Your new book, B is for Bauhaus, Y is for YouTube: Designing the Modern World from A-Z, is a set of essays arranged under alphabetical headings. It seems designed for dipping into. Is that what you had in mind?
The book began life as a conventional dictionary, but has turned into a dictionary-format book about places and things that I have experienced. It became more and more personal along the way. I always found the first person difficult when I was a journalist, so that came as a surprise. As for the alphabetical conceit, I was very lucky with Xerox.
The essay ‘C is for Collecting’ contains a couple of intriguing quotes from Freud: ‘I must always have an object to love,’ and ‘A collection without new additions is really dead.’ Are collectors a particular psychological type?
Collecting is a spectrum that at one end is order and control, the desire to know everything about an object, or to own all the objects in a set. At the other end, it means dying alone in a house full of newspapers. In the middle is the healthy part of the spectrum. The psychology of collecting is fascinating. Freud wrote a lot about other addictions such as smoking, but not much about collecting.
Do you remember becoming aware of design at a particular moment?
Yes. I was in the school library, bunking off a double period of revision, and I picked up a copy of Design magazine. It had a piece by Wally Olins in which he packaged a bottle of aspirin to look like Chivas Regal, and a bottle of whisky to look like aspirin. Suddenly I realised that we do have certain visual assumptions; that’s what got me interested.
Can an uncomfortable chair be a good piece of design?
You have to narrow it down. What is the function of the chair? Is it for a meeting with Obama or is it for a child’s nursery? And what do we mean by ‘comfortable’? I once did some tests in which we sat people in 12 chairs and asked them to choose the most comfortable — first wearing a blindfold and then without. The results were not the same. Not a scientific test, but as Oscar Wilde said: ‘Only a fool does not judge by appearances.’ If the pilot on your 747 stands at the cabin door dressed as a Roman centurion, but is fully qualified and sober, there’s no reason to believe that you are taking a risk by flying on that plane. All the same, we find the peaked cap and brass buttons somehow reassuring.
Art speaks for itself; design needs to show process. So the curator’s voice comes in
For a museum curator there must be a tendency to favour form over function.
Design does this peculiar thing: manipulating people to buy things they don’t need — think of Raymond Loewy doubling sales of Lucky Strike by changing the cigarette packet from green to white. But then there are all sorts of ‘critical designers’ such as Ettore Sottsass who have a left-brain right-brain thing going on: the left brain is working with the market to make things while the right brain is using the work to question what people want.
You cite Dunne and Raby’s mushroom-cloud cushions as an example of critical design — but you are seeing them primarily as cushions. If they were in a museum of modern art, they would look like an Oldenburg-style conceptualist artwork.
Yes. But in a museum of design you have to set the scene: that’s what makes it different from an art museum. Simply to show objects as if they were sculpture would be to short-change the process. If you were the museum that has Guernica, it might be interesting to relate which aircraft bombed the Basque capital and to show how the newspapers reported that atrocity, but that would get in the way of Picasso. If, on the other hand, you had a Junkers Ju 52 in a design museum it would be essential to know what it did — which means telling a story. Art speaks for itself; design needs to show process. So the curator’s voice comes in — but the curator should never be like a disc jockey talking over the music.
How will the Design Museum change when it moves to its new home at the Commonwealth Institute?
We are moving to grow — the space is three times larger — but it is also about the audience and the message. We will have one tier of exhibitions that we are calling ‘headliners’: Paul Smith’s view of the world, or Formula 1 cars. That allows us to have another strand, which is the more difficult material such as Dunne and Raby’s.
When I was a child the Commonwealth Institute was a compulsory school trip, and it seemed like the most modern interior in London. At some point that amazing concrete roof started to leak, and the building became a ruin. To bring it back to life is wonderful. John Pawson, who is doing the interior, is a very restrained architect. He will not make any more noise architecturally. The building and the collection are already noisy to be quiet.
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