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Study event review: Ai Weiwei

Interior Design May 2023 Study Event

Ai Weiwei at the Design Museum

Students visiting Ai Weiwei exhibition. Image Catherine Byrne

At the end of May OCA Interior Design students met for a day of cultural input, exploring the Design Museum in London, and talking about interior design. This blog is to capture a taste of what we did for those that couldn’t make it on the day; and also to try and entice others to attend the next event - it’s a great opportunity to meet fellow students and build your network, and also a chance to see some interesting stuff!

We started with the temporary exhibition Ai Weiwei: Making Sense. You might think - what has an art exhibition got to do with interior design? But I’d propose that it has everything to do with interior design…

The first point is obvious - the exhibition occupies an interior space.

Exhibition designers work with the curatorial team to decide how the artwork is placed within the galleries and how much space is needed for the audience to view the work comfortably. They will also consider many other less glamorous issues such as where the fire exits are, how the artworks can be kept safe in a crowded space, how the artworks need to be lit, and what additional information is needed (graphics) to allow visitors the most enriching experience. All of this ‘thinking’ is the unseen work of the interior exhibition designer; it isn’t necessarily noticed, but should just ‘work’ if and when it is needed.

The second reason for visiting is less obvious.

I believe that anything and everything that you experience has an impact on the way that you design. So if you are filling your mind with plenty of ‘input’ then the creativity of your ‘output’ will be much greater - simply because you have more internal creative knowledge and experience to draw upon.

It doesn’t matter that the input is not necessarily a traditional Interior Design Space - whatever that phrase may mean to you. I would encourage all students, whatever your discipline, to look really broadly and go to as many exhibitions, museums, galleries, plays, films, parks and gardens as you can. In fact anything that inspires you, from a walk in the hills to exploring the streets of a new city. Fill up your creativity store as much as you can, and you will see that your imagination and problem solving skills will expand to suit!

Coloured House by Ai Weiwei 2013. Image Liz Ellston

The third reason for visiting the Design Museum was to look at the building itself.

The museum is housed in a Grade II* listed, 1960’s building in Holland Park, London, and was originally designed by Robert Matthew and Johnson-Marshall Partners. It was built to house the Commonwealth Institute and topped with an enormous sweeping hyperbolic paraboloid roof, which was structurally ambitious at the time it was made. You can read more about the original building here:

The building lay empty for a number of years and in 2002 was destined for demolition, but after gaining listed status was sold for redevelopment. In 2008 it was announced as the new home for the Design Museum, relocating from the initial site at Shad Thames. Minimalist architect John Pawson led the design team in its reimagining as the home of the Design Museum. Sadly, the only remaining part of the original building is that enormous sweeping roof, but the new building is still very impressive, particularly as an example of (almost) adaptive reuse. You can find out more about the redevelopment of this iconic building here:

So, now you have the background to where we went, and why… but what did we see?

We spent the morning in the Ai Weiwei exhibition, looking at collections of amazing objects gathered by Ai Weiwei, and then used to create installations that make commentary on the social and cultural situation, both in China and also elsewhere in the world. The works in the exhibition encourage us to think about what we value about design, progress and destruction, so it was very relevant to the practice of Interior Design today, as it is an industry that is, sadly, inherently wasteful at present.

In a short video introduction to the exhibition, in reference to his habit of collecting, and then using these collections of seemingly out-of-context objects, Ai Weiwei said:

“Today, all I can do is pick up the scattered fragments left after the storm, and try to piece together a picture, however incomplete it may be.”

Left Right Studio Material by Ai Weiwei 2018. Image Catherine Byrne

We all agreed that we were truly inspired by some of the works displayed, and there was definitely lots to think - and talk - about over lunch.

After a quick lunch break in the museum garden, we went back to look at the permanent collection - Designer, Maker, User - of almost 1000 ordinary household objects that have since become design ‘classics’, from all over the world.

Think of your favourite product design brands; Apple, Sony WalkMan, the original Anglepoise lamp; and familiar designs by Eames, Brody, and the iconic London tube map design by Harry Beck, and lots more. There was so much to see and explore - even an archive film showing factory mass production of the tennis ball; absolutely fascinating!

I’d highly recommend popping in if you are in the local area - the permanent collection is free to visit so you can see it as many times as you like!

Untitled (Lego Incident) by Ai Weiwei 2014. Image Catherine Byrne

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