Justin McGuirk: “The diversity makes design a fascinating lens for looking at the world”

The Design Museum’s chief curator talks about the institution’s new venue and inaugural exhibition Fear and Love

This November London’s Design Museum reopened in a new location. But it was no simple move. Travelling from a banana-packing warehouse in Shad Thames to the former Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park, the transfer saw the institution triple its size. Enlarged and refreshed, it is able to display a free permanent collection, maintain a stronger programme of public events and organise more ambitious exhibitions than before.

The exhibition taps into issues that one might not instantly associate with design – many of which cause anxiety

Justin McGuirk was appointed the Design Museum’s chief curator in 2015. His first exhibition at the new venue, Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, stands as something as a manifesto for the institution’s future. Comprising 11 newly commissioned installations, it defines design as a broad array of disciplines that plugs into the issues affecting the world today. A collection of pretty chairs it is not.

Jocks&Nerds caught up with McGuirk to discuss the new building, the ideas behind Fear and Love and upcoming plans at the museum.

You began working in art and at the Architecture Association, then later moved across to the design world. Why did you transition from architecture to design?

Well, I was trained as an art historian and started my career in art galleries and museums, but it was that early job as an editor at the Architectural Association in the late 1990s that set me on the path to writing about architecture. And while I find myself at the Design Museum now I wouldn’t say that I ever quite made a transition to design, I merely started to see “design” as a bigger field that encompassed everything from architecture to products and software.

And I would say that the Design Museum sees design in the same terms. It’s that diversity of disciplines that makes design a fascinating lens for looking at the world.

How do has the new building will change the nature of the exhibitions the Design Museum can put on?

The new building is three times bigger than the banana-ripening warehouse the museum inhabited in Shad Thames, and that brings with it a number of opportunities. Chiefly, it enables us to put a permanent collection display on show for free, which means we can behave more like a national museum, even though we are not.

That’s very significant. It also offers two galleries for temporary exhibitions, one of which is almost 900sq m, and that means we can stage larger, more ambitious exhibitions. But most of the extra space is not actually gallery space, it’s for other programmes such as learning studios and an auditorium, all of the things we need for a lively public programme.

Your first temporary exhibition Fear and Love shows a design discipline expanded far beyond the furnishings it was once associated with. When did this shift start taking place, and why?

The show very much aims to challenge people’s preconceptions about what design is – the idea that a design museum is a catalogue of chairs and consumer products. Of course we have those things, and they remain design’s most visible output, but for several decades now designers have sought to make themselves more socially useful. And design itself has become less “material”.

Just think of any mainstream piece of user interface design – the iPhone operating system or Facebook’s interface – these things influence the behaviour of billions of people around the planet (and are the work of hundreds of designers). That is power, often with political implications. So Fear and Love taps into issues that one might not instantly associate with design – many of which cause anxiety.

Would you say the installations on show are symptomatic of, or curative towards, the issues facing the world today?

The issues addressed by the 11 installations very much reflect our contemporary moment. They include the fear of robots and AI and the threat they pose to employment; the role of social media in our sex lives; the culture of waste in the fashion industry; life in informal cities.

None of the installations present “solutions”, but they present those issues from the perspective of designers. I find the range of issues satisfyingly unpredictable – you wouldn’t expect to find Grindr or Brexit tackled in a design exhibition, but design can be extremely revealing about society and politics.

Could you describe some of the specific exhibits that highlight the exhibition’s themes?

The Grindr installation I just mentioned, which is the work of Andres Jaque, explores how having GPS in our phones has influenced more than just the way we navigate our cities, but the way we choose partners based partly on their proximity geographically.

But the piece also explores how a piece of software design has influenced the evolution of gay culture, while for instance allowing homosexuals in countries like Egypt to be tracked and arrested by police. Another installation, by Madeline Gannon, consists of a giant industrial robot that has been reprogrammed to interact with visitors, something it was never designed to do. Gannon's aim is to suggest that the machine is sentient and that we might develop empathy with it, rather than seeing it as the thing that will take five million jobs over the next five years.

What plans for future exhibitions can you reveal?

We’re working on a show about design in California form the counterculture of the 1960s to the tech culture of Silicon Valley. California has become arguably the most influential design centre in the world, if you think about the power of companies like Apple and Google. This is the first exhibition to really explore that as a phenomenon.

Fear and Love runs at the Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High Street, Holland Park, London W8 6AG until 23 April 2017