Fear and Love

An exhibition at London’s relocated Design Museum offers John Westbrooke food for thought

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Remember when the most reliable way of telling whether a portrait was any good was if the eyes followed you round the room? Well, an installation at Fear and Love – a new exhibition at the new Design Museum in London – has taken that one step further.

Mimus, created by Pittsburgh designer Madeline Gannon, is an industrial robot arm, akin to the ones you see putting cars together in TV ads. It’s about 2 metres high, and bolted to the floor safely behind a glass wall. But it knows where you are.

When its sensors spot you standing beyond the wall, it straightens itself out and extends toward you, almost up to the glass. If you move, it will swing round – faster than you can run – and follow you, peering into your face.

If it gets bored with you (and it is rather fickle), it will go and sniff at someone else. If it gets bored with everyone, it just folds up and starts snoring gently.

This is a little unsettling. It’s like a puppy bounding round you in greeting, but a heavy metal puppy (1200 kilos) that could swat you aside if it didn’t like you. Could you come to feel some empathy for a robot, the way people occasionally did for their butlers and maids? Or would you just treat it as an automaton, as other employers treated their servants? And why (another installation asks) are we investing emotional capital in robots while wiping out whales, who have genuine intelligence? Fear and Love is intended to make you stop and think about modern life and how we cope with it.

The dozen installations range from a look at how the dating app Grindr works (helping gays find gays, but also helping repressive police find gays), to Vespers, a series of death masks for the modern age made by 3D printers: intriguing but perhaps not destined to be a bestseller.

More practical is Fibre Market by Christien Meindertsma. It looks like, and is, piles of differently coloured fibres, made from 1000 old jumpers that had been thrown into recycling bins. Once, there wasn’t a lot that could be done with them, as there was no way of sorting out the fibres by colour or fabric. Now, with the aid of new machinery, Meindertsma’s doing just that, meaning recycling the materials is now a much more viable proposition.

Also on display are the labels from the garments – which, she’s now discovered, show that clothing is not always made from the material it’s claimed to be.

There’s a post-Brexit Pan-European living room, with furnishing from all over the continent: Slovak-made TV, Ikea shelving from Sweden, Romanian coffee pot, and British wallpaper from Osborne and Little – that’s former Chancellor George Osborne’s family business – which looks rather too floral for everything else. It has a vertical blind, each strip made with the colours of an EU national flag; Britain’s is the one detached and lying on the floor.

Some of the exhibits look at other people’s worlds and the way they’re changing. Staples is a series of enlarged images of the grains we eat – rather few, considering how many natural food sources there are. City of Nomads is an attempt to build a yurt-like communal centre for Mongolian nomads who don’t even have a word for “community” – but will need one, because increasingly they’re giving up their way of life and pitching their tents permanently outside the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

As it happens, the Design Museum itself has been building for a new life. It began in the V&A basement in 1981 before moving to an old Thames-side warehouse east of Tower Bridge in 1989, chic but small and awkward to get to.

Now it’s moved to High St Kensington, not too far from the other museums of South Kensington, and into the building that used to be the Commonwealth Institute and is now surrounded with small residential blocks, part of the financing arrangement.

In fact repurposing has meant almost complete rebuilding: about all that remains of the original is the double parabolic roof, which was strikingly modern in 1962 (though my local supermarket had a similar one three years earlier). This was more or less left hanging in the air while the building below it was replaced. It’s actually hard to see from outside, but the museum has been constructed round a large atrium allowing you to look up at it from below.

Whether the swooping concrete roof actually goes with the calmly rectangular, pale-oak walls and floors is a matter of taste. But the interior has a relaxing feel: a big bonus is the grand staircase with seats on it. (There are lifts, but they weren’t working well when I visited.)

The new museum, at 10,000 square metres, is three times the size of its predecessor, creating room for study space, an auditorium, archives, exhibition spaces and of course a restaurant and shop. As well as temporary installations like Fear and Love, there will be a more or less permanent exhibition of the museum’s collection, called Designer Maker User and focusing on the designs of everyday life.

Outside it is a wall decked with items suggested by members of the public, who it seems chose much the same things you’d expect a museum to display: London Underground roundel, Alessi lemon-squeezer, Walkman, Ikea carrying bag. And a bicycle: not just any bike but a Flying Pigeon, from China. With 500m made, it’s the biggest selling vehicle ever. That’s successful design.

Fear and Love runs until 23 April 2017 at the Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High St.

Entry to the Fear and Love exhibition is £14 (students and seniors £10.50); the permanent collection is free