The meaning of design museums

Claudia Massie

Claudia Massie highlights the importance of design to both our culture and the modern world as we know it

16 September 2018 22:52

We have been designers longer than we have been humans. The earliest stone tools yet to have been discovered date back over three million years, to the time of Australopithecus and Kenyanthropus, indicating that well before the evolution of Homo Sapiens our ancestors understood that products could be designed and manufactured to perform a specific function. From those first sharpened stones, and the hammers and anvils that made them, to the applications that shape modern society, progress has been driven by design.

At the edge of a wide, silver estuary on the east coast of Scotland loom the sloping walls of the new V&A Dundee, the latest outpost of a recent global proliferation of museums dedicated to design. It is a striking building that lurches, ship-like, over the banks of the river Tay, dominating the impressive regeneration of the city’s south side. The museum, designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, opened last week with a display that explores the golden age of the ocean liner. The city expects to welcome half-a-million visitors each year to the new gallery, where they will encounter designs that veer from Rococco pistols and Fifteenth-Century illuminated manuscripts to Grand Theft Auto and AI medical devices.

That the visitors will come, even to Dundee, is a safe bet. Design museums are big business as a public hungry for consumer products, and easily swayed by fashion and marketing, clamour to have their tastes validated, directed or perhaps even challenged. Nevertheless, designers themselves still rank below artists in common estimation, and art galleries generally win in terms of both visitor numbers and status.

V&A Dundee


Perhaps it should not be so. As the American designer Milton Glaser, inventor of the ‘I love NY’ logo, points out, ‘design has a purpose and art has another purpose… design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one. Observe that there is no relationship to art.’ Design is, fundamentally, a problem-solving exercise that has the potential to alter our understanding of, and interaction with, the world around us. Good design eases and enriches our lives. It can also save them.

A lifejacket must be buoyant and visible. It should be easy to wear and hard to remove. The standard modern version is foam-filled and likely to be orange as this is the most visible colour against blue. This is a very basic design application of colour perception theory – orange and blue are complementary colours, positioned opposite each other on the colour wheel – but a critical one.

The lifejacket became an ignominious symbol of this decade when images of orange-collared refugees and mountains of lifejackets discarded on the shores of Greek islands began to fill front-pages during the migrant crisis. When the Syrian artist Yara Said was asked by The Refugee Nation to design a flag that would represent refugees, she took inspiration from those lifejackets. The resultant flag – all orange, except for a solitary black line which bisects it like a horizon – was used to support the inaugural refugee team at the Rio Olympics and declared one of the ‘designs of 2016’ by Dezeen magazine. It has since been acquired by numerous design museums, a move that acknowledges the social and political significance of the design as much as its satisfying graphic qualities.

The Refugee Nation's Flag

The purpose of a design museum has evolved since the progenitor, London’s V&A, began life as the ‘Museum of Manufactures’ in the aftermath of the Great Exhibition of 1851. What was once a didactic and rather paternalistic exercise, born out of the director Henry Cole’s desire to educate both the public and manufacturers about the qualities of good design, has become a wider showcase for almost anything deemed culturally significant.

Anxious no longer to be seen as elitist arbiters of taste, museums of design now make strenuous efforts to be both inclusive and responsive to current events, hence the presence of the Refugee flag in the V&A, where it resides alongside other symbols of our age: the Burkini, an Ikea soft toy, a 3D-printed handgun. But while the museums may ostensibly reject the ‘schoolroom for everyone’ vision of Cole, their central purpose does remain the same: to inform and elucidate, even if the public themselves don’t always appreciate it.

Cole’s most popular exhibition at the incipient V&A was the section dedicated to what he called False Principles of Design. This was, to Mr Cole, a parade of vulgarity masquerading as objects of ornamental art and design. To the public, however, the ‘Chamber of Horrors’, as it became known, was a repository of things they actually liked. Why not yearn after a fabric printed with flowers and ribbons (False Principle No. 16), even if the director is offended by its ‘direct imitation and want of symmetrical arrangement’? Having established the museum as a proposed ‘antidote to brutality and vice’, Cole must have been devastated to see the public dismiss his grave warnings about the perils incumbent in ‘the sacrifice of structural and ornamental principles’.

V&A Dundee


The British furniture and product designer Jasper Morrison has identified the trend of what he calls ‘uselessism’ as ‘an approach to design or architecture which seems to ignore the fundamental goal of being useful’. The philosophy is evident in his own work, which, by valuing usability above ornament, reduces design to only the elements necessary to deliver an effective, and possibly even mildly life-enhancing, outcome. No False Principles there.

When Morrison says that ‘things that are designed to attract attention are usually unsatisfying’, one might be inclined to think of Philippe Starck’s infamous Juicy Salif lemon squeezer. A standard exhibit of the design museum, the juicer should instead defect to the art gallery, where it could sit alongside Méret Oppenheim’s fur-lined cup and saucer as another surreal totem to uselessism. The space-age squid aesthetic of the juicer cannot atone for the limitations of a design that requires the user to hold the product steady with one hand, its tripod legs being unstable, thus ensuring they soak themselves in the little juice that is ever persuaded to drip down. By most measures, it’s a failed design but the continued primacy of aesthetics has ensured its classic status. Nobody really buys it to squeeze lemons though. Instead, it squats on granite worktops to signal the wealth and dubious taste of those easily seduced by ‘the mere glitter of metal’ (False Principle No. 87).

But so be it. Everyone, to some extent, curates a personal design museum in their own home, gathering objects that explain their identity. Those Bauhaus-style teapots and Arne Jacobsen chairs demonstrate your impeccable Euro-minimalist credentials, while the Aleksandr Rodchenko poster indicates a revolutionary edge, necessary as a counterpoint to that regrettably cosy Emma Bridgewater mug…

A museum, however, is obliged to go beyond these matters of taste and show the potential of design to improve, or worsen, our lives.

V&A Dundee


The Smithsonian in Washington DC possesses a magnifying glass and a Votomatic machine because political fates can be determined by bad design. The US Presidential election of 2000 might ultimately have been decided by a redesign of ballot papers in Florida that sought to increase readability but sacrificed functionality. The result was the ‘hanging chad’ – an incompletely punched ballot – which the machines could not tabulate. Manual examination, sometimes by magnifying glass, of the partially punched cards was eventually required and, with thousands of votes rendered invalid, GW Bush was sent to The White House by the narrowest of margins while the tools of the count ended up in the museum next door.

Flaunting their fraudulence from within the permanent collections of the V&A are examples of graphic design that might have had a similarly momentous impact on the 2016 Brexit referendum. Adverts produced by Vote Leave that presented contentious claims alongside the official NHS logo were fed through letterboxes and plastered across buses and billboards. As Sol Sender, who designed the Obama 2008 campaign logo, has pointed out, ‘the strongest logos tell simple stories’ – and the presence of the familiar branding persuaded many observers, consciously or otherwise, that the messages came directly from the Department of Health. Some have credited the designs with directly influencing the result of the referendum. A misappropriated logo is a powerful thing.

Presenting these items in a museum encourages scrutiny of their validity and purpose. We must understand the mechanics of design to be able to use it effectively, decode it, and insulate against its misuse. Beyond entertainment and fashion, this may ultimately be the most urgent purpose of a design museum. Kengo Kuma may have described the Dundee V&A as ‘a new living room for the city’, but it should be one that offers a forum for debate and discussion as well as recreation.

When the hugely influential artist-designer Josef Albers arrived in America to work at Black Mountain College, following the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, he was asked what he would be teaching. His answer should be the mission statement of every museum of design in the world: I am here ‘to open eyes’.

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