Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things

Stan Portus, second year student of BA (hons.) History of Design, Culture and Society, reviews a new show that celebrates the role of design in everyday life.

Stan Portus by Calvert and Kinneir’s ubiquitious road signage at the Design Museum

The Design Museum’s spring 2013 exhibition, Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things, reveals the histories behind the designs that have come to occupy our lives. From Marcel Bich’s Biro to David Mellor’s traffic lights, present on almost every road in Britain, the exhibition reveals the extent and importance of design in how we live and its role in the world that surrounds us.

Six stories –  all employing exclamation marks (Taste!, Identity and Design!, Why We Collect!, Mater!als & Processes, !cons, and  Fash!on) – are assembled through 150 objects from the Design Museum’s collection. Artefacts are displayed in grey stained plywood boxes designed by Gitta Gschwendtner. These look like the crates that one imagines the objects would normally be stored in and this helps you feel close to the objects, with almost nothing held behind glass (minus the display of Euros and Matthew Dent’s sterling currency designed around an Heraldic shield). Everything presented feels tangible and real.  The claim for the influence design has on everyday life, put forward by the exhibition’s opening text panel, is reiterated by not having anything between you and the objects on display.

The first story, Taste! shows the influence of European Modernism on British design. For example, the influence of Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel chairs is shown through the furniture used by the menswear store Simpson’s, the seating that occupied school cafeterias until the 1970s, and his items designed for Dorothea Ventris.  It seems fitting that the first part of the exhibition starts with Modernism – a movement that sought to integrate design and living almost completely – as the show sets out to illustrate the importance of design in relation to the day-to-day. Terence Conran made an impassioned speech last year at the unveiling of the new £80 million project to move the Design Museum to the Commonwealth Institute by 2015 where he called for design to become part of this country’s DNA. This exhibition supports this ambition by showing how design exists as part of the fabric of society and can act as a powerful social force.

A slant towards Europe is present throughout some of the exhibition, however little if any of the world beyond is mentioned. The exhibition largely traces design in the UK and illustrates how design has influenced the visual makeup of this country. It pays considerable attention to Giles Gilbert Scott’s telephone kiosk, something that almost shouts Britishness, and to Calvert and Kinneir’s ubiquitous road signs (although, in my opinion, it does not show the process and history behind these signs as well as the V&A’s exhibition, British Design 1948–2012, did last year).

It can feel that the exhibition brushes over the stories it wishes to tell, although there are exceptions to this, most notably with the example of the Anglepoise lamp, which is explored in detail. The last part of the exhibition, entitled Mater!als & Processes, focuses on plastic and its associated issues, as a material so heavily relied upon but that is produced from such a finite source. However, like other parts of the exhibition, you are left wishing that the show had delved deeper and engaged with the debates to a greater extent.  Arguably, the exhibition was not intended to do this, as it functions more to showcase the museum’s collection. Nevertheless, it could have considered the future for design and its role in tomorrow’s everyday life as opposed to just the past.

Despite these shortcomings, Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things is still worth a visit. It may not offer a great deal of content about what role design may play in the future, but it certainly provides an insight into what the Design Museum has been collecting throughout its history. Intriguingly, it may also offer a glimpse of what to expect from the Design Museum’s new home at the Commonwealth Institute in 2015.

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