DESIGN OF THE PRESENT INTO THE FUTURE. Tim Marlow OBE is the Chief Executive and Director of The Design Museum which since 2016 is housed in the former premises of the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington, London. Marlow is a curator, writer and broadcaster who has worked with some of the most influential contemporary artists to deliver wide-ranging and popular programmes. He sits on the Board of Trustees for the Imperial War Museum, Sadler’s Wells, Art on the Underground Advisory Board and Cultureshock Media.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Tim Marlow, you were formerly Director of Exhibitions at White Cube art gallery and then Artistic Director at the Royal Academy of Arts. Since January 2020 you are the CEO and Director of the Design Museum. Is there a difference between being involved with art and design?

The thing that unites all of my career to date is my growing interest in working collaboratively with creative people. Artists and designers are different. Art and design is different. My work at White Cube was about working with artists and helping to get the best artists to make the best shows. The Royal Academy was and is an organisation that was founded by artists and architects, where I was able to programme and facilitate shows from Abstract Expressionism to the Renaissance nude to Oceania, but also to Antony Gormley, Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramovic or William Kentridge. All in different ways are part of a collaborative creative community. I wanted to bring this to the Design Museum, so last year we did the Ai Weiwei: Making Sense show looking at design through the lens of Ai Weiwei’s art, and we have an Es Devlin project in the future, and a Tim Burton show coming up. The responsibility of being a curator is also a creative act, and I like to empower curatorial teams, but the driving motivation for me is working collaboratively with artists.

From Ai Weiwei to Marina Abramovich and the exhibitions of Gormley and KIefer, do you have a special talent to enjoin these kinds of people into an exhibition that they approve of and that the public enjoy?

I don’t know if it’s a talent. It’s a facility. It’s something I want to do, it excites me. Not treating various creative individuals as if they’re dead entities I’m going to mould is a good starting point. Some artists want to be curated extensively, and others do not. It tends to work if you start with the premise that you want to make something extraordinary with an artist and ask how we can do that.

“I came here because this is both the National Design Museum and it’s the only design museum devoted exclusively to the design of the present into the future.”

Tim Marlow

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense © Ed Reeve for the Design Museum

Tim Marlow, design is everywhere, but does it have public prominence?

It ought to be the most popular thing possible, but it’s more tribal because design is so varied and myriad. There are nearly 100,000 Friends of the Royal Academy who will come to everything because they believe in Art with a capital A. Here at the Design Museum, I don’t think the overlap between people who are interested in industrial design, graphic design, AI, town planning, architecture, fashion, is as big, but I want to try and get a core audience amongst the creative communities. The corollary of that is that we can have the most diverse audiences through the subjects we do, which museums around the country are desperate for.

Who are your visitors?

50% of our audiences are under 35, and we’re up to pre-COVID levels of visitors. When I was at the Royal Academy, 50% of the audiences were over 60. But the key question here is will they come back for every exhibition? The hope is that they start to become part of the institution whatever we show. We’re up to nearly 700,000 visitors and the exhibition ticketing is about 250-300,000. My challenge is to increase the numbers of people who are paying tickets for our exhibitions, but there are other ways also of engaging audiences, they can use our cafe, our shops. It is the quality of people’s visit that ultimately matters, but you can only engage with people in meaningful ways if you get them to come and numbers matter. Philanthropists, corporate sponsors and others want to know they’re supporting something that’s gaining momentum.

How is the Design Museum funded?  

It’s an independent privately financed museum that receives a grant of £170,000 a year from the Arts Council, essentially towards a residency program. Our turnover is £14 million so we have to raise 99% of our money. We were founded by Terence Conran with independent Trustees, and even if my experience and my background is in the art world, I came here because this is both the National Design Museum and it’s the only design museum devoted exclusively to the design of the present into the future.

Is the design of the present into the future your vision for the Design Museum?

Broadly what I’m trying to do here is energise and give a sense of momentum. I want the institution and the space to be animated. Any visitor walking in now will see design projects and activity on every floor and every balcony, as well as behind the closed doors of the two big suites of exhibition spaces and the learning studio, the auditorium, the library and the research centre. A museum has to have a building that’s the space in which projects happen, not a space that’s revered in and of itself.

What are the differences between art and design?

