Tim Marlow says we devalue design. Commercial art – graphic design, architecture, fashion, packaging – has little status compared to fine art. “Design is messed up at both ends,” he says. “He has the nose notion of functionalism. But it is also considered a rarefied world. We don’t take it seriously enough – and especially to support the UK’s only national design museum.
Marlow, 60, is chief executive and director of the Design Museum, the first to fill the dual role, which he took on shortly before the pandemic. The museum is young by London standards, founded by Sir Terence Conran in 1982 (first as the Boilerhouse Project) and partly funded by proceeds from the 1981 IPO of Habitat, the retailer and manufacturer of Conran housewares.
“Terence’s point of view – the one I agree with – was that of [the UK’s] the tragedies are that we do nothing,” says Marlow as we sit in his (sleek, understated, tidy) office. “We lost the manufacturing that emphasized the importance of design, and how and why it matters.” Margaret Thatcher was convinced. In 1989, she opened the museum’s first dedicated site: a converted banana warehouse in Shad Thames.
The museum now occupies the former Grade II listed Commonwealth Institute on Kensington High Street, redeveloped in 2016 at a cost of £80million with the aim of elevating the museum to a world-class institution (and to get closer to the museum district “Albertopolis”. ). It offers a permanent collection with free access and a program of exhibitions, often with strong appeal, including upcoming exhibitions on surrealist objects and the work of Ai Weiwei. Visitors hit 650,000 a year, pre-Covid. Not bad, considering the 254-year-old Royal Academy attracted just under 850,000 in 2018-19.
Marlow is affable and fast-talking, with clauses piled upon clauses and quick asides delivered with traces of a Derbyshire accent. He speaks for almost two hours, tearing up topics such as his desperation over the proposed demolition of the 1962 French Railways House on London’s Piccadilly, his long search for a Charlotte Perriand office and his more than 20 years as a artistic broadcaster.
His live debut was TV gold. Marlow chaired Is painting dead?, a 1997 Channel 4 discussion whose panelists included Tracey Emin and philosopher Roger Scruton. Scruton was rude, Emin was drunk, and the show nearly ended in chaos after Emin stormed out. Marlow remained remarkably calm. He and Emin are friends – as he is with many artists.
“That’s why I’ve never been a serious critic,” he says. “I am a historian or a commentator when I write or broadcast. If you’re a serious critic, you can’t befriend everyone, because you can’t pass proper judgment.
Marlow knows what makes a hit show. He was previously artistic director at RA, where he programmed hit shows including Anthony Gormley in 2019, in which the artist flooded a gallery with seawater. It attracted nearly 285,000 visitors.
Prior to that, he was a partner at White Cube and co-founder of publisher Cultureshock Media, so he’s not without executive experience. How does he deal with single responsibility? “I don’t find it boring, but I have to concentrate. It takes technocrats and a good leader, but the creative vision cannot be detached from the CEO.
The Design Museum was doing well when Marlow joined, with exhibits on popular themes examined through a design lens: electronic music, Ferrari, Stanley Kubrick movies. They were commissioned by Marlow’s predecessors, co-directors Deyan Sudjic and Alice Black. Football, Amy Winehouse, and sneakers were topics under Marlow’s watch. In September, I saw him host a sold-out chat with Ai, in which the artist lamented a “very narrow idea of design.” Marlow turned to the audience: “Not in this museum.”
In the rush towards the general public, is his museum in danger of losing course? Marlow goes ever so slightly flint, pointing out that catchy shows run alongside others on central themes, such as litter or Margaret Calvert’s road signs. “It’s pure design. They couldn’t be more pure, speculative, avant-garde and critical of the past. We are far from being a populist temple; we’re not cynically trying to get a mass audience. We try to get different audiences. This strategy seems to work. More than half of visitors are under 34 and almost 30% are non-white.
Current draws include a dive into Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. On a weekday morning in September, a young, multicultural crowd sprawls around a huge padded structure, lost in videos of petting dogs and frosting cookies. In the upper galleries, a free preview of the work of British-Nigerian designer Yinka Ilori is packed.
Marlow is quick to credit his team: “Anyone my age claiming to know everything about the emerging art scene is delusional.” But the high attendance is also due to artists creating specific works, such as the 2020s Electronic, a specially commissioned installation featuring the Chemical Brothers. “Living artists are often treated by museums as quasi-dead entities,” says Marlow.
Conran and his foundation have given over £75 million to the museum, although this funding has largely disappeared apart from a few small grants. Today the museum is finance through a mix including donations, exchanges, branding and commercial sponsorship from Deutsche Bank and Snap.
There is little state support – around £170,000 a year from the Arts Council, less than 1.5% of its almost £12m annual spend (although it was bailed out with nearly £9m in loans and government grants for pandemic recovery). Marlow wants more from the government and wealthy donors. One of his most urgent tasks is to persuade them to give it. “I have to be heavily involved in fundraising. It is essential,” he says. “And we have a strong case to make about Britain’s post-Brexit economy.”
The timing is not ideal. Science and technology, not the creative industries, are political priorities. Marlow will have to “dig deep” to convince the government that design is integral to technology and central to economic prosperity. Sounds like an obvious argument; nevertheless, Nadine Dorries, culture secretary until September, did not find the time to surrender.
Philanthropists are also in Marlow’s sights. “There’s no reason we can’t sell the naming rights. If someone wants to pay north of £20m to call it the X Design Museum, that’s possible. It’s my aim.
Its programming strategy is successful, but I wonder what a modern design museum is for. Is it to showcase taste, industry, craftsmanship, pop culture – or something else? “It’s an ongoing, fundamentally unanswered question – but it should be a place of questions as well as answers,” says Marlow. “And untangle some of the effects of mass consumption and poor design. You can escape art. But you can never escape design.
“Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924-Today” opens October 14 designmuseum.org