The Thursday morning I spent at the Design Museum was nothing short of inspiring. The warm browns of the walls and the well-polished floors, the sunlight filtered in and the quiet chatter of visitors created a wonderfully comfortable ambience.
Being a money-conscious university student, I went straight to the top floor, where the exhibits and displays are available to view, free of charge. There were plenty of full-scale presentations, complete with hands-on activities and explanation plaques. Three design exhibits in particular stood out to me.
The first was a rather small glass display holding three cigarette advertising designs featuring gory medical nightmare images and dramatically bolded warning texts. It’s interesting to note that designs from the 40s and 50s focused on a sleek, seductive and stylish branding for cigarette designs. Think Audrey Hepburn, hair pulled neatly into her iconic updo, with a strand of pearls around her neck and a long cigarette at her fingertips.
It’s fascinating to see the cigarette advertising industry of today place its priority in dissuading people from smoking, rather than encouraging it. I think this speaks a lot for how far society has come, in terms of scientific advancements and ethical obligations.
The second display that caught my attention was a full-scale Le Smoking Tuxedo from 1989. The design came from Yves Saint Laurent in 1966, a time where trying to capture the feminine essence in more masculine clothing was considered a radical idea. The suit itself was form-fitting and sleek in material. It follows the traditional suit design with its tailoring and dark fabric colour, but the white ribbon tied at the neck is beautifully elegant and feminine.
I admit the display appealed to me partly because of my interest in fashion. But as a woman myself, it spoke volumes about female empowerment.
All of this ties into one of the top floor’s concluding exhibits, the rifle and leg splint display. Encased behind the glass was the AK-47 assault rifle, propped up next to the Eames leg splint with a polite amount of distance in between. The rifle, designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1947, was one of the world’s first assault rifles and its design has endured over seven decades, aiding armies, child soldiers and terrorists alike. But next to the leg splint, its efficiency is overshadowed by its dark purpose.
The clash between the work of Kalashnikov and Yves Saint Laurent reminds us that design is capable of being good and evil.