Q&A: Deyan Sudjic

Surface checks in with the director of the London Design Museum.

Surface checks in with the director of the London Design Museum.

Interview by Spencer Bailey    |    Portrait by Hana Knizova

Deyan Sudjic speaks methodically—but quickly. He comes across as very generous with his time, yet it’s clear he has a sense of urgency about how he spends it. There’s an eagerness and earnestness to him. It seems as if he could never run out of things to say about architecture and design, and the truth his, he couldn’t. The 62-year-old London Design Museum director has an encyclopedic mind on the subjects, having spent the past 40 or so years writing about them. Now, in his current role at the museum, he’s giving them necessary international attention.

Since working as the architecture critic of the U.K.’s Sunday Times in his early 20s and co-founding the architecture and design magazine Blueprint in 1983 (where he was on staff until 1996), Sudjic has become one of the strongest design voices and advocates in England, if not the world. His career is unparalleled: Over the years, he has published many books, served as the architecture critic at The Observer, and taught at the Royal College of Art and Kingston University. In 1999, he was the director of programming for Glasgow’s U.K. City of Architecture and Design; from 2000 to 2004, he was the editor of the design magazine Domus; and in 2002, he was director of the Venice Architecture Biennial. Sudjic’s latest book, B is for Bauhaus, Y is for YouTube (Rizzoli), is a sort of culmination of all of this experience.

Sudjic has run the Design Museum for the past nine years, and during this time, the institution has presented a slew of exhibitions of note, including “Zaha Hadid: Architecture and Design,” “Christian Louboutin: 20 Years,” and “Hello, My Name is Paul Smith.” He has also shepherded the museum’s upcoming relocation to the former Commonwealth Institute building in the city’s Kensington neighborhood. The new 107,000-square-foot structure, scheduled to open in late 2016, will provide three exhibition spaces—one for the permanent collection, two for temporary shows—and accommodate an expected 500,000 visitors annually. John Pawson is creating the interiors, and other London-based designers, including Morag Myerscough, Cartlidge Levene, and Gravity Road, are involved in the project. For Sudjic, the endeavor is proving to be a sort of masterwork, bringing together his curatorial and journalistic skills in a physical manifestation while also celebrating—and enhancing—Britain’s place in the international design landscape. Over breakfast at New York’s NoMad restaurant earlier this spring, Surface spoke with Sudjic about his diverse array of engagements in design, from fashion to furniture.

How did you break into writing and journalism?

I trained to be an architect. When I was discovering my incompetence as an architect—and my extreme lack of patience—I was having more fun editing the school newspaper. I came out into a recession in the U.K. and started at a weekly architecture trade journal. I learned more about architecture there in three months than I had in school. And it solved my impatience problem, seeing instant results. I’ve been lucky throughout my career to be editing and working in journalism and curating.

I guess journalism is a license to be curious. You get to go around the world asking people questions, which is fantastic fun. I always thought that architecture was just too interesting to leave to the “priesthood.” I was very lucky early on in my career to work for the Sunday Times. I had a subeditor in those days who taught me to never use the word “fenestration” when “window” would do. That was very good advice.
Architecture is a narrow field in itself, but as time went on, I began to look at design. I also started to meet some artists. I found the subject of design getting wider and wider.

Fashion has been of interest to you, too. You were recently involved in the Rizzoli book Hello, My Name is Paul Smith, and in 1990 you published Rei Kawakubo and Comme Des Garçons.

Yes, actually, in my extreme youth, Paul Smith called up one day and said, “You must come see Tokyo.” We got on a plane and went. He took me around the city and showed me the shrines and shops. Then one evening we had dinner with Rei Kawakubo. Paul managed to ambush her with a rubber chicken. She actually laughed. I spent six months following her around as she made a collection. We went to Gifu, where they make textiles. I later ended up with her at one of her Paris collection shows, where she had John Malkovich and Julian Sands among the models. It was quite an impressive evening.

How did you meet Paul?

I bought a suit in a store that had this label called Paul Smith. I had no idea there was such a person. Then I went to his first store in London when it opened. There was this tall guy hanging around the shop, and it happened to be Paul.

You’ve written or contributed to books on Ron Arad, Norman Foster, and John Pawson, among others. How do you choose your book projects, and how do you actually complete them all?