There are some fundamental differences that are irrefutable. Art is about human beings, individuals and those who respond to it, making sense of our place in the grand scheme of things. Design is fundamentally problem solving. Aesthetic considerations come into play, but the cup I have in front of me has to look a certain way because of use, and it’s obviously a balance between form and function, aesthetic and use. Art is seen as elevated because it has no function, and design is seen as lower because it has function.

“We make cultural categories because it gives us a sense of clarity.”

Tim Marlow, can design transcend function?

Yes, and the boundary blurring between art and design, or the overlap, or the seepage, is interesting. Artists can make objects that are designed, and artists such as Thomas Heatherwick are not trained as architects but also design buildings. That’s a difficult area, because architecture is a profession, a seven-year course in this country, and a lot of architects are very uneasy about calling Ai Weiwei an architect because he’s designed buildings. But Carlo Scarpa, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, didn’t have full qualifications as architects. But I’m less overtly interested in the status of professional qualification, although I respect it, and more interested in the overlap of these things. Hussein Chalayan is a fashion designer who also makes sculpture,  Armando Testa is a brilliant Italian advertising man and graphic artist who also makes paintings.

Rock stars also make paintings?

Yes, and I like the idea that people with one cultural life – Bob Dylan for instance – has spent 40 years making drawings and paintings on the road. I’m genuinely interested in his work, but treating anyone who’s got creative celebrity status in the same way as an artist who’s worked all their professional lives in the studio and showing them in museums needs careful framing. But that overlap is there, and we make cultural categories because it gives us a sense of clarity. A lot of creative people are less hung up about those categories, but there is still a difference between a cup that is made for drinking and a work of art that is a critique or a subversion. Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe is not drinkable out of, but it’s a profound rumination on what a glass and a spoon is.

Is design also very much about mass production?

As an historian, I am fascinated by the fact that the contemporary or the Modernist understanding of design irrefutably goes back to the Industrial Revolution, and design is tied in with manufacture and then mass production. There was a sea change with manufacture, but as Ai Weiwei showed in the exhibition here, the Chinese were producing things that were handmade on an industrial scale.

Is a fashion designer or a designer of an object an artist?

I’d say not, but I don’t understand why people would see it demeaning a fashion or a furniture designer by saying they’re not artists. But do they have the capacity to be artists? Yes. Can they make art? Yes. Do they use some of the language of art? Yes. Are their clothes art? No. Could you make art out of clothing? Yes. But what does it matter if you’re called an artist or a fashion designer?

Probably because an artist sounds a little more important. A designer is considered more like an artisan. But take Les Lalanne for instance and there is an ambiguity?  

There is, which is creative. That tension is interesting. It’s the Joseph Beuys idea that every human being is an artist. The critical thing is, Is what is made and presented by an artist interesting? Does it have something to say beyond the indulgence of the person who’s made it ? And that also applies to other objects, so if a chair or something that is initially made for functional reasons actually seems to transcend the function, and we start to revere it or understand it in different ways that start to move towards the idea of art, in a way it can be art.

Saint Laurent was a great fashion designer, and he used and referred to works of art in some of his collections? 

Yes, but then Marcel Duchamp used other people’s artisanal objects and represented them as art. For time immemorial, but certainly from the beginning of the 20th century, the mirroring or symbiotic relationship between those two areas has been played with.

Tim Marlow

REBEL: 30 Years of London Fashion © Andy Stagg for the Design Museum

Tim Marlow

Future Observatory Display Second Floor Balcony © Felix Speller for the Design Museum

Tim Marlow

Skateboard © Felix Speller for the Design Museum

Tim Marlow

Future Observatory Display Second Floor Balcony © Felix Speller for the Design Museum

Tim Marlow

How to Build a Low Carbon Home © Felix Speller for the Design Museum

Tim Marlow

The Ralph Saltzman Prize 2024 © Andy Stagg for the Design Museum

“We know for certain that design and technology are symbiotically linked, and design is absolutely tied, harnessed, enslaved by, or facilitated by technological development in a way that art isn’t.”

Tim Marlow, do we see both utility and aesthetics in your museum’s permanent collection?

Yes, for example Jony Ive is one of the great designers of the past 30 years, and Apple is a testament to that. Technological functioning and facility go hand in hand with great design. The sequence is: designer, maker, user. The final wall of our collections is not about revering Apple, although Apple are there and it has a smartphone, but there are different designs of the typewriter, televisions, calendars, cameras, pens, music equipment, and they all converge. Everything that those objects do and did for human beings tells you the time, tells you the date, enables you to write or play music….

