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Obituary: Moira Gemmill (1959 - 2015)


Respected client and champion of design Moira Gemmill has died after a cycling accident in London yesterday

Gemmill, who was just 55 years old, was cycling to her work at St James Palace when she was hit by a lorry at one of London’s most notoriously dangerous road junctions near Lambeth Bridge, yesterday morning (09 April).

She was best known for her role at the V&A, where she was director of design and also led the planning and implementation of FuturePlan – the V&A’s on-going programme of restoration, refurbishment and redesign of its galleries and public spaces. Her resulting projects led annual visitor numbers to the museum to soar from 900,000 to 2.9 million.

Through the FuturePlan programme she engaged with world-class designers, architects and engineers to create bold interventions at the grade I-listed West London museum and gallery space, while also supporting upcoming talent including MUMA, Nissen Richards Studio and 6a Architects.

During more than a decade at the museum, Gemmill presided over a series of architectural projects to create new gallery space and the commissioning of Kengo Kuma’s V&A Museum of Design Dundee. Her work also included the development of the Sackler Centre, and the recent completion of one of the South Kensington centre’s two ‘Cast Courts’, which was undertaken by Harrap.

After leaving the V&A at the end of January, Gemmill had begun a new role as director of capital programmes at the Royal Collection Trust, where she was embarking on the delivery of major programmes at Windsor Castle and Holyrood Palace.

Gemmill had also been a judge for the AJ’s Women in Architecture Awards since their launch in 2011 and was an avid supporter of the campaign.

‘She believed in the importance of creating a more equal profession’, said AR editor Christine Murray.

She added: ‘The profession has lost one of its great patrons and champions’.

A great supporter of the arts, Gemmill’s interest in art began from an early age. She grew up in a farming family in Kintrye, Scotland, which had strong links with the art world.

She went on to study graphic design and photography at the Glasgow School of Art and after graduating set up a company with friends in Aberdeen and published Citygirl magazine. Gemmill then went on to work for Aberdeen Art Gallery.

In 2011 she was made an honorary fellow of the RIBA. Gemmill was also a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and served on the board of the S.E.G.D. – the U.S. based not-for-profit society for communication design in the built environment.

Further tributes

Eva Jiř ičná, director, Eva Jiř ičná Architects
‘I was lucky enough to have known and worked with Moira Gemmill for more than 10 years. ‘Through our involvement with the museum on various projects we got to know each other and eventually, after her appointment as director of FuturePlan, we had a very intensive collaboration on the new Jewellery Gallery project which lasted over a three-year period.

‘She was the client everybody would have wished to have – understanding, supporting, tough if necessary and, admirably, never losing her sense of humour.

‘She wore two hats at the same time – the client’s and the designer’s – and through her understanding of both she was able to resolve the unresolvable.

‘She had a vision and took the risk if she thought it was worth it. She was incredibly talented at seeing both the pros and the cons. She had time for everybody, resolved problems with a smile, and never ever said “I told you so”. She loved people and life, and the word selfishness was not in her dictionary.’

Martin Roth, director of the V&A
‘We are devastated to hear of the tragic death of our much-loved and respected colleague of many years, Moira Gemmill. During her 13-year career at the V&A as the director of design before leaving for the Royal Collection in January this year, she made an extraordinary impact in transforming the Museum’s galleries and facilities with the FuturePlan programme of restoration, refurbishment and redesign. Major projects included the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries and most recently the Weston Cast Court. I cannot overstate Moira’s remarkable contribution in making the V&A the global leader in museum design that it is today. She will be greatly missed and our thoughts are with her family at this very sad time.’

Pippa Nissen, director, Nissen Richards Studio
‘We worked with Moira at the V&A when we were commissioned by her and her team to work on the refurbishment of the Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre in 2010, and on various exhibition projects. She gave us a break, as a young emerging practice, and she gave us an opportunity to work in this incredible institution. 

‘She was a formidable client, but incredibly human at the same time. She encouraged working with 1:1 samples, knowing exactly what she would get, precisely the material quality and the design intent. For us, this was also great training, how we would go on to present our work in other institutions.

‘Through her encouragement, we pushed a potentially straightforward project into something that offered more design possibilities. She allowed us to experiment, although within the supportive folds of her team, and produce something exciting. In this current climate, where it’s difficult to break into new fields, it was inspiring to work in a way that allowed us to be trusted and encouraged.

‘This is what she did at the V&A, and would have gone on to do in her new job. I was devastated to hear of her death last week.’ 

Michael Jones, senior partner, Foster + Partners
‘After the pleasure of several days travelling around buildings as fellow RIBA judges, Moira and I became firm friends.  Not only was she professionally inspiring, insightful and discerning, but also a remarkable person who was wonderful company. I will miss her.

‘Barely eighteen months after the death of Francis Golding, it is tragic that another eminent member of the architectural community should be lost in a cycle accident on the streets of London.  One more sad loss - and its seemingly always the nicest people.’

Colette O’Shea, managing director, Land Securities and fellow Women in Architecture judge
‘I was deeply saddened to hear of Moira Gemmill’s death in this tragic accident. I was lucky enough to get to know Moira through the Architect Journal’s Women in Architecture judging panel over the last few years, where her sheer talent, expertise and commitment was both evident and inspiring.  Her untimely death is a devastating loss for everyone involved in design and architecture. My condolences to Moira’s family and friends at this time.’

Martha Thorne, director, Pritzker Prize and fellow Women in Architecture judge
‘I am shocked and saddened by the death of Moira. I always looked forward to seeing her in London when we participated as jury members of the A.J awards for women in architecture. She was always thoughtful, fair, and an enthusiastic supporter of women and the arts. I felt her friendship and generosity of spirit. She will be greatly missed.’

Peter Rees, professor of places & city planning, The Bartlett and fellow Women in Architecture judge
‘Moira and I enjoyed an annual assignation, as judges for the AJ Women in Architecture Awards.Our paths rarely crossed between these intense and passionate panel discussions but we re-bonded instantly on each occasion. Moira loved the cut and thrust of debate and argued her position with wide knowledge, great strength and low cunning. Whenever I found myself “out on a limb” I would try to convince Moira.  If I achieved this, I knew it was worth persisting, if not, obviously I was wrong. I shall miss the thrill of our annual encounter.’

Laura Lee, Maggie’s chief executive and fellow Women in Architecture judge
‘We are very sad to hear of the very sad loss of Moira Gemmill who has been a fantastic support and advocate for Maggie’s. Moira was instrumental in achieving Maggie’s first exhibition at the V&A which was a special and significant landmark for Maggie’s in London. Being a Scot, Moira also had great insight and interest in Maggie’s north of the border too. We are grateful for all the support she gave Maggie’s and to myself personally. Our thoughts are with her family at this difficult time.’

Patty Hopkins, co-founder, Hopkins Architects
What a terrible thing to happen. I didn’t know her well, we didn’t do any projects together, but by reputation her achievements were impressive and visable all over the V & A. She had so much to contribute in her new role. 

John McAslan, executive chairman, John McAslan + Partners
‘Whilst I didn’t know Moira very well, I recall her as a passionate advocate of high quality design, with a great sense of humour and good cheer. Her untimely passing is a great loss.’




Readers' comments (2)

  • This is such an incredible loss - she was such a great advocate for quality and cared passionately about its role in culture and being a judge in the women in architecture awards was always meant a lively debate. But not only that was such a fun person to be with - she will be missed by so many.
    Victoria Thornton, Founder, Open-City

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  • very very sad. a wonderful person. a great loss.

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