I once got accused of being a “book-writing machine,” which is a bit wounding. A book is a marathon: The first one you do, there’s a pain barrier. Spending time on a book allows you to actually explore things over time. I did a book on cities, Hundred Mile City, in 1993, which allowed me to look at what Tokyo was becoming, what Los Angeles was. I suppose books have been a way to research.

Technology continues to ease access to architecture and design content. What roles do monographs still play in the Internet age?

We all think our attention spans are shrinking, and that we don’t have the patience to read long form—that books are deceased. But people publish books more and more, in the same way that people still produce print magazines. We seem to be wired to loving the smell of ink on paper. We’re living in an immaterial world where there’s a hunger for material things. Books are those things. So many careers are still launched by books. Rem Koolhaas’s first real project was Delirious Manhattan, and then SMLXL, which was an attempt to reinvent what the architectural monograph could be. The idea of a massive, 2,000-page, bricklike book has also become somewhat of a conventional way of approaching a subject. Books are a chance to do research—but research in a way that’s accessible.

Still, it’s rare to find a book that truly shakes you. I remain fascinated by a book that came out eight years ago called The Wrong House. It’s by Steven Jacobs, a Dutch film and design historian who obsessively explores every Hitchcock movie, looking at the sets he built and the implied floor plan they represented. He’s someone who sees the world in a different way.

How does this conversation about books tie into museums? What’s the role of a design museum today?

Museums are a shared social experience, which is why they have a future in ways that maybe some forms of print don’t. It’s blended so that it’s partly a digital experience now, but you still get to see things. There are some strange hybrids: The Victoria and Albert Museum did a David Bowie show that traveled to Chicago, and that somewhat overwhelmed the physical experience because people wore headphones throughout it.

The rather-maligned Björk show at MoMA [on display through June 7] has a similar headphone component. How do you see technology upending publishing and museums—or at least transitioning or changing the way things are?

I think it’s a cliché that the world is going faster and faster and faster—which it is. Wired is a great magazine, but it’s always telling us about the next, the next, the next, not necessarily reflecting the world. I read a shocking statistic that when Instagram was acquired for a billion dollars it had 25 employees, whereas Kodak at its high had 80,000 good engineering jobs. Maybe it’s the job of books and museums to be slightly more reflective on these things. >
So books and museum exhibitions are chances to dig deeper.

Yes, and I suppose I initially found the transition of doing things at the speed of a magazine or a newspaper to the two to three years of an exhibitions program quite difficult. But it should be something that gives a body of research. An exhibition is certainly a more layered experience than a book. There’s a certain theatricality. There’s a sensational aspect, but beneath that you hope there are also layers of things that last. There should always be a catalogue and a body of research. Museums always have this tension between people who want to acquire stuff and guard it from the audience and those who want to be showmen and use it to tell stories.

Early in your career, you co-founded Blueprint. What made you want to start a magazine?

There was a group of us in London working at various mainstream publications, and there was a change in the air. It just seemed right to find another platform, perhaps a more irreverent view of the subject. We all had day jobs. It was an idealistic idea to start a magazine as a collective, which meant nobody got paid. There were photographers, layout artists, designers, and writers involved. The inspiration was Skyline, a tabloid-newspaper format magazine designed by Massimo Vignelli that was going in the ’80s. It seemed very appealing to address a slightly satiric subject in a very mainstream format. Of course, the inspiration was slightly worrying because Skyline disappeared shortly after we launched. It was not a very encouraging business model.
We started the magazine with enough money to do 10 issues, and the idea was that once those 10 were done, then we would stop. The magazine was designed to be thrown away. But once you’ve done 10 issues, you can’t kill your babies. It took on a life of its own, and we were dragged along with it. We got some funding by knocking on the doors of half a dozen of London’s most successful architects and designers. We had the capital to keep going, to get an office, to hire a sales force. For a while, it was a very fresh approach. We had what now seems like a very trivial idea of putting peoples’ faces on the cover. It was meant to be about accessibility, but in the end, it turned out to be its own contribution to the celebrity cult. But it was fun. People were kind of shocked by the gossip-headline format of it. It was a different way of approaching the subject.

I’m imagining an architecture-world version of Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter’s Spy magazine. 

Yeah. [Laughs]

You later went on to run the Italian design magazine Domus from 2000 to 2004. What was that like?

Like being handed the keys to a Rolls Royce. In some ways, Domus was an inspiration to Blueprint, in that it did actually cover design and architecture and art and fashion in a way that most publications in those days didn’t. Domus had an 80-year history and budget to allow me to send photographers to Shanghai and São Paulo. It was amazing that the company would let a foreigner run such a thing. There, I worked with the same art director as Blueprint, Simon Esterson, who now has a design studio and publishes Eye magazine.

