Deyan Sudjic talks to Alia Al-Senussi

Text by Alia Al-Senussi

Photography by Muhsin Akgün

Deyan Sudjic has enjoyed an impressive career arc, originally practicing as an architect, before moving in to journalism and now curating. He says he lacked the patience to be an architect, and the subsequent journey has led him to his latest role as director of the Design Museum in London. The site, which opened at its current riverside location in Shad Thames is currently preparing its own evolution, and is due to relocate from Bermondsey to leafy Kensington in 2014. Alia Al-Senussi visited him to discuss future plans for the museum.

Alia Al-Senussi We're here at the original Design Museum in Shad Thames.
Deyan Sudjic It began life as a banana ripening warehouse back in the '50s and the museum came here in 1989, having started off as a project inside the Victoria and Albert Museum. Terence Conran and Stephen Bayley, the first director, wanted to remind the V&A that design is not only about the glorious past but also about the interesting future. The museum began as the Boilerhouse Project. It seemed quite shocking at the time for the V&A: showing how you might brand Coca Cola or design a Ford. All kinds of things, which were slightly transgressive but good fun.

AAS And now you are moving?
DS Yes, in 2014, to The Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park. It was built in 1962, not a great year for British architecture. It's got this remarkable hyperbolic, paraboloid roof, which is why it's a listed building and features blue-turquoise glass. It's been sitting there gently decaying for decades. But it's a landmark. It reflects a historical moment when Britain decided to stop having an empire and try and create a replacement, which was the Commonwealth. This building was constructed when Britain was just emerging from a decade of post-war austerity and materials had been rationed. This was a building that suddenly said: "Let's do something daring and exciting." Unfortunately, the roof leaked and the whole mission ran out of steam so there was an air of sadness around it. Our job is to bring it back to life, without fighting with the existing architecture. We've chosen to work with John Pawson. His work is about gently upgrading, introducing a sense of quality so that something better is happening to this building.

AAS Adding a little bit of beauty to it?
DS Exactly. Beauty is the most embarrassing word for architects to use. The materials are cheap so it needs some refinement to make it loved and special. It's great to work with John; he hasn't done a public building in Britain before so it's important to him to get this right. It's been a good relationship.

AAS Your idea of a museum is that it's not just about design and furniture, it's also about product design and the everyday objects we live with.
DS Design never stays the same; it keeps changing shape and direction. Twenty-five years ago, you could've done a museum of design based around some well-chosen chairs. Design has become entirely different since then. We're more digital, much more beyond the idea of products lasting for life. We have a different relationship with objects. Design is still there, still relevant and shaping our everyday lives. The look, feel and touch.

AAS Does the idea of design make it easier for you to move? For instance, relocating the Tate Modern would be a much harder psychological sell.
DS Well, the Tate did move; it split in two. It said: "We've grown too big for one site and we'll look at art from two different directions. One is British art, the other is contemporary/modern." We have a different question. We've been a successful little museum, we have 3,000 square metres, 60 staff and 240,000 visitors a year and it's great, but we've done all that we can on this site. We need to be larger with bigger exhibitions to show our collections and to engage a broader audience. Design is too important and interesting just to leave to the specialists. Design is about understanding the world for everybody, which is the point about moving. If we get what we've got planned - a museum in a 1960s landmark, with this amazing wacky witches hat roof that John Pawson's going to bring gently back to life - it'll allow us 10,000 square metres and half a million visitors. And really make this the place in the world that shows where design and contemporary architecture are going.

AAS Are you going to be doing things in collaboration with the V&A? Or do you see yourself as having two different remits?
DS The V&A is a fantastic museum; it has the best collection of decorative art in the world. It has four million objects, which is an astonishing burden to look after, so it can't focus on the contemporary in the way we can. Of course we need to be friends. In fact, yesterday I took Martin Roth, the new director of the V&A, around the Institute and we are starting a series of conversations about what we do together, what we can do in terms of research, collecting things, looking at how we can collaborate.

AAS I understand you were planning something with Jonathan Ive?
DS It was a rumour and we do have a good relationship. After he graduated and long before he met Steve Jobs, Jonathan had showed his work here. We did a launch for the new building and he sent a very charming video message. He talked about how much this place meant to him and the debt he owes it.

AAS Do you do a lot in terms of educational programming?
DS Absolutely. At the moment we have 20,000 children, students, groups annually. We start at 12 and we go as far as a MA in curating design. And that will treble when we're at the new building. That's partly about nurturing another generation of talent.

AAS Do you have an international outlook for your shows?
DS Being international is vital. It's very hard to say there is such a thing as British or American design. Manufacturing doesn't work that way any more. If you look at the iPhone, it's designed in California and assembled in China with components that come from nine different countries. Is that American design? Take a Bentley, which is supposedly the essence of British car design. It's owned by a German company, the head of design for styling and exteriors is Brazilian and his last job was working for Skoda in the Czech Republic. Design is borderless, which is what makes it interesting.

AAS And do you recognise design prior to the Industrial Revolution?
DS Of course it existed and there was mass production. Coins, ships were mass produced... but, yes, to me, design really happened in the late 18th century and has been transforming itself. Again, manufacturing is now totally different from what it was in the 19th century and so design has had to be something else as well. It doesn't stand still. Reminding people about what's involved in making is a very special thing, like identifying where food comes from. It's understanding that design is not just a piece of sculpture, there's how it's made, the ideas that go into it, the influences, the narrative.

AAS I feel like there's something different about the way architects look at things, or maybe it's that you are taught to appreciate aesthetics, rather than functionality.
DS Well, there's no such thing as pure functionality. What's the function of a chair? What are you using that chair for? Is it a chair you're going to hang a jacket on? Is it a chair you want to sign a peace treaty in? Is it a chair you want to seduce someone from? There is no such thing as a functional object, pure and simple. Even the most technically demanding things. In the Air and Space Museum in Washington, there is the living personification of this principle. They have the American and Soviet capsules that docked back in the early '70s hanging there in the main space, and this is apparently the most demanding, technical, functional issue that you can possibly think of - to get seven tonnes of metal into space. It should be pure function and yet you immediately know which half of this dock is American and which half is Soviet. The American bit looks like it was designed in Detroit by a car designer and the Russian bit looks like something from the 1950s. Sorry, it's a pet peeve: there's no such thing as pure function. Everything is emotional, but you don't want to fetishise it either.

AAS Are you planning on doing anything for the Olympics this summer?
DS On the first floor we're doing a show about design and sports The Art of Winning. It's about how design is used to improve performance: the new materials, the way that various sports have been transformed.

AAS It's great to see this energy in your last years here.
DS Well, it's important not to let the place run down. We need to keep this place full of energy. It's the best advertisement for a new museum.

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  • Deyan Sudjic Talks to Alia Al-Senussi