Q+A: Deyan Sudjic

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There’s a kind of hush at London’s Design Museum. Former director Alice Rawsthorn is under a gag order that prevents her from discussing her recent hasty departure from the job. And the new director, Deyan Sudjic, 54, who was appoionted on March 17, is playing his cards close to the chest.

Sudjic, a noted design writer, curator, and academic, is giving up a lot for this post: a new deanship of the faculty of art, architecture, and design at Kingston University in London and a job as design and architecture critic for the city’s Observer newspaper. In exchange, he’ll be climbing onto a public stage already hot with the spotlight of scrutiny.

Rawsthorn’s sudden exit from the office of museum director at the start of this year was apparently at the behest of the Design Museum’s board of trustees. The alleged source of the dispute was her resistance to relocating the museum to a more central and much larger site next to the Tate Modern—a move slated for 2012 as part of an ambitious £50 million ($87.5 million) expansion plan. Rawsthorn had also been at the center of a controversy in 2004 in which James Dyson, then chairman of the board, noisily resigned in protest of her perceived bias toward fashion and graphic design. It was a show about a 1950s society flower arranger that really put Dyson into a centrifugal spin. He was, after all, a firm believer in the Design Museum’s original 1989 mission “to encourage serious design of the manufactured object,” as stated by its founder and, for many years, principal funder, Terence Conran. Rawsthorn’s interpretation of design is more expansive, and the public voted for her with its feet. During her five-year tenure, the number of visits to the museum rose by 40 percent to more than 250,000 in 2005.

Sudjic’s ability to balance the public’s desires with the trustees’ objectives is as yet untested; most of his experience has been in journalism and curation—pursuits known for their single-mindedness. In addition to such illustrious achievements as founding the UK architecture magazine Blueprint in 1983, editing Domus from 2000 to 2004, and curating the 2002 Venice Architecture Biennale, he was also director of Glasgow 1999, UK City of Architecture, a program of events and exhibitions that attracted 840,000 visitors.

One of his major qualifications for the Design Museum job may be his careful observation, through the journalist’s lens, of the institution and its players over the years. As a reporter, he often commented on the museum’s programs and, occasionally, its internal affairs. Now that the tables have turned, Sudjic proves that he also knows how to hold his tongue.

You must be pretty excited at the prospect of being able to shape Britain’s Design Museum.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a museum from the ground up. I was hired to run the museum as it is now, but also to work with the trustees on a move to a new site, to build a museum that will be something like three times the size of the present one.

What do you have in mind for it?

The Design Museum is not one thing; it’s a network of things. I think we need to think about how we see collecting, what a collection might be, fitting in with the ecology of collections in Britain and around the world. It’s clearly a very vigorous exhibitions program. It’s obviously an education program, too. At the moment we’re very strong at secondary education, but I think we need to look at higher education as well.

If I were a design student, what would the museum provide that I couldn’t get from books, magazines, and looking in shops?

For tertiary education, we need to build up a research culture. It’s partly there, but it needs to be nourished. We need to think about archives. We are very fortunate that graphic designer Alan Fletcher is giving his archive to the museum this year. I think that’s going to be the start of a range of activities in that area.

And how will you reconcile the museum’s mission to be an educational resource with the need to make partnerships with business?

We need the support of industry. It comes down to what design is. It is an industrial manufacturing practice.

What is your definition of design? Is it aligned more with turbo fan jet engines or with flower arranging?

I think those are the wrong questions to ask. For me, design is many things. Design is a means of understanding what the world is and I hope that the museum will help others to do that.

This suggests a very broad definition of design. Does this mean in the case of last year’s controversial Designer of the Year, in which the award went to the design strategist of a project rather than its architect, you, too, would have honored Hilary Cottam?

I think a museum needs a balanced program.

What would be balanced?

The bigger the museum, the more range you can have, clearly. Part of the mission of the museum is, and always has been, architectural design. It involves historic examinations. A museum can’t only be about the next big thing. It should also be reflective and cover a wide area of constituencies.

In terms of programming, you’ll first have a chance to make your mark on the exhibitions schedule in 2007. Any idea what your first exhibition might be?

Absolutely far too soon to say.

In terms of ideas or areas you might like to look at?

Absolutely too early to say.

Why did you choose the job at the Design Museum over chief curator at the department of architecture and design at MoMA?

I’m not sure I can comment on that.

I thought it was public knowledge that you were offered the job…

I couldn’t possibly comment.

What aspects and experiences of your career so far do you think are particularly useful for this job?

I’ve had a career working with magazines, but I’ve also run things. I spent four years in Glasgow working on a program that ranged from opening the Lighthouse, Scotland’s architecture and design museum, to an exhibitions program that attracted more than 800,000 people over the course of the year. It also involved building an experimental housing area. That taught me how to work with big organizations accountable to public bodies, and even more importantly, it taught me that sometimes you can get as much pleasure working with people doing things the way they want to do things as you get from doing them yourself.

Will you carry through this collaborative approach to your relationship with the museum’s trustees?

The museum depends on an active and engaged group of trustees.

In 2004 you wrote in The Guardian about the resignation of the museum’s chairman of trustees, James Dyson. You appeared to suggest that some of the tensions between your predecessor and the board arose from her less than stellar diplomatic and management skills…

I looked at that piece again quite recently in light of taking on this job myself, and I think it was an extremely balanced account. It was an attempt to describe an extremely difficult situation.

How do you think your approach to management differs from Alice’s?

I don’t think there’s much point in comparing myself to Alice. She did a great job. What I can say is that I believe that you work with people and get the best out of them. I’m sure she does, too.

As the Design Museum transforms itself from a special-interest organization into a visible public institution, what do you think Terence Conran’s role will be in this evolution?

I think he is a major figure in British and, indeed, world design. We’re very fortunate to have him as a trustee.

In your view, what were his original objectives for the museum and to what extent do you still uphold them?

We have similar views in that design is this wide range of interests and it is about understanding.

What do you mean exactly by “understanding”?

To me, design is a way of understanding how the world is. It’s a reflection of cultural values and technical ones, the way economies function, the way people interact with things and places and each other.

What are the pros and cons of an alliance (both physical and conceptual) with Tate Modern?

It’s too early to talk about it. Both the Tate and the Design Museum have said that the preferred option for the museum’s new site is a site next to Tate Modern.

Could you talk about what that might mean?

It’s too early. We’re saying that the Design Museum wants to be bigger and that we’d like to move to a site that will be next to Tate Modern.

Well, it sounds thrilling—for the design world.

Absolutely. I’m sorry to sound so cagey. I actually don’t sit at my desk until September. In the next three months I’ll be putting a lot of thought into all this.

What do you think your toughest challenge is going to be?

There are two. One is to raise, with the trustees, the money to pull off this extremely ambitious but achievable project. And second is to make sure that the Design Museum as it is now goes on being an exciting place in the run up to that move.

Lastly, the stated mission of the Design Museum is to “excite everyone about design.”?I wonder if you’d care to add anything to that?

Sounds pretty good to me.

Alice Twemlow is a design journalist, critic, and consultant based in Brooklyn.