A-Z tour of modern design with Design Museum chief Deyan Sudjic

The chief of the Design Museum, Deyan Sudjic talks bluntly about design and the London housing crisis.
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You’d expect the director of the Design Museum to have strong opinions, and Deyan Sudjic doesn’t disappoint. In his brilliant, wide-ranging and engrossing new book, B is for Bauhaus: An A-Z of the Modern World, a paeon to modern European design, he can occasionally use two words as effectively as a flamethrower, calling (for example) Dale Chihuly’s art glass, “unnecessarily energetic”, and referring to Prince Charles’s “petulant crusade (against anything that he did not like the look of).”
So, no rush for a knighthood, then.
But such controlled explosions have the effect of a pinch of cayenne pepper in a ragout, sharpening the whole dish.
Director of the museum since 2006, he’s now steering it towards its shiny future at the former Commonwealth Institute, W8, which aims, when designer John Pawson has finished the sparkling new inside, to open late next year.
“I had just arrived,” recalls Sudjic, 62, ”and had a two-book publishing deal, to write The Language of Things (published 2008) and a dictionary of design. Then Penguin rang and said, people don’t use dictionaries any more, and the book ended up as 40 essays, instead.”
Their range reflects Sudjic’s polymath expertise and interests, so that the book darts, with dragonfly flashes, from architecture (a recurring theme) to the design of everything — from cars to radios, to contemporary film, advertising, and fashion; to new methods of manufacture —‘digital printing’; to Conran, cooking, kitchens; Chipperfield (the architect) — and chairs, without which no book on design is complete, and which has its own section.
S is for Story
Raised in Acton, where his parents spoke Serbo-Croat at home (his father reported for the BBC World Service), Sudjic recalls his childhood embarrassment at the arrival of his grandmother, swathed in black, with a roast suckling pig wrapped in brown paper tucked firmly under one arm. But he also links his interest in architecture and design to those pan-European origins. He isn’t your average bloke.
He began as an Edinburgh-trained architect, planning to complete his qualifications in the influential modernist practice of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. But it didn’t take as a career. “Fortunately! Both for me, and for architecture as a whole,” he says, drily. “I spent my time hiding from the project architect. I’m far too impatient to be an architect.”
In 1983, with Peter Murray (now director of New London Architecture) he set up the hugely influential architecture and design magazine, Blueprint. From 2000-2006, he was architecture critic of The Observer, as well as editing the magazine Domus for four years. In 2002, he curated the Venice Biennale.
D is for Domestic
Sudjic’s great passion may be modernist architecture, but he is keenly interested in domestic architecture and design, too — and has good ideas on London’s housing shortage.
“The home, and housing, is a very powerful way in to design,” he says, with gusto. “It’s not all about ‘taste’. Design is the way we each show what matters to us, in our homes, clothes, technology and gender. Design affects everyone.
“John Lewis, for example, is a fascinating phenomenon. Ten years ago it looked fusty, but now it is much more interesting. We’re working with it to do a pop-up exhibition of items in the store, chosen by Margaret Howell, Tom Dixon and Sebastian Conran.
“People are very interested in cooking, and so the kitchen is an important design aspect of their homes. The idea of the kitchen as the centre of the home is quite new, only from the past 60 years or so. With Habitat, Terence Conran’s had a huge influence on that here. He has a knack of creating a way of life that anybody can buy into. He calls his designs ‘plain, simple and useful.’”
A really interesting exhibit at the new museum will be a ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’, the pioneering fitted kitchen designed in 1926 by a young, socialist Viennese architect, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Ten thousand of those family-friendly kitchens were made.


Controlled anarchy: Borneo Island housing experiment in Amsterdam
H is for Housing
“The state needs to re-engage with housing,” Sudjic says, changing tack effortlessly; “which it hasn’t done since Margaret Thatcher sold off council housing. A problem for commercial builders is that there’s little incentive to build and sell thousands of homes, as it drives down prices.
“We need multiple methods to solve the shortage, including reusing existing stock, and adaptable prefabs. One of the most interesting housing experiments I’ve seen,” he says, lighting up, “is a place called Borneo Island, in Amsterdam.
“The land was sold in the early 1990s as 10m-wide plots of land, about a hundred of them. Architects designed the houses, and then people could do what they liked with the façade and the windows, so it was a sort of controlled anarchy.
“I think a lot of people here would love to build their own homes, and I’d like to see something like Borneo Island at the development of Earl’s Court.
“There’s no one right answer, no single solution.”
F is for Future
Deyan Sudjic’s restless, maverick mind and snappy way with both ideas and words serves him well in an increasingly fast-paced museum world. At 10,000 square feet, the new Design Museum will have three times the space of the current one, plus free entry.
“There are lots of wonderful museums of decorative art,” he says, “but this one is about mass production and what’s coming next. We’ll get our millionth twitter follower this year. After the Tate, we have the biggest museum website in the world.
“The pace of change is accelerating so quickly that it will inevitably bring some bad things as well as good ones. New ideas get adopted really fast now, and we reflect that. Design doesn’t stand still. It’s a fascinating story.”
  • B is for Bauhaus: An A -Z of the Modern World by Deyan Sudjic (£18.99, Particular Books) is available half-price, until May 14, to Homes & Property readers. Visit penguin.co.uk and use offer code “bauhaus50” to order.

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