Design - Present and Future

A bright new museum on the bank of the Thames in London examines the links between industry, commerce, and technology, as seen in the look of appliances, cars, furniture, packaging, and more. MUSEUMS: INTERVIEW

`WE don't repudiate antiquarianism,'' says Stephen Bayley. But the way he lets the words come through - somewhere between the teeth and the nose - leaves little doubt that he's not fond of it. The clean, white Design Museum that opened last month in London's dockland is about the contemporary. It is not to be ``a curatorial repository,'' Mr. Bayley explains. It is the ``prototype of the museum of the future.'' Bayley - in effect the museum's director, but for some reason preferring the designation ``chief executive'' - is, by training, an art historian. He is persuasive, abrasive, suave, and hyperbolic by turns: a clever talker, quick thinker, and a bright promoter.

The attention-grabbing aspect of the man, though, is his determination to bring his capacities to bear on the ``most exciting century'' ever - the 20th. Few museum directors are as uncluttered by cumbersome buildings with overweight collections. The Design Museum, which is international in its outlook, is tailormade to satisfy ``a public need that nobody else had bothered about,'' in Bayley's words.

In its first few weeks, the museum has attracted impressive crowds. There's no doubt that people are fascinated with the notion of a museum that is relevant to their own ordinary experience of living. Essentially the idea is to turn a museum into an information source.

Significantly Bayley says, with pride: ``Most of the permanent collection is borrowed.'' Only about one-quarter of the vacuum cleaners, irons, televisions, motorbikes, computers, typewriters, cups, cutlery and chairs are owned by the museum - just the things it couldn't get in any other way.

The only thing wrong with the title Design Museum, Bayley observes, is that this institution isn't about design, and it isn't a museum. Unless, that is, you go back to the old (antiquarian?) notion of a museum as a ``home of the muses,'' and then you also revamp the notion of the muses.

According to Bayley, the modern muses are ``industry, commerce, technology.'' In its devotion to the analysis and examination of industry and the role of design in 20th-century mass production and marketing, the museum, perched on the bank of the Thames by Tower Bridge, warrants its name well enough.

But ``design,'' Bayley believes, has ``got itself a bad name'' in recent years, and he would like the museum to ``restore roundness and dignity'' to the word.

In addition to the oddly regressive 1930s-ish International Style of its '80s architecture, the Design Museum has a pre-history. Its prototype was the Boilerhouse, an exhibition space in a basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.

Opened in 1981 and closed a couple of years ago to prepare for this new home, the Boilerhouse was Bayley's first museum. It, too, was inspired by and indebted to Sir Terence Conran, founder of Habitat Stores in Britain and the Conran's stores in America. The new museum is costing Sir Terence an additional 7 million pounds sterling ($11.6 million).

It's a project very close to his heart, the educative dream of a man whose ideas have already had a profound effect on popular taste and awakened a widespread enjoyment of straightforward, accessible, and not too expensive domestic design.

At the Boilerhouse, over 20 exhibitions examined such diverse things as shopping bags, taste, national characteristics in design, Coca-Cola, the way art influences machines, Sony products, hand-tools, and cars. Design was considered in terms of ideas as much as objects. None of the exhibitions, Bayley claims, was prompted by manufacturers, and there was no promotional pressure. It will be the same with the Design Museum, he maintains, in spite of its need for sponsorship.

The museum is determined to preserve its independence, its right to criticize manufacturers and their design. ``We'll exert some muscle over them,'' Bayley insists.

For historical support Bayley cites Henry Cole, the 19th-century designer who was instrumental in starting what was later to become the Victoria and Albert Museum. Cole was not above publicly ridiculing what he considered bad design. Bayley likes to think of himself as Cole's heir. Some of the remarks presented with the objects in the Boilerhouse exhibitions were caustic and dismissive.

Although Bayley has said that he wants to keep his own decided tastes in the background, they underlie everything at the Design Museum. Henry Cole's confident ``moral stance'' toward ``good'' or ``bad'' design may not be possible in our time, but one suspects Bayley may wish it were. He does generally, however, manage to present objects or ideas he clearly dislikes in a way that makes the viewer laughingly question his own preferences.

Though never too bluntly stated, there is a distinct feeling, fostered by Bayley and Conran, that in identifying itself firmly with the present the new museum is doing what the Victoria and Albert was meant to do but no longer does.

One section of the museum, ``Review'' offers a look at up-to-the-minute design ideas. In it, you encounter such things as televisions that retain a friendly colored glow on the screen when turned off, thus avoiding that dead-eye look that graces most living rooms at the moment; video still cameras; a new kind of plastic door with elaborate high-tech accessories ``to replace the door as a primitive nailed and glued object''; and non-rip, anti-vandal subway seats. If the Review section is kept up to date, it really will take the museum into the future.

Anathema to Bayley - and therefore the Design Museum - is the ``hand-craft'' movement: the pottery and glass and textiles of today that carry on the traditions of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century.

The Victoria and Albert has long displayed an affection for this category, rather than the radicalism of Walkmans, calculators, or refrigerators. But mention the 19th century's William Morris or Walter Crane to Bayley, and you can hear his lip curl.

The ``Boilerhouse'' section of the new museum contains a show called ``Commerce and Culture'' (through Oct. 15). It looks at cross-fertilizations between art and marketing.

At its heart is a typical Bayley notion - an exaggeration meant to provoke new lines of thought - that museums and department stores were basically products of the same 19th-century cultural attitudes, both places of display, and that today art and shopping are heading for an inevitable merger.

The element of truth in this is that museums today are giving increasing importance to their shops, which offer post cards, books, prints, and art objects, while today's department stores are undoubtedly places where people go to gaze as well as buy. The exhibition was put together by designers who have been responsible for the interiors of a chain of British clothing shops.

The Design Museum offers a welcome, if small-scale, counterweight to such ancient and hallowed institutions as the Victoria and Albert or the British Museum.

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