spotlit on pedestals.


Some of the objects on display answered questions: the marble ball, paused near the end of its manufacture, answered a lifelong question of how marbles are made; the elegant flute shape of an unfinished French horn brought to me a new awareness and appreciation of the instrument that I played for 6 years of my life in middle and high school. Some of the objects on display raised questions: the nearly finished 50 bills made me wonder at what specific point the bills acquire their value; the wine corks, cut directly from blocks of cork bark, raised concerns over the sustainability of such a practice.

Whether it inspires or answers questions for you, the In the Making exhibition opens the door on product design and manufacturing, something that the majority of people don’t think about. Much like many people go through life not understanding how food goes from animal/farm to store to table, the way products are manufactured – even the most common day-to-day ones – remains shrouded in mystery. Thanks to Barber and Osgerby, you can at least come away knowing a bit more about the production of 24 objects such as Macbooks, optic lenses, tennis balls, Thonet chairs (a design classic), injection-moulded sofas, football shoes, £2 coins, and the 2012 Olympic Torch (designed by Barber and Osgerby themselves).

Last but certainly not least, we browsed the Designs of the Year exhibition. This prestigious award, now in its seventh year, shows off the best the world has to offer in all branches of design. Industry experts nominate designs that have caught their eye throughout the year, from which a panel approves a shortlist for the exhibition (76 for this year). During the exhibition, finalists for the seven categories (Architecture, Digital, Fashion, Furniture, Graphic, Product, and Transport) are chosen by a judging panel; from these 7 finalists the overall Design of the Year winner will be chosen.

In addition to showcasing some brilliantly simple solutions to some of today’s problems and breathtaking visions of what the future could hold, the scope of the exhibition reminds us that design touches every part of our lives. It is present in every moment of every day. The computer or mobile device you’re viewing this site on? Design. The platform I’m publishing on, the code that runs the website, the fonts you are reading? Design. The water bottle/soda can you’re drinking from? Design. The apps you use. The transport you use. The chair you sit on, the bed you sleep in, the table you eat at, the desk you work at. The magazines you read. The buildings you walk past or into every single day. The clothes you wear. All down to design. The problem with design is that it is so prevalent that we forget that everything, everywhere is only here because a designer or team of designers thought of it.

In a cheeky dig at this non-recognition of the importance of design, a poster for the exhibition says: “Someday the other museums will be showing this stuff.” It’s true, that when every single thing we use in our lives is considered design, that only the truly revolutionary things will stand out and be seen as noteworthy to future generations. So here is your chance to see the noteworthy objects of the future right this very instant! Lucky us, right?

One of my favourite moments in perusing the many stands was to find a piece of design very much relevant to my everyday life featured. Citymapper, one of my indispensable London apps, was apparently created quite recently. It was the sort of app that just seems to darn simple, amazing, and necessary that I assumed it had existed for a long time, and I was just a late adopter.

Basically, Citymapper is the only app you’ll ever need for getting around London. It pinpoints where you are with your GPS, and when you input where you want to go, it gives you a variety of options to get there. If you want to walk, it tells you how long it will take at a certain speed, and also how many calories you’ll burn; if you want to cycle it will give you quick/safe routes, the nearest Barclay’s cycle hire points, and the number of calories you’ll burn; if you want to take a taxi, it will give you an estimate of how much it will cost; if you want to take a bus, it’ll give you a variety of bus routes and combinations of bus routes, as well as a count down to when the next bus is arriving at the nearest stop, and how much it will costs on Oyster; if you want to take the Tube, it will show you all the combinations of routes and how much it will cost on your Oyster card. It even knows when lines are shut for engineering works. Basically, this is the app that does what the TfL Journey Planner does, but way better than the TfL Journey Planner has ever done it (especially in TfL’s new, buggy iteration). Bottom line? If you’re a Londoner, or tourist, there’s no excuse to not have Citymapper. It’s free. Go get it. Now.

This watch was also very intriguing. The Bradley watch is meant, first and foremost, to be a watch for the blind – however, the designer wanted to make something not only functional, but beautiful, something that sighted people would want to wear as well. The ball bearing in the groove (magnetically held in place) is meant to travel around the watch face like the hour hand on a normal watch. That way, a blind person can feel the ball in relation to the hour marks on the watch and know what time it is, while sighted users can glance down and see the time presented in a simple way. The titanium timepiece is elegant, and presents a simple solution to a problem (as all good design does).

Cyclists who bemoan a lack of chic but functional kit would be happy to see this collaboration between footwear designer Tracy Neuls and Tokyobike. The beautiful, rubber-soled shoes all have reflective strips built into them so that cyclists can wear them off the bike, knowing they look fashionable, and on the bike, knowing they provide extra protection on the road.

Fashion design is also highlighted in the exhibition. My favourite pieces were these metallic, futuristic gowns created by Sadie Williams for her MA course at Central St Martin’s. She essentially created a new textile by heat-pressing neoprene to create a stiffer fabric, adorning it with metallic yarns. Her “Totemic” collection was inspired by motorcycle culture in America and Japan.

Besides Citymapper, my favourite piece of design on display was the brilliant Chineasy. This appealed to me as a future teacher of English as a foreign language – while the entire world seems focused on learning English as a language for global communication, Chinese is a strong contender as well. The sheer amount of people that speak Mandarin (not factoring in Cantonese) already outnumbers both native and second language English speakers by a few hundred million. Yet it remains a daunting challenge to learn Chinese, because of how different it is from almost any other language – instead of each pictogram representing a letter, they represent whole words or abstract notions. Literate Chinese speakers have memorized and can easily recall around 4,000 characters.

The purposes of Chineasy are many. First, the creators wanted to make learning Chinese less imposing and more fun to those who are put off by the thought of memorizing thousands of complex characters. The cute pictures make it more likely that the pictogram and the concept associated with it will stick in the learner’s mind. Secondly, the creators wanted to bridge the gap between China and Western cultures. They wanted to present Chinese culture through the lens of the language (and each section of the book is chock full of cultural and linguistic tidbits) in a way that was uncomplicated by manipulation and bad translation. In the words of the creator, ShaoLan: “I am demonstrating the beauty of this deep and broad culture with a modern interpretation by creating sleek modern design.”

In that room were many more thought-provoking designs that I could begin to cover in one blog post: a floating school designed for Lagos, Nigeria; a wheelchair designed to adapt to its users and put them at face height no matter if their peers were sitting or standing; a sustainable phone designed with replaceable parts to combat our throwaway gadget culture; an art book with instructions to draw drone shadows on the ground, which the artist has done in major cities, designed to make people think critically about what is happening in countries thousands of miles away; a mobile game app that is impossible to finish in one lifetime and must be passed down to your children as a digital inheritance; and an optometry app created for doctors helping patients in rural areas. You’ll just have to visit to see all the amazing designs and read about them in person.

Rob and I left the exhibitions with our curiosities both sated and piqued, which I feel is the mark of a great museum experience. You want it to answer questions you have (which is why you go in the first place) but also open up new avenues of exploration for you to undertake in your own time afterwards.

I’d urge anyone who is in London to visit the Design Museum this weekend while all three of these exhibitions are still on. In the Making ends on May 5th, while HELLO, MY NAME IS PAUL SMITH runs til June 22nd and Designs of the Year runs til August 25th. It’s a great cross section of the world of design in all its forms, presented at a price that is hard to beat at any other museum.

Design Museum
28 Shad Thames

Open daily 10 am – 5:45 pm

Ticket prices here.


    • Glad you like it, Angela. Let me know if you enjoy the Design Museum!

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