March 18, 2005

'Walk by Jasper Morrison's toasters and cutlery despite their "underlying wit" (I did not find them at all funny)'

Design Museum, London, to June 19

If you are a cynical middle-aged intellectual like me and many of my colleagues and you want a perfect day out, follow these instructions exactly.

Start at Liverpool Street station, and stroll round the corner to Vine Street, another name from the Monopoly board. Now wander down a series of streets that were surely named by a historian on acid: Houndsditch, Old Jewry, Crutched Friars, Minories and Camomile Street (I doubt that a flower has grown there since about 1326, which is a gloomy thought) to the Tower of London.

Stride purposefully across Tower Bridge, taking in the glass structure from which Ken Livingstone hatches his evil plans for quality public services.

On the South Bank, cross (wait for it) Horselydown Lane and turn into (you couldn't make it up) Shad Thames. You will arrive at the Design Museum.

Grudgingly pay your six quid and make for the first floor, where you will be greeted by a large sign saying "You are here". This is the vaguely humorous intro to The Design of Information , a stunning display of visual communication in words, symbols, images, charts and maps.

Spend at least an hour here, then amble upstairs to the Designer of the Year section and vote for Hilary Cottam.

The four contenders for the award each have a corner, and you should peevishly ignore the garish display of chairs, the permanent staple of the museum, which are of no interest to you. Remember, you are a rational person, a curmudgeon who knows all about words and logic but nothing at all about "design" - except that some zealots still use it to argue for the existence of God, despite Kant proving them hopelessly mistaken two centuries ago.

Before you came to the museum you may have been tempted to vote for Penguin's "Great Ideas" series of classic books. Think again. Walk by Jasper Morrison's toasters and cutlery despite their "underlying wit" (I didn't find them at all funny). Snub the furnishings by Timorous Beasties, with their ironic mix of fin de siècle chic and images of homeless people in modern Glasgow: apparently they have an "evolving aesthetic", so you must definitely shun them.

Instead, discover how Hilary Cottam has designed public buildings in radically new ways. Rather than ugly, dark school corridors that encourage boredom and bullying, she constructs pleasant open spaces with seats where every pupil can see and be seen.

In place of huge prisons on the 19th-century model, spending 80 per cent of the money on security and 20 per cent on programmes for prisoners, she proposes smaller, self-contained residential and training units. Money that used to be wasted on moving prisoners around can be spent on facilities for learning and rehabilitation.

The six out of every ten inmates who are illiterate and innumerate can learn useful skills and gain some self-respect. Not least, prison officers can feel that they are doing something more rewarding than just keeping people locked up. It's simple, brilliant and progressive, but you are a hardened cynic so do not be impressed, let alone inspired.

After a couple of hours, head for home. Later, entertain half your friends with casual references to modern design as metanarrative, and the other two by saying "the Dasein Museum... something to do with Heidegger?".

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies at Brighton University.

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