The Design Museum, Sir Terence Conran’s baby, has just moved from beside Tower Bridge to our part of town – and we’re delighted. It was quite an operation to rebuild the old Commonwealth Institute for its new purpose. Its eccentric pointy roof (a hyberbolic parabola like Maid Marian’s hat) was the problem; the whole massive weight had to be jacked up and supported on Acrow props while they built new walls below. The result justifies the effort. The huge space inside encompasses a memorable pale-panelled atrium up to the roof, galleries, a museum, offices, a club room and (Conran being Conran) a first-class restaurant.
The word ‘design’ asks as many questions as it answers. In one sense everything we see and touch is designed, in the sense that its maker had an object in view and planned how to achieve it. In practice it is usually applied to what we often call Industrial Design, and the first objects you see are such iconic modern objects as telephones, jeans, bikes, the London Underground logo, a plastic bucket and the inevitable Coca Cola bottle. There is a fascinating exhibition called Designers, Makers, Users, there are recent prize-winning designs…. a whole day’s worth of interest. It all inculcates a sense of visual awareness; you start looking at shadows, textures, proportions, juxtapositions… and enjoying vision more as a result. Is ‘mindfulness’ the same idea?
Does garden design come into it? I hope it will. It is a very different discipline. The surroundings of the Commonwealth Institute were designed by Dame Sylvia Crowe, the doyenne of landscapers at the time. She was employed by the Forestry Commission in the period when they were blanketing uplands with dark rectangles of firs – which of course she did her best to ameliorate. I’m afraid she got the blame for much of what she was trying to avoid. When did a gardener, landscaper or nurseryman last get a knight- or dame-hood? Sir Harold Hillier, perhaps, fifty-odd years ago? They must be some of her trees still round the new museum; perhaps a Crowe retrospective would make a good exhibition. I remember her gratefully: in the 1970s she helped me to put my ideas together for my pretentiously-named book The Principles of Gardening.