Home > Design, Ideas > Alice Rawsthorn clashes with design greats

Alice Rawsthorn clashes with design greats

Alison Rawsthorn.jpg

In the past week we witnessed the abrupt resignation, sacking, row, walking-out, quitting or whatever we can call it, of Alice Rawsthorn, Director of the design Museum, London. The Independent (unfortunately the article now behind a pay wall) last week reported ongoing clashes between the board and Rawsthorne due to the way she was running of the Museum, treating it like a personal ‘fiefdom’, staging ‘fluffy’ exhibitions to suit her own personal tastes, acting counter to the opinions and recommendations of the board. James Dyson resigned a year ago due to the clashes. Sir Terence Conran and Sir Norman Foster are current members.

These are pretty serious allegations to make regarding her reputation, particularly someone of Rawsthorn calibre who has helped to place British design well on the map as well as increasing visitation. It reeks of Director beware! The balancing act of the position may well be almost a circus act but the recent events themselves constitute just that. Titans wield great power but to what end? What is truly happening here?

Rawsthorn, for all her alleged arrogance and eclecticism, succeeded in giving the Design Museum a buzz and raised visitor figures by 40 per cent; I’m not sure she could have done much more. Yet I think neither Conran and Dyson’s idea of a temple to modernism nor Rawsthorn’s magpie hipness are the way to build the institution into a major international destination. There needs to be a comprehensive rethink of the point of a design museum.

A more recent article by Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times titled What is the point of design? seems a more thoughtful, analytical look into what exactly could be happening in the world of design focusing on broader more polemical issues surrounding the clashes. Heathcote more or less disarms the accusatory tones of the Independent and spends a little more time exploring the developments, changes and challenges that have taken place in the definition of design, it’s commercial aspects and the confusion that now surrounds us.

Like artists, designers can have conceptual aims; they can want to provoke thought as well as, or instead of, providing something useful. Belgian designer Marcel Wanders and the Droog collective apply a delightful Magrittian surrealism to their wholly hopeless but always witty products, while Brazil’s Campana brothers bring colourful favela chic to the most expensive apartments. Any design museum would have to dedicate time and space to these figures (as Rawsthorn did) but it dilutes the original message: what is design about – function or fun? Is it as ephemeral as a web page or a witty vase, or is it, as the Bauhaus designers thought, the key to improving the lot of the proletariat by enriching the environment with useful objects? Are things beautiful because they are useful or vice versa?

And here we have the problem, the redefinition of design through changing markets and market forces is a natural progression when design is accepted in all areas of life, and the design giants are perhaps resisting and want to reign in the bolting horse that is Post Modernism. Is a design museum even necessary or desirable in today’s climate?

If a design superstore had space for exhibitions or events, how would it differ from a design museum? Would it, in fact, not be superior, as you would have the opportunity of handling and buying the finest products?

Our lives are dominated by product design more than ever before and now Heathcote also states

The endless round of museumification, design fairs and awards is perverting design into a component of the soundbite culture, where first impressions are everything, and where appearance, not function, drives production and investment.

Modernism vs post modernism vs consumerism vs art. The events of the past week are a portent to the entire design world and the evolution of the definition of design. I will be watching developments at the design Museum with great interest. What is the point of design? Heatcote pleas a comprehensive rethink of the point of a design museum.

Categories: Design, Ideas
  1. daniela mecozzi
    July 9, 2006 at 9:58 am

    Marcel Wanders is Dutch so it’s the Droog collective. It pains me to read this statement.

  2. July 9, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    It seems Edwin Heathcote is not an expert in geography however is national identity of importance in a global world and within the context of the arguement? It has become so increasingly important to design our world, marketeers have capitalized on the saleable talents of the designer, as they themselves have. The creation of more markets means more work for designers as a result the designer is in great demand and the celebrity element has shifted exponentially. I think the question of what design is and what has it become is a very interesting one within this context.

  3. daniela mecozzi
    July 9, 2006 at 11:06 pm

    Particularly at the beginning, Dutch identity was very important for Droog. I think this is still the case today for many Dutch designers. I think national identity and culture are being rediscovered by the new generations of designers as an essential component of their creative process.

    As for me, I think the world is less globalised than we are led to believe and national identity plays a very important role in this. I also think that getting the facts right in the first place helps any analysis or assessment.