How would you describe your years at Domus?

Anglo-Saxon sobriety. No, that was around 2002—the same time I was the director of the Architecture Biennale in Venice. During that time, speculation seemed futile. There was so much being built. Any architect who wanted to, no matter how wacky his or her work, could actually get the opportunity to build something. I thought, “Let’s document this.”

A few years later, you wrote a book about this phenomenon of—

Big architects building big things everywhere. Yes, The Edifice Complex. It was an attempt to find a thread about architecture. There were a couple quite disturbing episodes. I got to meet Albert Speer’s son, who was at that stage engaged in trying to persuade Beijing to build a north-south axis eight miles long. Which sort of reminded me of a previous episode. So I went to see him in Frankfurt. He was the perfect German liberal. He and Peter Eisenman knew each other. I remember asking Peter what he was doing collaborating with Speer. He would say, “We’re attracted by opposites. Speer always wanted to be a Jewish intellectual, and I always wanted to be a fascist monster.” I told Speer, “It’s quite tough working in China. Ideas get watered down all the time.” He said, “Yes, I find the secret is to find a most powerful person in the room and persuade them that it’s their idea.” What could this suggest about his father? It got me thinking about how this subject—which I’ve found fascinating my entire life—has had some horrifying aspects to it. There’s a very interesting book that the British academic Frederic Spotts wrote called Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. His line is “Hitler wasn’t using culture as a means to acquire power; he acquired power as a means to influence culture.” I tried to put that all together and explore that at various moments.

I noticed that your latest book, B is for Bauhaus, Y is for YouTube, is a sort of modern-day ABCs of design. One of the Ks is for Krier—a reference to the architect Léon Krier, who’s known for his book on Albert Speer’s architecture. What are your thoughts on Krier’s pro-Speer sentiments?

I suppose maybe initially he was doing it to shock. Now I’m somewhat concerned he thinks there’s beauty in it. Which is puzzling, because Krier is a fascinating, interesting thinker and a wonderful draftsman. He was at the Architectural Association at a strange time: Both he and Rem Koolhaas were teaching Zaha Hadid. Can you imagine that? It’s like that Tom Stoppard play in which it’s 1917 in Zurich and the Dadaists meet James Joyce.

You were mentioning the idea of accessibility earlier. How does B is for Bauhaus connect to this bigger conversation? How do you make design relatable to the YouTube generation?

It is! That’s why design is fascinating: It keeps reconfiguring what it’s about. For writers, design is a way of making sense of things. In the contemporary world, design is a way to make technology useful, engaging, or entertaining. It is no question shifting from this material/physical world to this other world, but it’s still design. Human beings still hanker for the material. It’s a bipolar thing. We still want physical experiences: magazines, vinyl records, live music. If you look at the success of Apple, it’s because of this. The iWatch is about having something physical. Headphones spent all their time in our ears, and now they’ve emerged into these kinds of motorcycle helmet–scale objects. We’re lusting for things to buy.

How did you choose what to focus on in B is for Bauhaus?

I was being pushed to do something that’s on one level autobiographical, so I ended up putting myself in there a lot more than I like doing. I’ve always been uncomfortable about using the word “I.” The book is a dictionary/encyclopedia format, but it’s really something else. There were problems with this: Xerox was a bit of a stretch.

But most of the letters weren’t a stretch, like M is for Manifesto, S is for Sottsass, or T is for Taste. 

They needed to be things that reflected personal experience in most cases. I knew Ettore Sottsass, and I just finished a book on him that will come out in the fall. Taste is a great subject—it’s like sex and death. The book starts with A is for Authentic, which is reflecting on why we’re motivated to do things.

Was your intention for this book to reach a wide readership and be accessible?

Yes. I was with [MoMA senior curator] Paola Antonelli yesterday, and it’s interesting how she’s been very successful, and yet she still feels in the cultural hierarchy that design is seen as taking second place to contemporary art. It’s a thought many of us have: Design is burdened by utility. Which of course should be seen as a privilege. Art is endlessly fascinating, but it’s in a pretty strange moment right now.

Art seems to be engaging more and more with popular culture—the Björk show at MoMA is an example of this. What do you think about this connection between pop culture and the previously more rarified worlds of art and design? 

