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London Design Museum's new home mixes spontaneity and grandeur

The new building, by John Pawson and OMA, replaces the museum’s old space near the Thames River

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It’s been just over four years since ground broke on the London Design Museum’s’ new Kensington High Street address, but the institution’s new home has been ten years in the making.

Sites at the Tate, the V&A, Kings Cross and even a possible spot just down the road from its former home in Shad Thames all failed to make the grade. Then, serendipitously, a largely forgotten Grade II-listed cultural exhibition and conference center built in the 1960s became available.

Now with its public opening just days away (on Thursday, November 24), the former Commonwealth Institute’s £83 million (about $102 million) makeover is finally complete—an occasion that the Design Museum’s 85 year-old founder, Sir Terence Conran, describes as “the most important moment in my career in design…so far.”

Set back from the road and flanked by a complex of three OMA-designed orthogonal residential blocks and a public plaza with fountains, the modernist building’s structural refurbishment was worked on by a duo of architectural heavyweights—OMA and Allies and Morrison, alongside Arup.

Over the course of four years, the original concrete floors were removed, the blue glazed facade was replaced to comply with today’s building standards, and the basement was excavated to increase the available floor area.

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Three times bigger than the Museum’s former home at Shad Thames, the new space offers up 10,000 square meters (nearly 108,000 square feet) of space in which the team hopes to welcome 650,000 visitors each year. “Our audiences range from school children to those who know a lot about the subject,” says Design Museum Director Deyan Sudjic,. “We see the Design Museum as a forum to explore the impaapct of the rapid changes that design is bringing to our society.”

Inside, John Pawson has created a series of galleries in his typically sensitive and subtle style: Two double-height temporary gallery spaces are located on the ground and lower- ground floors; the former hosts “Fear and Love,” curated by Justin McGuirk, and the latter the Beazley Designs of the Year. A free permanent collection display, designed by Morag Myerscough and called “Designer Maker User,” sits on the third floor. As well as the galleries, an auditorium, offices, a library, an archive, and educational spaces all feed off a cathedral-like central atrium.

But it’s the building’s original hyperbolic, paraboloid roof that still manages to grab all of the attention. Aa As it swoops downwards into the atrium space, it draws, drawing visitors’ eyes upwards as they circle their way around the angular Dinesen oak staircases and walkways to the top.

“We wanted this idea of going up through the building like an opencast mine,” explains Pawson of the square spiral layout. “It was to make a building that was really wonderful for people, as well as objects.”

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The result is a space that, despite its lofty proportions, has a sense of informality about it. The glow of the softly lit handrails on the oak-lined walls and padded-leather bench seating built into the main staircase create an inviting space for visitors to come and sit a while, to sketch, or just soak in the space. As Sir Terence Conran commented at the media preview this week, “Design is about optimism and that’s what this space is about. It’s clean, fresh, well lit, friendly and full of surprises; I feel like I’d like to live here.”

On the Museum’s top floor, Parabola, a peaceful cafe by day and a restaurant by evening, is catered by Sir Terence’s food, wine, and hotel group Prescott and Conran and created by Barber & Osgerby’s Universal Design Studio, steered by Irenie Cossey, design project leader. Bridging the space between the museum’s glazed facade and the central atrium, Parabola provides diners with views out over the treetops of Holland park on one side and a view down into the museum on the other.

“It was really about facilitating the views, making the space feel right and designing and supplying pieces of furniture which don’t interrupt but keep that feeling of being dual aspect,” says Osgerby of the subdued design, which seamlessly blends into Pawson’s scheme.

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Customized archive furniture from Vitra and Artek graces the space in a calming palette of dark blue, forest green, and oak, while a new wireless table lamp called ‘“Bellhop’”—designed by Barber & Osgerby for Flos—has been specially created for the space. Nodding to the building’s ’60s origins, a row of Achille & Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s 1962 Taccia lamps sit atop a sweeping pewter bar—a piece that was custom- made by British manufacturer Benchmark, as was the banquette seating and waiter stations.

In the opposite corner of the building’s top floor is the Design Museum Members’ Room, also designed by Universal Design Studio. Closed off from the atrium, the Members’ Room is an altogether more intimate affair, with dark lounge seating, mirrored walls, and a single aspect that overlooks the park.

Inevitably, there are hard-line modernists that mourn the loss of some of the building’s original Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners-designed features: the striking space-age mezzanine that used to sit in the atrium’s centre being one of them—but the trade-up benefits all parties. This welcoming museum space has not only secured the preservation and continued enjoyment of this spectacular architectural treasure, but has created an opportunity to create a truly global center centre for design and architecture.