Is it the design or the technology that becomes obsolescent? 

It’s technology that becomes obsolescent. Some designs do, but it’s also to do with human taste or fashion, and even in the world of fashion clothes from the 1960s designed by Emilio Pucci are more fashionable now than they even were two years after they were made. Furniture, mid-century modernism is now sought after. Taste is more pluralistic, and design per se is not obsolete. Art doesn’t become obsolete, but art definitely falls in and out of fashion, whereas my phone eventually will become obsolescent but there may be a retro use of this design in ten years’ time where it actually comes back.

Can we foresee where design and art are going?

We know that technology will inform art in more ways than some people acknowledge, because a lot of the breakthroughs in the history of art have been technologically inspired: the invention of photography, the invention of the portable paint tube so that the Impressionists or the Barbizon school could go out into the landscape and paint more easily. We know for certain that design and technology are symbiotically linked, and design is absolutely tied, harnessed, enslaved by, or facilitated by technological development in a way that art isn’t.

What is your main activity here as director and what is your goal?

It is essential to try and raise funds, but let’s park that. I want to try and create a literal, physical space, as well as a metaphorical space, in which my curatorial team and my staff can work externally with all manner of interesting people to do ground-breaking and inspiring projects. I want a museum with purpose, and part of the purpose of any museum is to engage with the public. I need the public to come, different kinds of people to see what we’re doing, not just to fund it, not just to sort of support it, but because I believe in what we’re showing here, what we’re staging here, what we’re creating here.

What is the Future Observatory?

We’ve become the National Centre for Design Research for the Green Transition. We have a series of projects that showcase early research in this regard, but we are working with postgraduate research departments and different parts of industry to look at projects and to facilitate and commission design research for all sorts of things that can help going forward with the green transition. We’ve funded a project off the coast of Northern Ireland where they’re looking at more sustainable processes of waste disposal, which, if it works, in the next three years can then be wheeled out in different parts of the United Kingdom or indeed beyond. We’ve got a project in Scotland with two universities and their postgraduate research departments looking at how we can remove all single use plastic in the Scottish National Health Service. We’ve showcased a garment from a brilliant organisation called Faber Futures, which is made of material that is microbe dyed so there is little or no water used in the creation of that fabric. That is a transformative approach to the problems of tens of thousands of gallons of water to dye fabric to make clothes out of. There are other long term projects that we are facilitating and the public seeing these and understanding what’s going on and spreading the word is one part of this.

What do you want to achieve with these projects?

In 2- or 3-years’ time, when there is critical mass and results, we want policy makers, politicians, venture capitalists, brands, industry, to see these things and say: Yes, we want to put these into production, or, We want to work with these people. When museums talk about transformation, it’s genuine, it’s authentic, and you transform people’s view of the world through art or the experience of a museum by making them see things differently. We want to get on with commissioning this research and letting designers, design researchers and all manner of scientists and technologists try and facilitate these projects and see if we can make them happen. If they’re workable, if they’re efficacious, we can then explain to the world that this has happened and get them out there. That really excites me and that would be really transformational. That’s the real core of the vision here. I would like eventually for us to be properly recognized, with funding as the National Design Museum, and these projects are funded by a national research board, the UKRI – UK research and Innovation.

Can we say that you’re trying to sponsor, to improve and to show what is done in the design world of the UK?  

We start by leveraging funding and support and engaging with various cultural networks in the United Kingdom to get on with those projects, but already we’re talking about how we tour and share those ideas internationally. The programme that we show in the museum is emphatically and irrefutably international. I am not interested in a nationalistic approach to design. Design transcends national boundaries. Design really does have a universalism, and its specificity of emerging from certain cultures is quite interesting but not really its point.

Do designers from all over the world ask to show here?

People understand the limits of our capacity to program, but I’ve said I want to work creatively with designers and creative people and that’s often monographically on projects. We did a show called Waste Age, where we looked at the whole idea about design’s responsibilities and the potential for design to help us work through  the current environmental and the ongoing environmental crisis. We’re doing another show next year looking at design from a natural perspective. There are different ways of working with designers, in group shows as well as individually. More and more, people want to work with us, and I want to find ways of working as collaboratively and as creatively as possible with those communities.

Thank you very much for being with us today.