a life for design
In a recent interview, Deyan Sudjic described Alice Rawsthorn as having 'pillarbox red lipstick bee-sting and a weakness for Manolo Blahnik shoes', concluding that 'she makes a slightly unlikely museum director'.
Notwithstanding a certain curious logic there, maybe such considered personal styling comes with her position as director of the Design Museum. She certainly exudes a total confidence in her subject and a love of her chosen profession - and she was happy to talk about herself interminably, with minimal prompting. I felt that I was in the presence of an extremely wellresearched and thoroughly briefed interview candidate.
Rawsthorn was born in Manchester and what she calls her 'design-dominated family' moved house every four years or so.
Her favourite residence was a 'really beautiful Cubist house' in Lancashire in the 1970s, designed by an unknown architect but which sparked a life-long love of architecture. As a child, she says, she hated having to leave family and friends but she believes that moving home every few years was character-building. 'Being parachuted into an alien environment, ' she says, 'meant that I had to get on with people, I had to make friends.' She could have added, 'and influence people'.
Initially studying law at Cambridge, she moved on to the history of art and architecture course to relieve the 'dullness' of legal study but was unimpressed by the tutors' concentration on Post-Modernism.
Strong character that she was, she nevertheless found that her love of architecture was revivified in intellectual battles against Structuralism. After arriving in London, she continued to attend debates and lectures from as many sources as possible, showing an insatiable appetite for design knowledge and networking.
Rawsthorn was appointed as architecture and design critic for the Financial Times in 1985, which allowed her to indulge her cultural appreciation of all things design-centred. She admits that this ideal journalistic training scheme taught her rigour when researching a subject. She covered subjects as diverse as U2 concerts in Paris to the financial implications of the corporate battles at Gucci.
Rawsthorn certainly has a well-rounded knowledge of, and insight into, the modern cultural milieu and writes intelligently on a variety of subjects. In fact, it was the 'intellectual rigour' of the Financial Times that drew her to apply for a position there.
She still enjoys writing, regularly contributing to the broadsheets in her current professional capacity, while delving more deeply into design in her more substantial publications. She recently completed a biography of Australian designer Marc Newson - as a close personal friend of Newson's, she curated an exhibition of his work in Glasgow a few years ago, which was well received even though Rawsthorn confirms that it made 'no claims to objectivity'. Clearly Rawsthorn is happy to be 'influenced by', as much as to 'influence'.
She worked for a while on Campaign magazine before being appointed the FT's foreign correspondent, based in France - something, she suggests with a knowing look, that 'every journalist wants to be': what she describes as 'an elevated kind of tourist'.
Her time in France coincided with the period of Mitterrand's grands projets and the turbulent political shifts in French society, which she recalls with great affection.
Although this job immersed Rawsthorn in a wide range of design and cultural issues, 'architecture remained my private passion'.
She speaks French well and her love of France is clear. The New York Times review of her first book, on French fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent, missed the point by noting that it 'contains too many. . . passages of economic exposition to sustain the interest of a reader in search of the man himself '.
With Rawsthorn's journalistic background, a design critique comes with economic, social and political trimmings.
She is bullish about the future of design in Britain, symbolised by the way that Tate Modern has had visitor numbers exceeding its wildest imaginings. 'It can only be a good thing, ' she says. 'As people become more visually aware, they become more visually cultured.' She chooses to see the popular appeal of the arts and the current public interest in design matters as positive trends and a sign of the times. 'In a sense, the English have finally become a more sartorially aware society, ' she says. 'Aware of design, they are more visually led.'
'I hate elitism and snobbery, ' Rawsthorn adds. 'Just because academically trained critics feel that things are dumbing down doesn't mean they are.' She believes, in fact, that the arts are reaping the benefits of a more meritocratic society. Her objective at the Design Museum is to popularise design and architecture while still managing to 'enliven the cognoscenti'. Her belief in cultural osmosis - that being exposed to good art and design might inspire one to find out more - is a governing principle for her choice of exhibitions.
The current exhibition displays the work of 'intuitive' designer Jasper Morrison. The main installation, World Without Words, contains unexplained images that have inspired him. The introductory text reads:
'Morrison chose 160 of his favourite images. . . from Jean Prouve chalking on a blackboard to a door handle on a German train. . . representing [Morrison's] observational belief system.'
Through a process of spontaneous public connectivity, Rawsthorn hopes to catalyse an inspirational insight from the public. 'If one person goes away from our exhibitions with the desire to find out more, then we will have succeeded, ' she says.
She spent nine years on the board of the Design Museum and five years on the Design Council. Describing herself as a modernist 'with a small 'm'', her personal philosophy is 'to take a lively and enlightened interest in our times'. Rather than being an unlikely museum director, Rawsthorn, it seems, was born for the job.