6 Surprising Icons You’ll Find at the Design Museum

I’ll be honest, I was pretty devastated when the Design Museum upped and left from Shad Thames. Does Kensington really need another museum?

Despite this, I recently made the trip to High Street Kensington (mainly drawn by photos of the incredible architecture) to see what they’ve done with the place.

Surprising Icons Design Museum

“Design is a process carried out by people, for people”

As with their original collection, what I always liked about the Design Museum is the way it forces you to reconsider everyday objects.

Surprising Icons Design Museum

The entrance to the Design Maker User exhibition is a crowdsourced wall of objects nominated from the the question ‘What does design mean to you?’ and yes, it was Sadiq Khan that gave the London Underground roundel.

One of my favourite lines from the display was “the role of the designer stretches from the spoon to the city” (Ernesto Rogers, Italian Architect and Designer). So here are some of the seemingly ordinary items that made me take a closer look…

1. The Humble Zip

“the zip is so ubiquitous that your overlook what a genius piece of engineering it is.” – Andrew Linares

Surprising Icons Design Museum

First patented in 1851 by Elias Howe but only widely marketed and celebrated from the early 1900s, it was the zip that got me thinking about the humble objects we often don’t consider as ‘good design’.

2. Beck’s Masterpiece

Surprising Icons Design Museum

London Underground map, 1931. Designed by Harry Beck and first published by London Transport, 1933

I couldn’t resist including this. I know it’s been waxed lyrical over many times, but it truly is a genius piece of design. The premise was simple; when you’re underground a map doesn’t need to show your actual geographic location. Beck draws each tube line was either vertical, horizontal or at a 45 degree angle and the only clue to orientate Londoners is the River Thames.

For more tube geekery, have a look at this post.

3. The iBook

Surprising Icons Design Museum

iBook G3 laptop, 1999. Designed by Apple

Ah, remember when these were the height of cool? It will make you feel old but the Design Museum is great for nostalgia.

The iBook, which Apple marketed as “iMac to go” shaped the way we think about remote working. With a carry handle in the hinge and easy-to-access Wifi networks it pushed the laptop from a device for ‘business professionals’ into the mainstream. Now you can’t enter a London coffee shop without seeing people hunched over macs.

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4. The Road Sign

Consider this when you’re next stuck in traffic…

Surprising Icons Design Museum

M1 motorway sign, 1975-67. Designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert

When the first motorway was built (the Preston By-pass) a government committee was set up to investigate the effectiveness of road signage. It was decided that signs must be readable from 18 metres away, given the faster speeds cars wold be travelling. This meant the new signs had to be around 3 times bigger than previous ones.

Surprising Icons Design Museum

Kinneir and Calvert, both typographers and graphic designers, together designed many of the road signs used throughout the UK today.

5. The Mass-produced chair

Until the mid 1800s most chairs were made by hand. A new wave of European industrialists began experimenting with modern manufacturing techniques to create this ‘cafe’ or ‘Vienna coffee house’ one.

Surprising Icons Design Museum

No.14 side chair, 1859. Designed by Michael Thonet and manufactured by Gebrüder Thonet

The no.14 design was the first to be produced on an industrial scale, born from a desire to reduce costs by creating as many chairs as possible from the fewest number of parts. Starting what we now refer to as ‘flat-pack furniture’, that’s assembled at it’s final destination, Thonet was producing over a million chairs a year by the early 1900s.

The picture behind shows the Thonet factory, still using the same technique from 1900.

6. The Olympic Torch

Ok, so my last pick isn’t exactly an ‘everyday’ object, but it caught my eye.

Surprising Icons Design Museum

London Olympic Torch, 2012. Designed by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. Manufactured by Premier Group.

This is one of 8,000 torches used to carry the Olympic flame around the UK in the run up to London 2012. From a design point of view, how do you make it easy to carry a burning flame?

You can see here that the skin of the torch is punched with circle holes, 8,000 to be exact, representing each torch. This makes the torch lighter (it only weighs 1kg!) and means it doesn’t get too hot in the bearer’s hands. As a bonus it also means you can see the light from the burner emanating from the centre.


Surprising Icons Design Museum

Everything in this post (plus more intriguing objects) can be seen for free, but there are also paid entry temporary exhibitions too. For more info about visiting head to their website here.

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