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The Vintage Guide To London | September 21, 2017

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Vintage Seekers column: The Design Museum and its new 60s home

Estella Shardlow is deputy editor of Vintage Seekers, the premium online platform curating a heritage lifestyle. In a regular Vintage Seekers column Estella reports on high-end vintage events and news. This time, she takes a closer look at The Design Museum and its new home.

The Design Museum is moving house. As revealed in a press conference earlier this week, London’s Mecca for 20th century design will relocate from the Shad Thames site it’s occupied since 1982 to the iconic Sixties Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington.

The decision is rather a blow for this corner of South London, as it loses a significant tourist attraction and centre of learning to affluent, museum-rich W8. Yet for the Grade 2* listed Commonwealth Institute, which has been lying empty for more than a decade, it offers a new lease of life – and one that will enable the museum to double its visitor figures to 500,000 annually, according to its directors.

Regarded by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London after the Royal Albert Hall, it is high time that something is being made of the Institute. Earlier this year 20 squatters took over the building. Despite its location on busy Kensington High Street, the majority of Londoners couldn’t tell you where it was or what it looks like.

Not so back in November 1962 when Queen Elizabeth II opened the building to the public, unveiling a permanent exhibition about the nations of the Commonwealth (designed by none other than James Gardner, who was responsible for the Dome of Discovery in the 1951 Festival of Britain), along with an excellent library, cinema and theatre.

Architect Sir Robert Matthew of Johnson-Marshall and Partners envisaged creating a ‘tent in the park’ (the site backs onto Holland Park) and realised this with the building’s signature swooping copper roof, made from 25 tonnes of metal shipped over from Rhodesia. All the quintessential signs of post-war modernist architecture are in evidence – from the angular screen of aqua-coloured glazing that wraps around the exterior to the dramatic open space crisscrossed with concrete walkways and tiered exhibition spaces within.

By the end of the 20th century, however, ‘the tent in the park’ had fallen from grace. Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon wanted it knocked down and while former Foreign Office permanent secretary Lord Kerr described it as “a nightmare for decades, costly to maintain, not fit for purpose”. Controversially, the Trust whose hands it had been in since 2000, completely closed the building in 2002 and were angling to sell the site for residential development. The owners even applied for the Institute’s listed status to be reneged so that they could demolish it to this end – a move fortunately blocked by Tessa Jowell, the then-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

It is fitting that the besmirched Commonwealth Institute will once again become a word class centre for design, nurturing British talent and its international influence. And staying true to its roots, those overseeing the £80 million project include two members of the original team: Lord Cunliffe, a leading member of the original architectural team for the Commonwealth Institute in 1958, and James Sutherland, the building’s original structural engineer.

Furthermore, the story of the Design Museum actually started at the V&A, when two men who were passionate advocates of modern British design – Stephen Bayley and Terence Conran – set up the Boilerhouse Project in 1981. So, in a way, the design museum is going home after all.