  4. July 9, 2006 at 11:38 pm

    This is an interesting topic of discussion. There seems to be a struggle here to maintain some national identity in the face of global influences. What is the fear? Yes I agree there are instances a certain approach may be seen as essentially cultural but when it comes down to it we are greatly influenced by one another across the globe through a very sophisticated means of communication including media and current technologies. Individuals have unique approaches to the way they are working and these perspectives are related to place and origin. Nevertheless, to reach the broader market, there is the possibility we are making less and less of an individual and identifiable national statement otherwise we will lose exactly that group we are interested in to buy our product, concepts, ideas. What is it to be essentially Australian, English, Dutch…in the structural analysis we are using the same system of signs and symbols………

  5. daniela mecozzi
    July 10, 2006 at 12:09 am

    I think that, if a collective (i.e. Droog) or an individual refers to its/his/her national identity as an essential source of inspiration/approach it is incorrect to dismiss that element even more so to link that collective/individual with the culture of an altogether different country. National identity is of course not so relevant when the collective/individual does not make any reference to its/his/her national identity.

    What kind of design are you referring to? Commodified product design mass/elite produced for a tiny section of society? Isn’t design much more? Isn’t it also about anonymous problem solving? Is design just what we read about in magazines?

  6. July 11, 2006 at 8:26 am

    Ponder this then, where I work, a design studio we were an Italian, two Greeks, one Irish, two Vietnamese, one new Zealander, a South American, one Chinese and a Macedonian……making Australian Design……the identity is Australian however I would beg to question what that could possibly be. And if you are an emigrant to another country do you suddenly become an emigrant designer or are you part of a more global picture? I realise that Droog is clearly identified as Dutch and have been operative in putting Dutch designers on the map however they are global designers of commodities as much as others – see recent developements with Moooi. I think we have to be careful with branding designers with nationality, this is becoming a formula for racial distinction and is an unnecessary qualitative yardstick. I support the need for constant improvement of work and appraisal as an ongoing process at every level regardless of nationality and reputation.

  7. daniela mecozzi
    July 11, 2006 at 7:18 pm

    Isn’t the dialogue between different cultures and national identities an essential part of global culture? I do not regards the identity of a product the same as that of the designer/s. If you are an emigrant to another country, you are an emigrant (designer or whatever) AND you are part of a global culture at the same time. I think there are individuals designing products for the global market, I have not met (and am glad) a fully global individual as yet.
    Personally, I think that acknowledging there are are myriads of different identities, learning about other approaches,understanding other ways of thinking and staying curious about what’s out there, it’s rather important. I prefer an approach based on exploring/exploiting difference to one that airbrushes everything with global glow paint.

  8. July 12, 2006 at 12:25 am

    We are on about the same thing in regards to individuals working together however my use of the term ‘global’ has caused offence. Globalisation has not taken place overnight however it has sped up in time with more sophisticated technologies and political agendas (agendas that also have been there for a long time but have perhaps changed pace) I’m sure I don’t need to discuss this issue at length. There has been migration and communication between cultures since ancient times. Dialogue, economic and cultural exchange can be good for all nations. I have already acknowledged diversity but at the same time I am acknowledging that times have changed and are continuing to change. Nations are learning from one another and the more we learn from each other the more similar we become. This is a natural evolution. This is not to say that it replaces individuality however I do believe our goals and aspirations become less divergent as a result. This can be seen as either good or bad, it’s up to every individual how they react to such changes. For the most part I see it as a positive thing with communication improving between nations and industry workers and new standards of professionalism and exchange being encouraged but like everything else there will be those instances that don’t work – the assessment will be in hindsight. I have no answer to an issue that is much greater than this post. At this point everyone is in a process of adjustment and guessing what the outcomes will be but one thing is for certain, the horse has bolted and there is no turning back what has already precipitated the events that have bought about what is called a more global world. There is no glowing paint here or airbrushing however I do have a positive outlook and feel there is great benefit in peoples learning from one another for economic, personal, professional and social benefit and as a result the tensions caused by national identity become less and less and the need to adhere to nation would in my view be less necessary. As you have stated yourself, the work is not the identity of the designer hence not the identity of the nation. I would hope it stands on its own as either good or not so good or whatever. Hence Moooi merges with B&B Italia on the grounds of like mindedness and conceptual base as well as to share similar economic aspirations.

  9. dm
    July 12, 2006 at 4:15 am

    absolutely no offence taken for the use of the term global and all it entails.

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