London’s Design Museum Opens with Interior Renovation by John Pawson

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Photo: Gravity Road

“Design is all around us. It never stops. We just don’t always notice it” – so claims London Design Museum, the stalwart of the London design scene that has recently moved from its old premises in a banana-ripening warehouse to the markedly more opulent old Commonwealth Institute building in the London borough of Kensington. Its monumental interior design, featuring sweeping staircases in the style of open-cast mine, a vast oak-lined atrium, and a majestic curved concrete roof, is the work of a team headed by designer John Pawson. They’ve succeeded in renovating and revitalising the ’60s structure and interior of the landmark grade II* listed building, to make a sensuously rich yet stylishly simple museum space.

“There are ‘moments’ in the building that I relish every time I walk around, but I think it is really the way everything comes together – the new and the old – that gives me the greatest pleasure,” says John. “You learn so much from older buildings; it’s nice to give something back, to tune this so we didn’t lose the Commonwealth Institute.

With a 175 year lease on the property, The Design Museum – and along with it John’s spacious interior combining the building’s original modernist bent with a clean and calm contemporary style – is here to stay.

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Photo: Gareth Gardner

We caught up with John to find out more.

The Plus: What did you want to make, when you started this project?
John Pawson:
My primary concern with designing the building was to design a building that people would feel comfortable in, in which people would be able to compose themselves and start thinking about design.

TP: How do you feel about the project now, just before opening to the public?
It gives you a chance to see the work first-hand, but also give something to the city, to London. Suddenly it goes from being a building site to being open and used, and a place for people. It goes to no longer being yours. Which is of course the best possible thing, because I don’t want people to walk in and go who designed this space – I want them to enjoy the experience.

TP: What was it like working with the diverse team of designers? Were there any problems?
Of course, if you have someone as clever as [director of the Design Museum] Deyan Sudjic to direct all these people in a more diplomatic way, it makes for smoother sailing. I always shy away from antagonism, with the architecture I like it to be gentle … but it’s easier to do that when you’ve got enough to do. Of course, a room full of architects is the most wonderful thing.

TP: Have you ever thought of straying into other areas of design?
My family had a textile and fashion business, so that’s where I started: in fashion. It didn’t suit me … I didn’t suit it, I think is more accurate. And I did try photography. I like designing objects, because they have a shorter design period, and you can have the thing in your hand.

TP: What other job might you have done in a different life?
I could have been a farmer. But I think I like the dream of being a farmer, not the reality. I didn’t carry on photography because you have to be very patient to be a good photographer. However with my design work I’m very patient, because you have to keep grinding away.

TP: What do you see your role as having been, in the team?
My success has been based on all the incredible efforts of people in the office, and I guess it needs somebody or an idea to pull it together. That’s all I do, just stand in front and orchestrate.

TP: What next?
We’ve just got a ski resort to do in Japan, Hokkaido, which is a really nice chance to do something in the woods – birch woods. We’re building other things in Asia, and the Philippines, and we’re finishing this hotel in LA. I like to keep on doing different things because it’s more exciting.

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Photo: Luke Hayes