Tuesday, May 8, 2007

In the year 25/25

Seems a bit unfair, I mean I don't have anything personal against the design musuem but, another month, another crap exhibition.......

25/25 is an exhibition celebrating twenty five years of the Design Museum. In it, twenty five designers have been invited to choose their favourite designs from that period. Visiting it is like reading one of those ‘Books of the Year ’ lists beloved of Sunday supplements. You know exactly who they’re going to ask and exactly what they’re going to choose. So, for Melvin Bragg, Julian Barnes and Jeanette Winterston substitute Terence Conran, Paul Smith and Ilsa Crawford.

Like the tendency for writers to choose their friend’s books, this exhibition is an exercise in self celebration. For example, Paul Smith chooses the graphic identity of the Lloyds building designed by Richard Rogers, who in turn chooses Issey Miyake’s A-Poc fabric. Hoover hero James Dyson selects Richard Sapper’s whistling kettle, while Dyson’s own DC02 vacuum cleaner is nominated by John Maeda. Philippe Starck’s Jim Nature TV appears courtesy of Konstantin Grcic, while Stefano Giovannoni returns the compliment by selecting Grcic’s Chair One. Jonathon Ive gets two nominations (for the Imac and the Ipod). Of the younger designers, the Bouroullec brothers’ choose Enzo Mari’s cheesegrater, Maarten Baas selects Ron Arad’s Big Easy metal armchair and Gill Hicks goes for Trevor Bayliss’ Clockwork Radio. Suffice to say, no one chooses Pop Tarts, leg warmers or anything from Ikea. I started to wonder: are there really this few designers of note in the world, and this few products worth celebrating?

The answer of course is no, What’s being celebrated here is a very narrow definition of design based around an equally narrow idea of good taste. Its not that there is anything wrong with the choices just that they are utterly predictable and devoid of any sense of surprise. This is a shame because the origins of the Design Museum were less predictable and more iconoclastic. It’s probably the fate of most cultural innovations to become the new orthodoxy, but the Design Museum seems to have ended up creating its own officially sanctioned canon. All of which is a long way from its more itinerant beginnings as the Boilerhouse project, started up by Terence Conran and Stephen Bayley in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Strange as it may seem now, it was a genuinely radical move to incorporate commercial and contemporary design into the halls of the V&A at that time. Conran and Bayley then moved the project to its current curiously retro home near Tower Bridge. I’ve always found it odd that they chose a pastiche of 1930’s Modernism for the home of contemporary design but its preserved-in-aspic feel has become increasingly appropriate.

The recent history of the museum has been fractious. It has just appointed Deyan Sudjiic as its new director to replace the controversial Alice Rawsthorne. She enraged trustees Terence Conran and James Dyson by flouting the orthodoxies of good design in putting on a show about flower arranger Constance Spry, amongst other heresies. Like Stephen Bayley, she is conspicuous by her absence from this exhibition’s potted history.

25/25 might be seen therefore as a moment of quiet celebration by the victorious Conran and Dyson; good sense and good taste restored. It remains to be seen how orthodox an approach Sudjiic will take. Let’s hope he steers it away from the narrow clique represented by this exhibition.

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