As Co-Director of London’s Design Museum, Alice Black understands better than most the transformative power of good design. But sometimes even disciples need a refresher, and Black was afforded one recently, when the museum moved to Holland Park last summer having outgrown its former home in Shad Thames, east London. ‘The building wasn’t open, it wasn’t even finished,’ says Black, fresh from our shoot in the impressive new space designed by John Pawson. ‘But the office moved in and the mood changed 180 degrees. People could really seethe opportunities of the building; designing a better office environment gave everyone a huge boost and lifted their ambitions.’
Black sees the move as a ‘coming-of-age’ for the organisation, albeit one that was a decade in the making and required a leap of faith. She recalls her nerves on opening day last November, how she mentally prepared herself for a slow start. She was, for once, wrong: ‘It was busy on day one, there were people waiting for us to open.’
Four months after it opened the Museum has welcomed over 350,000 visitors, nearly doubling the annual footfall of 200,000 in the old location. Where two thirds of visitors worked in design or studied it, the new location attracts a much broader audience. Black credits this to a growing appreciation and awareness of design and the democratisation of museums over the last two decades since an important wave of funding around the millennium. ‘Museums have become a social activity, part of the palette of things that people do at the weekend. And there’s been a recognition that museums are civic spaces, places to meet. They are the modern market square.’
There is also a new, more accessible business model centred around ‘Designer Maker User’, a permanent collection that is free to access, a first for the Museum but something of a norm elsewhere in the capital. ‘Our ambition was to say ‘you don’t need to be a designer or a student of design to be interested.’ But we needed to show this was true, so now people can come in, have a look and see if they might like to pay for an exhibition. If not, they haven’t lost anything and actually there’s loads to see within the museum – lovely shops and a café. It’s a beautiful space, and you can just relax in the atrium.’
Black is keen to emphasise the democratic nature of the new museum, and of design as a discipline. Yes it can be elitist at times, but everyday objects are important too - the Dyson vacuum cleaner is one of her own icons of design, alongside Zaha Hadid’s ‘Slamp’ and Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking.
Raised in Paris, Black spent her childhood visiting museums with her parents, which made a huge impression. ‘Recently my mum showed me a letter I wrote when I was 14, it said ‘I want to work in a museum but I don’t want to be a curator, I want to be on the business side’.’
With this career in mind Black attended business school in Paris and Washington DC before moving in to banking in New York – her dream city. It was here that she really became aware of the power of dress. ‘There was an unspoken dress code, a uniform of a suit and tights, even in the summer.’
After moving to London, Black decided it was time to bring her business skills to the museum sector, at first volunteering before joining the Imperial War Museum. She has been at the Design Museum for a decade, and Co-Director since December. Her role allows for an experimental, while still professional, wardrobe, albeit with one surprising recent addition: a pair of oxblood, steel toe-cap boots, a gift from her children for visits to the Design Museum building site. Of the Finery clothes she wore for her shoot, she particularly loved the jumpsuit, an item she has been toying with for a while. ‘I thought ‘ok, this is the time to jump in and do something I wouldn't normally’.’
Discovery is a real joy for Black. She travels frequently, especially to Asia and as well as making a beeline for museums, galleries and where possible she likes to use public transport to get a feel for the real city. She might end up a bit lost, she admits, but for Black, and the institution she helps to lead, the journey is just as important as the destination.
Words by Rebecca Gonsalves
Photography by Katrina Lawson Johnston