Deyan Sudjic: B is for Bauhaus

The Design Museum’s director on the evolution of design as an art form, and how cultural institutions should move with the times

I trained to be an architect, but I realised it was my duty never to build anything on the basis of my general incompetence and massive lack of patience. So I became a journalist instead, where you have the arrogance to think you can do everything — write headlines, write stories, do the layout — and other people generally get in the way. I had a very far-sighted sub-editor at The Sunday Times who really set the tone for my subsequent career. He said, ‘Deyan, never use the word fenestration when ‘window’ is quite good enough’.

Even though I was a journalist, I always found using the word ‘I’ quite hard when I was a writer. There’s something quite embarrassing about saying, ‘I think this’, you adopt this phony tone of objectivity.

I was lucky enough to be rescued from this career by becoming an exhibition organiser. What I’ve enjoyed doing a lot is to try to make design and architecture come alive, not just for those who do it but really as a way to understand the world around us, to really ask questions about things, to look at what’s underneath the surface.

My book, B is for Bauhaus, is what emerged from that. It is in the form of a dictionary in that it’s got 30 entries, but it’s really exploration of some of the things I’ve seen and people I’ve met in that dictionary form. [It] begins with, ‘A is for authentic’, which explores a phenomenon I first noticed when I found myself purchasing a Korean war era US army parka from a second-hand stall in Milan.

I wear it much to the embarrassment of my family who can’t believe that this ageing old fart museum director is pretending [to be] like a mod. Though I did grow up in Acton, the same suburb as The Who, although slightly later, I wear it I suppose because I’m attracted by the fact that it actually has this sense of authenticity about it.

The ultimate Mod fashion showcase

It has a heavy brass zip, popper studs, it has a long piece of rope on that zip — the kind of thing that’s designed to allow you to open and close it in conditions of extreme cold. It doesn’t have a brand name; it has care instructions designed for army use. It’s got a detachable quilted liner. I bought it, I suppose, because it seemed to embody that sense of being real. It was design shorn of the ‘sell factor’, it had that sense of down-to-earth goodness to Betsy quality. That’s a quality which designers love, they love the idea of being able to make something authentic and real, and yet their very presence makes it impossible to be anything other than a fake.

There’s a great font designed by Tobias Frere-Jones from New York called Gotham. Tobias was commissioned by GQ magazine in the ’90s to come out with a new display font for the magazine. He came out with something which he described as a tribute and evocation to the great vernacular fonts of New York, the sort of things you find on the side of the Hoover Dam or delivery trucks, and he turned that into a font used by GQ magazine which was later picked up by the Obama poster campaign — the word ‘hope’ appeared in Gotham.

Again there’s a sense of being something honest-to-goodness real and unmanipulated, and therefore a very careful fake. For Obama that was a font which had the quality — he couldn’t perhaps pay for the new deal, but he actually could make a poster that suggested that he knew what it was.

And then of course it became something else — it was adopted by Crest toothpaste and by Starbucks. So this thing which somehow radiates honest-to-goodness authenticity, becomes something very different. That’s something that design of all kinds loves doing.

Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster

Think back to when Ralph Lauren first started the polo brand — he had a flagship store in the early days in New York which were stuffed full of container-loads of things ripped from English country clubs — old canoes, blazers, lacrosse racquets. He was trying to suggest that the new rich could start to look like the old rich.

He’s moved on now to the RRL brand which is honest-to-goodness dustbowl chic where every seam is double-reinforced, and every button is a clip, and it looks like a John Steinbeck-era truck stop somewhere in the Midwest. Of course he’s now trying to make the new rich look like the old poor.

“I’ve always thought that design is this kind of schizophrenic thing — it allegedly has, underpinning it, the idea of function, of performance, and yet it’s also a kind of magic.”

I’ve always thought that design is this kind of schizophrenic thing — it allegedly has, underpinning it, the idea of function, of performance, and yet it’s also a kind of magic. You see this no more clearly than the ultimate conjuring trick that graphic designers have faced with turning a worthless rectangle of paper into something which is worth something — worth something not just abstractly, but in a specifically American — or British, or European, or Swiss — way.

Cuban cigar packaging

And we sort of know why this looks valuable — it’s complicated, although it does seem to use some of the graphic mannerisms of a Cuban cigar box, it’s green, which is the colour of money of course, and it’s endowed with portraits, so far entirely of men, usually with the necessary facial hair. And we can see also the tricks here by which there’s a sense of continuity — this magic trick implies that it’s been around forever, that it’s valuable. The Euro is an interesting example of trying to make a kind of synthetic money. John Major had some qualities, the most impressive of which was his bid to have the Euro named the florin — florin is a term used in many European cultures and does seem to have some connection to the past.

“The Euro was obviously designed by someone who believed in the idea of progress. Because if you look at the imagery which are all doors, windows and bridges, which somehow seem to suggest brotherhood and togetherness.”

The Euro was obviously designed by someone who believed in the idea of progress. Because if you look at the imagery which are all doors, windows and bridges, which somehow seem to suggest brotherhood and togetherness. But the lowest value notes have the oldest images of doors, windows and bridges, and they work their way up to the €500 note beloved by drug-smugglers throughout the world, ending up with plate glass office buildings in Brussels.

We know the Swiss franc doesn’t need to pretend anything, the Swiss franc really is worth something, so they can afford to take risks — put the banknote on its side, even put Le Corbusier on the back which is really a bold move.

