The Design Museum guru on the good, the bad and the ugly in design and architecture

—29th January 2020

Deyan Sudjik, Director Emeritus of the Design Museum in London and architectural and design curator, speaks to RedBook on what drives great building design and why Britain is at risk of selling its creative soul

What drives the quality of design, especially building design?

I think it’s very important for the designer to go on feeling a sense of curiosity, that nothing is a formula, that everything is fresh, and always to be looking for something you haven’t thought of before.

How do you test that?

You feel it personally. I’ve been going to degree shows at the Royal College and various places for a very long time. There is always something that tells you that another generation has thought of something you hadn’t. If that interests you, you pass the test. If you think ‘that’s not for me’, it’s time to pack up and go home.

How important is it for a designer to understand consumer tastes and preferences?

What makes design so interesting is that it’s not one thing; it’s a way of looking at the world. It’s about what people do, how they use things and the things that make them feel comfortable. It’s also about how something is made and the quality and resources with which it is made. The designer’s job is to think about those things and then come up with something that reflects what they found from the people they are working with, rather than imposing a preconception.

Do you mean the client?

Client is a big complicated word. In some cases the client is an individual, the end-user, thinking about how they’re going to live, and in some cases it’s the neighbourhood, the environment, and sometimes the world in the bigger sense. A designer cannot ignore what’s going on around them in terms of climate change and the part they play in that.

When you say it’s their job to reflect the end user, what drives that relationship?

Well with the Design Museum, we’re sitting in a building that was originally built in 1962 as a landmark to early personal modernity in Britain. When we found it, it had an indoor lake, which leaked furiously and had the insulation characteristics of a tent. We went to an open competition to find an architect and in the end we worked with John Pawson. A lot of people thought he was a design fanatic who would impose monastic order on everybody, but actually John is someone who believes in talking to people and understanding how they’re going to work, and he gives them a place which they will feel good in.

The Design Museum project was one where you had to get the design right – in choosing the architect was it about the aesthetic, the chemistry, the understanding or the curiosity?

It was all of those things. It was dealing with first of all a Grade II* listed building so it needs to be respected for what it was. When we were restoring the building, people said it should be allowed to fall down. What do you do with a building that exists already and make the best out of it? How do you make a space that the public will love, that will be a good place to work in, and allow us to do our job to provide an exhibition space, a learning space, and libraries? I trained to be an architect but realised it was my duty not to build anything, being both incompetent and impatient. You cannot but admire the dedication and persistence of an architect who goes through the grinding process of a building contract and trying to meet client approvals, which can take years, but can still maintain a sense of the creative idea that fired them up in the first place.

What were you looking for when you put the competition out to public tender?

We had a long list of 40 names and pared that down to 10. We had a competition panel who went to see each of those. We begged the architects not to do a complete scheme because we wanted to have a conversation, but of course they all did. You know you’re going to take four years to build something, so you’re going to want to do it with someone you respect and that you will have a good time working with. You also want someone who is going to keep that creative idea that is the point of it.

How would you compare design in Britain with international design?

London is one of the most international centres in the world and has the world’s first design schools and architecture schools, and they bring in talented students from all over the world. I think Britain has been living on the creative investment that has represented for a very long time. So that’s made Britain a place where interesting things happen in design and where designers base themselves, even though they may not build their most interesting work here in London. Of course, in terms of what’s been going on politically and in the education system, it has turned more into a business than a crusade, so it’s started to erode that.

Do you think there is a threat to design in Britain?

It now costs probably £30,000 for a Masters in London if you are a non-European Union student and that does put people off when they can go to other schools to learn: Eindhoven, Lausanne, Barcelona cost a fraction of that. There is also the Royal College of Art, which is a fantastic place, but they have doubled in size in the last five years. It once had 1,000 students and now has 2,000. And are they all equally gifted?

How quickly does architectural design go out of date?

We tell ourselves that what we think of as successful design should not date, it should last and that’s even more a factor when we decide that fast fashion design for the landfill or a laptop which you dispose of every year is very bad for us and the planet. The idea of designing to last is an old idea, but one that has come back in a different form due to ecological imperatives.

What about the appreciation and demand for design – has it increased?

Design is a method, not a thing. I think people get it. They understand when something is designed to respect them, that an environment which is a pleasant place to be is a positive place. They understand if a waiting room in a hospital or an airport is like a slum or a hole, then it’s a space where they have been disrespected.

Would you say the bar is higher now because of that consciousness?

This is going to sound so pompous, but civilisations have always made their mark with their buildings and the places that they create with those buildings. London is St. Paul’s, as much as it is the tube map.

I think good things happen because people love the idea of doing something great, rather than being stopped from doing bad things. The planning system has been around to stop bad things, which is obviously worth doing, but I think there’s a sense of creating a climate where people love the idea of doing good things.

What are the implications of that for architects?

If you look at London now, it has changed immeasurably in the last 20 years. In the year 2000, if someone told you that the River Thames would be lined with skyscrapers, you wouldn’t believe it. Now it has utterly transformed. For architects, there is a fluctuation – there are moments when the bold statement is everything; everyone wants to build a Guggenheim in Bilbao, and quite quickly that became a self-defeating inflation – an arms race to be wackier, taller, larger. I think that is not of much interest to a generation of architects now.

Architects need to be like performers and the storytelling aspect of architecture is always there. There is sometimes a sense that nothing else matters but getting the job, and you want an architect who thinks things do matter apart from getting the job.

What can go wrong if you don’t get the right talent on board?

There’s a famous story about Peter Eisenman, a celebrated American architect who invented deconstructionism. His first house was for an academic couple at Yale and he didn’t believe in having walls and didn’t believe in keeping to the budget. The house basically wrecked the marriage and the budget. Afterwards he was interviewed by The New York Times about the house and said: “It’s not my job to be a marriage guidance counsellor.” But then The Times went on to ask where he lived – a New York apartment which he did not design himself – and they asked why he didn’t design his own house? Eisenman said: “Well that would be like living in my head, and I wouldn’t want to do that. Why would I want to live in my head?”

What is the essence of bad design?

I always get anxious about good design and bad design. Good design implies a moral aspect. It goes back to Henry Cole, who started the Victoria & Albert museum. His first version of the museum involved what he thought was great design, but also a “chamber of horrors” of things he thought were bad design. He had the grace to admit that it was the most popular part of the exhibition.

In terms of an urban/rural divide (London vs the country) and new build architecture, do you think in Britain we will become more Californian and Australasian in accepting contemporary architecture?

It’s interesting how Contemporary art is now something that people collect in Britain. Brown Chippendale furniture is not as popular as it once was. There’s a sense that people are looking at things of the 20th and 21st century with much more interest. Brutalism is something that people really go on bus tours to look at – mid-century Modern is almost as popular as Victoriana once was. There is a change. And the people who can afford to build their own houses are an unusual, self-selected group.

What’s next for you?

From January I’ve become Director Emeritus for the Design Museum which means I curate rather than do the plumbing. The show I am working on for later this year is about Prada, which is absorbing. I’m also writing a book about Stalin’s favourite architect – a man called Boris Iofan who was pretty gifted but in the interests of not being liquidated he followed the dictates of Stalin’s genius and made some deeply compromised buildings. So it’s a morality tale.


Prada. Front and Back, an exhibition curated by Deyan Sudjik, opens at the Design Museum in September 2020