Suitable opportunity

6th October 1995 at 01:00
Michael Clarke on the Design Museum's growing facilities for students and the Paul Smith exhibition.

Only three years after the Design Museum's opening in 1989, I could confidently say (TES January 22 1993) that already it had grown into an indispensable facility for students of all ages.

During the succeeding three years, this has become ever more certain. Nineteen per cent of the record number of visitors to this summer's Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago exhibition were students. Over the last year as a whole they amounted to 35 per cent, and well over 15,000 of these spent two or more hours studying in educational groups.

Design education is integral to the museum's philosophy and it is in response to expanding demand that separate education officers for schools and furtherhigher education have recent)y been appointed - a unique situation in a museum of this size. But the Design Museum is itself unique in providing both the opportunity to examine mass-produced consumer objects from any aspect or at any level and the supporting facilities with which to do this.

No doubt that is why the Design Council has funded two new closely-related education projects. The first substantially extends in-service training for teachers, particularly for the great majority in primary schools without any specialist knowledge, and the many specialists in art, but not design, who are responsible for both in small secondary schools. The second project enables the museum to produce and distribute separate collections of resource material for primary, secondary and FEHE schools and colleges.

Tailor-made collaborative workshops for any age group are a well-established facility. The shorter ones embrace drawing, note-taking, modelling, construction or handling and testing items in the permanent collection (in what other museum can you sit on the exhibits?). Longer ones can start with researching a design brief in the museum, then move to the school or college and return again to the museum for evaluation and public display, such as Maidstone Girls' School's chair and lighting project last autumn.

To succeed with an eight or more weeks In Context project, close and sustained collaboration is essential, as is clearly demonstrated in the Rice Cooker Project on show until October 23. Originating in the Design Museum's exhibition, Designed in One, Made in the Other, the Japanese company Kobayashi invited full-time industrial design students from West Thames College in Middlesex to come up with a new domestic appliance that could cook rice in a single operation. Two student designs will be selected for manufacture, but the benefits to all of a real-life assignment can be seen in the storyboards, design development and prototypes on display.

An education programme as close to the realities of design as this is admirable enough, but the Design Museum goes beyond technicalities, confident in the knowledge that its permanent collection, the several temporary exhibitions and up-to-the-minute review of design concepts, prototypes and products allow it to raise and support questions such as: how does design relate to the needs and movements of the human body? What is the relation between gender and design? How is consumer choice formed? How are messages constructed from manufactured goods? All of which are directly relevant to the new autumn-winter exhibition, Paul Smith True Brit.

With an annual turnover of Pounds 85m and more than 160 shops worldwide, the still-jokey, ebullient Smith is Britain's most successful menswear designer (his first collection for women was only last year). The all-important marketing skills involved in this are fully addressed as is his rapid transition from formally untrained designer to fastidious craftsman. Between a reconstruction of the first 1970 shop and one selling his new collection, students can see an Aladdin's cave of pop-culture, often kitsch objects of inspiration, a selection of his highly idiosyncratic, tick and dot sketches (he prefers to design with words), shoes, shirts and suits in various stages of completion and the apparently simple but subtle differences that can be had from a change of fabric, a little hand finishing or just the number of buttons on a jacket.

An ardent promoter of British design talent, Smith has said "Literally anything can spark off an idea. I've always been fascinated with how people solve design problems and you'd be surprised how easy it is to use one solution to solve a number of different problems."

This openness has influenced the student pack and the Geared to Yourself Workshops. Out of town student visitors can have a guided tour of the exhibition, take part in a workshop and then visit Smith's Covent Garden headquarters. Full-time design students, having absorbed the lessons of the exhibition, can compete for The Yorkshire BankPaul Smith True Brit Business in Fashion Award in the New Year.

For further information, telephone the Education Department 0171 403 6933. Paul Smith True Brit: Design Museum, Butlers Wharf, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1, until April 10 next year.

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