Swiss franc with Le Corbusier on the back

We have this engrained idea that design is about function, about doing difficult tasks, about analysing a problem and somehow a great solution will emerge.

Think about camouflage, another example of something which is allegedly about function and fit-for-purpose, and it’s there to make troops look invisible, and yet they look invisible in a specifically national way. So you have to look invisible, but in a visibly national way.

There was a time when car design was an entirely unselfconscious process — if you go back to Henry Ford, they made cars that were designers if no one had ever done a car before, which they hadn’t of course. Now, car design is a form of branding. Is this design, or is this more like breeding rare pedigree animals, does it have its grandparents’ door handles?

Certain strands of the design world, especially in architecture, see fashion as something somehow frivolous and superficial. I’ve never seen it that way. Mass production started with textiles, you can say that the means in which looms of control is where digitalisation started — where the computer really had its roots. And it’s also about deep-seated cultural questions.

THE WRAP BY REI KAWAKUBO 1983

Previously the Japanese were so suspicuous of foreigners that there was the death penalty for even talking to them. And then, Japan, when the Americans arrived in their iron ships, accepted that if they were going to stay the same on the inside, they would have to change on the outside. For Japan, modernity meant looking as Western as possible. This moment was transformed around 1983 when Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garçons first showed her clothes in Paris, and suddenly Japan went from being a cultural receptor to a transmitter.

Kemal Atatürk was the founder of modern Turkey, who again could be seen as much an art director as a politician, after he’d successfully managed to hold the Ottoman Empire together he, in the course of three years, relocated the capital from Istanbul to Ankara, he imported a whole bunch of Austrian architects to build that capital, he abolished Arabic script overnight, introduced a new Latin form, he abolished the fez (and again to look modern you had to wear Western dress).

I’ve been at the Design Museum now for nine years, I was actually hired with a brief to help the museum grow, to take it from its existing building which is in Shad Thames, and initially we were going to move to a building which we were going to put up from scratch by the Tate Modern. That didn’t work out, we looked at other sites, and we’re heading off to Holland Park.

But how do you explore the ways that you address design in a museum — what are the stories that you tell with them?

Art has a habit of speaking for itself, and I always look at [this] example — if you were an art museum and you were fortunate enough to have Picasso’s Guernica in your collection or on loan to display it, it would be interesting to show news footage reportage of the destruction of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War. It would be interesting to show footage of the aircraft that did it, it would be interesting to show the protests against that and what happened thereafter. It would be interesting, but of course it would actually get in the way of Picasso’s extraordinary howl of rage about the terrors of war.

If, on the other hand, you have a design museum in which you have one of the aircraft of the type that actually bombed Guernica, it would be vital to know what it did and to tell that story. Art is autonomous as an object; it speaks for itself. Design, if it’s going to come alive for an audience, has to speak about the user, the designer, the maker, to explore how something was done and how it was made.

Picasso’s Guernica

Our approach is to try and say something else with it — to say that how something is made is as interesting as what it is at the end of that process.

Yesterday we announced this year’s winner of museum’s Designs of the Year show, and it’s a project known as Human Organs-on-Chips, an amazing project done by biochemists at Harvard University in which testing drugs on animals is made unnecessary by producing live cells on a chip which can actually really explore how things will really operate on a body.

Human Organs-on-Chips

But how do you actually deal with a world in which iPhones are designed in California, assembled in China with components from 13 different countries? So design is borderless, but it’s also changing completely.

London has a world centre for design based a lot on its fantastically strong educational tradition. It’s a place in which the world has come to learn design, and I think it’s becoming more and more difficult now the education here is being turned into a business. It’s being industrialised on a scale, and London itself — which is both a fascinating and extraordinary place, but is also transforming at such a rate — some of us still carry the idea of London in our heads as being a gentle, conservative place in which not much happened.

But it only takes a walk down the Thames to see that it’s actually as ruthless as anything west of Shanghai, which is ready to change, is full of high-risers. If you go to Stratford now it’s an astonishing collision between an industrial world which is rapidly failing and a new one of high-rises and concrete and transformation.

And yet it’s a city that can do some things really well — Transport for London is an amazing success story for this country, everyone compare that to mass transit systems in New York or Paris. London is streets ahead on many levels — but it’s simply can’t get housing right. It’s starting to undermine what makes London special, if kids can’t afford to live here and stay here after college, I think it starts to become something very different.

Every economy in the world is trying to move up the value chain, so design is now an essential part of what Korea wants to do, what India wants to be, what China is. Can London actually maintain that sense of being a place at the centre of things rather than the periphery?

“The reason I’m still fascinated by design after all these years is there’s always something appearing, something you haven’t thought of, a new form that takes place.”

The reason I’m still fascinated by design after all these years is there’s always something appearing, something you haven’t thought of, a new form that takes place. 10 years ago Jonathan Ive and the story of Apple was the personification of design, but maybe now it’s already something that is a lot different than the perspectives of the dematerialised world.

On our own, the Design Museum can’t do that, but I think it’s a place in which we can lead and shape the conversation about design, maybe it has a hope of doing that.


This talk took place at Second Home, a creative workspace and cultural venue, bringing together diverse industries, disciplines and social businesses

Find out who’s coming to talk next: secondhome.io/whats-on

Like what you read? Give Second Home a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.