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Lower Hutt visits London

Author: Courtney Johnston, Director

Earlier this month our director Courtney Johnston attended London Design Week as part of a British Council programme. In her action-packed trip she packed in visits to a host of museums and galleries, and even squeezed in a visit with one of The Dowse’s extended whānau.

You can hear more about my London recommendations, including tips for going mudlarking, in my interview with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon.

The British Council's 'Design Connections' programme for London Design Week is the British Council’s annual design  industry networking programme. Taking place during the London Design Festival, it brings together directors and curators from design museums, centres and festivals around the world to meet and create new partnerships, exchange knowledge and learn with their international counterparts.

Along with with the other delegates (about 18 of us, from everywhere from Nairobi to Moscow to Toronto) I was part of six days of studio visits, exhibitions, openings, presentations and tours. We heard from dozens of people - on projects ranging from the installation of a brightly patterned inflatable playhouse to liven up a dreary office district, to using mushrooms to make furniture, to using speculative design practices to visualise the effects of living in climate-change affected cities.

Curator's talk at this year's commission for the Serpentine Pavilion, by architect Diébédo Francis Kéré

Curator's talk at this year's commission for the Serpentine Pavilion, by architect Diébédo Francis Kéré

The programme included an evening of Pecha Kucha presentations by emerging designers hosted by Disegno magazine, a morning at the epic Somerset House complex, and an afternoon spent at Two Temple Place, a more recent building but one with an equally interesting history.

We also visited the studio of House of Toogood. This tiny 3 storey, greypainted Victorian home, with its incredibly small and steep staircases, houses the studio of Faye Toogood and her collaboration with her sister, pattern-maker Erica Toogood on Toogood, their unisex fashion line. The studio works across furniture, clothes, ceramics, interior design, shop fit-outs and many other collaborations, all with a focus on materials. Listening to Erica talk about their Spring/Summer 2018 range, the way everything in the studio begins with investigating materials was clear. We saw a collaboration with Carhartt where their iconic Chore jacket was covered in poured layers of black rubber until it stood up like a sculpture; printed organza inspired by the filmy blue pattern of Chux clothes; a hand-created dress that takes it structure from the gridding that forms the foundation of rugs. There was a curiosity and a consistency, and a kind of wilful but subtle imagination, which was utterly inspiring.

Peter Pilotto pop-up townhouse in the Brompton Design District, with furniture by Martino Gamper

Peter Pilotto pop-up townhouse in the Brompton Design District, with furniture by Martino Gamper

We also spent a morning at the V&A, hearing about their touring exhibition programme, their recent focus on Korea, and touring the London Design Festival installations including the lighting designer Flynn Talbot's 'Reflection Room' in the Prince Consort Gallery. After the British Council programme concluded I went back to the museum to check out their Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion show.

Flynn Talbot's 'Reflection Room' at the V&A

Flynn Talbot's 'Reflection Room' at the V&A

Our day at the V&A continued with a tour around the Brompton Design District and a 'curated lunch', an experience designed by Masters of Curating students to get our group sharing information and ideas about climate change from our various countries. The day finished with a group discussion/debate on the concept of 'social design', facilitated by the V&A's acting keeper of Design, Architecture and Digital, Corinna Gardner. Only that wasn't really the finish, because I tubed across the city for a fortuitous dinner with a dear friend and recently ex-colleague Roy Clare, who returned to England after his time as director of Auckland Museum at the end of last year.

Another highlight was a visit to 6a Architects, where director Stephanie Macdonald talked us through a range of projects, including the remodelling and extension of South London Gallery, the remodelling of the privately funded gallery Raven Row and dealer gallery Sadie Coles, the remarkable studio they did for photographer Juergen Teller, and the plans for MK Gallery in Milton Keyes. As with Faye Toogood, there was a deep interest in history and the possibilities of materials, but also a strong understanding in 6a of the communities and audiences and city surroundings for their projects. 

No London Design Festival programme would be complete without a visit to the Design Museum, a new venue (opened in November 2016) for an institution founded in 1989 by Terence Conran. A registered charity, the museum receives no public funding and must earn all its revenue, so it was very interesting to listen to chief curator Justin McGuirk talk about how that relates to their exhibition programming. The museum has a permanent exhibition drawn from its collections and two large temporary exhibition spaces, but at the moment the chief experience is of the building itself, a conversion of the Commonwealth Institute in west London by John Pawson. Built as a 'concrete tent' in the 1960s, the heritage listed building had stood vacant for over a decade, The dramatic parabolic roof remains the focus - one of the delegates in our group described the interior as like a (very beautifully detailed) matchbox inside a cathedral, a description I couldn't hope to better. Here's Oliver Wainwright's review of the museum's architecture from when it opened last year (with much better photos than I could take)

Design Museum interior, by architect John Pawson

Design Museum interior, by architect John Pawson

Museums and Galleries

It was my first time in London and I made my way around as many museums and galleries as possible.  Here are some of my favourites.

Andy Holden & Peter Holden: Natural Selection at the former Newington Library

Artist Andy Holden's installation - a collaboration with his father, ornithologist and Blue Peter's "bird man" Peter Holden, was displayed in an unused building. It has two key themes - one about collecting (the recreation in hand painted porcelain of a massive hoard of 7,130 bird eggs seized by the police and the RSPB in 2006 - collecting bird eggs was banned in 1954) and one about the links between birds and their nest-making activities and artists and creativity, centred on more collections (Peter Holden's feather cards, Andy Holden's collection of bird nests and artist-made weavings) and an installation of a massive bower backed by a three channel video. The exhibition was moving, surprising, and exuded that sadness that hidden collections often do. You can read more here.

Andy Holden's installation

Andy Holden's installation

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House

This was an unusual excursion into participatory design for this museum. 10 perfumes made over the last 20 or so years were explored by creating a vignette for each perfume, with different ways of sniffing the scents - from a shiny metal boule, a wooden pyramid, watercolour bottles and scent-soaked fabric pouches. We were encouraged to smell and think about the perfumes, before moving onto the didactic areas which explained each of them.

You can read more here.

One of the sensory displays in 'Perfume'

One of the sensory displays in 'Perfume'

Rachel Whiteread at the Tate Britain

This deservedly popular exhibition showed a contrast with the clean and orderly display, the documentation of her boatsheds and the water tanks installed in outdoors. The show was immensely aesthetically pleasing, but perhaps the works lost some grit in the white space. What I really appreciated was that the museum made a great deal available before you got to the ticketed gallery: a large installation in one of the grand halls, a selection of sculpture from the collection curated by Whiteread and a substantial selection of sketchbooks and studio objects. It was a really generous gesture.

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

The Wallace Collection

I was transfixed and delighted by this museum - most unexpectedly, as the frills and excesses of the 18th and 19th centuries have never been for me. TheWallace  Collection is a national museum, made up of works collected by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess, bequeathed to the nation by Sir Richard's widow in 1897, and displayed in period fashion at Hertford House, one of the family's London properties in the 19th century.

Gilt and glamour at The Wallace Collection

Gilt and glamour at The Wallace Collection

As you can see from the photos, 'over the top' doesn't even begin to describe the rooms of this house. Rather than a period home (complete with bedrooms and kitchens etc), the spaces you see are drawing rooms, dining rooms, smoking rooms and galleries (original or later creations). The original stables have been converted and now house the collection of armour (which is just as over the top). Walking around I was reminded that current taste is heavily shaped by long-lingering modernist preferences, by which gilding and Rococco flourishes have come to be seen in bad taste. After I got accustomed to the house though I spent an utterly enjoyable two hours revelling in the aesthetic.

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