Some of the most interesting writers have tried to look at both of these things at the same time. Adolf Loos seemed like the most serious writer, but actually, he wrote extraordinarily amusing, insightful, sharp commentary for Viennese newspapers in the early 1900s. We know about his allergies to tattoos, but there’s also great stuff about why the Germans wear their trousers too wide and how people set out to change hat fashions. I think this connection has always been there.

The Internet and social media have helped facilitate the connection, I think. We’re now able to reach a wider group of followers than ever before.

Things happen faster and faster. I suppose those are some of the most astonishing shifts: the idea that Grand Theft Auto V could ship 20 million units in a month! In human history, there has never been such a rapid intake of ideas.

You’ve been involved with a new book on Sony Design. What do you think about companies like Sony in terms of making design relatable, usable, understandable, and even getting people thinking about design itself?

I think it’s fascinating how these things go in cycles. Forty years ago, Sony was seen as the ultimate example of this shiny new future of what’s possible, but now just compare its output to Apple! When he was a student, Jonathan Ive was obsessed by Sony. And the model for Sony was that they were producing 50 or 60 new products a year, as opposed to Apple’s one every two or three years. They were firing over all landscapes of technology. And then they declined. What is it that makes some companies survive and others not? Sony is an example of a company all design enthusiasts love, and it’s practically dead.

Or compare the Renaissance palazzo in Milan that used to be Olivetti’s headquarters to the flying saucer that Norman Foster is making for Apple. Or consider that Olivetti allowed its designers to work for others; Ive can’t do that. IBM is an interesting example that does still exist in a powerful way and has managed to reinvent itself over three generations. Olivetti had two, Sony one and a half. They learn off of each other. There’s no question that Apple using color suddenly reflected what Olivetti did with the Valentine typewriter, which came out in three color-ways. Olivetti made fantastic stores designed by BBPR, Gae Aulenti, and Carlo Scarpa. Apple has put a focus on the design of its stores, too.

You also wrote the forward for a James Irvine book that’s coming out. 

Yes, as an act of friendship. It’s a sad loss. James was a great guy who was among a legion of non-Italians who ended up in Milan. He helped start conversations. He worked with Sottsass for a long time, so he was a great source for my Sottsass biography.

How often are you asked to write forwards? An Amazon search shows you’ve done—

One or two. [Laughs] What I only say yes to now is if you don’t pay me.

Let’s switch over to the new Design Museum building. What’s OMA’s connection to the project, and how did you come to work with John Pawson? 

Well, it’s a complicated mix. I was hired with a brief to move the Design Museum to a larger space. The current space is a great site, but it’s limited in its scale and not great for transport. When I arrived, the conversation was with Tate Modern to buy a site behind it. We looked at that for a year and a half, and we decided that the Design Museum would be like a lifeboat hanging off the back of an aircraft carrier. We then looked back to the past of the Victoria and Albert Museum: The museum started as a sort of guerilla pop-up. That would have meant loss of identity. Finally, a developer who had acquired a building from 1962—the former Commonwealth Institute—approached us.

In some ways, there’s a parallel between the site and Columbus Circle. It was a landmark, love it or not, that needed a new use. It was acquired by a property company building residential; they had selected OMA to design the residential, but to get their planning approvals, they needed to find a bona fide cultural user for the landmarked structure. We looked and it, and initially it seemed quite a difficult building to adapt to our uses. But once we talked to the heritage authorities—and they would allow us to sufficiently adapt it in order to make it work for us—we decided to go with it. That brought advantages, because the planning consent for the landlords was that they would need to give us a 175-year rent-free lease and also make a substantial contribution—10 million pounds—for the cost of fixing it.

With that underway, we made an architect selection process, and we ended up with 15 firms, which were then whittled down to five. We went to see all of the projects, and then ended up with David Chipperfield and John Pawson as the last two. David is a great architect with a big firm who had a lot on his plate, and John had not done a public building previously. Our trustees thought John would be the right choice. In an office of 25 a job of that scale is important in a way that it’s not in an office of 200 or 300. Also, when you’re dealing with an existing building that itself has a strong personality—it’s sort of a collision between Saarinen’s TWA terminal and the Guggenheim—you don’t want another strong architectural voice. You want someone like John to work on it. You want someone who’s going to listen and spend time worrying about how you’re going to use the building.

For the rest of the interview with Deyan Sudjic, purchase the May issue here.

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