Whether we stop to think about it or not, we’re always surrounded by design. With world-class museums and unexpected design treasures, London is the perfect spot to discover how design influences our daily lives. From the V&A—the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design—to the award-winning Design Museum and architects’ homes to a museum that delves into the meaning home, London is a dream for design lovers. If you’re not already a design enthusiast, a tour through these London museums might just change the way you look at design – and the world around you. For design enthusiasts, these are the London design destinations you’ll want to bookmark for your next London vacation.
There’s no better place to begin an exploration of design than the place for design in London. The Design Museum is one of the world’s leading museums dedicated to design in its many forms, from graphic, product and industrial design to fashion and architectural design. It is, in essence, a dream destination for design lovers. Founded in 1989, the museum’s first incarnation was along the Thames not far from Tower Bridge. In 2016, the Design Museum re-opened in Kensington in a stunning new location that has truly allowed the museum to shine. A masterpiece of design itself, the museum is located in a 1960s building right on Kensington High Street that was transformed by British architectural designer John Pawson into a modern museum space blending his minimalist aesthetic with the building’s original design elements.
The central three-story atrium, a striking geometrical design surrounding by walkways, is the heart of the museum. With three times more space, the Design Museum’s permanent collection and temporary exhibits, along with two shops, a café and restaurant, make this a true design destination spot. Don’t miss the Designer Maker User exhibit that highlights the museum’s collection through a selection of 20th- and 21st-century designs that have shaped and continue to shape our lives. The Design Museum won the European Museum of the Year Award in 2018 and is a guiding force in inspiring future generations of designers. Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High Street, London
The Museum of the Home
A one of a kind museum in many ways, the Museum of the Home is an intriguing spot to explore the history of the space we spend much our lives in – the home. Formerly called the Geffrye Museum, the Museum of the Home is located in 18th-century almshouses that were built with funding by Sir Robert Geffrye (1613–1704) as charitable housing for pensioners from the Ironmongers’ Company. One of the most popular parts of the collection, the period rooms called Rooms Through Time take visitors on a journey through a series of living rooms based on real London homes dating from 1630 to 1990. As you walk along and peer back in time, it’s a chance to trace the meaning of home and how it has changed over the past nearly 400 years. Likewise, the Gardens Through Time exhibit follows the changes in gardening from Tudor to contemporary times.
The Museum of the Home has been undergoing an expansion and exciting redevelopment that will increase its exhibition and events spaces by 80%. Along with the renovation of the historic buildings and creation of new spaces, the museum’s collections like Rooms Through Time period rooms have been refreshed to bring the spaces to life in an enhanced way. A new Victorian parlour room will also be revealed. When the museum re-opens in 2021, it’s the perfect time to visit—again or for the first time—as a perfectly fitting outing and tribute to the home post-lockdown. Museum of the Home, 136 Kingsland Road, London
Arts & Crafts: Red House and William Morris Gallery
A design themed tour around London isn’t complete without William Morris, one of the most influential designers of the 19th century and key figure in the Arts & Crafts Movement. Located in southeast London at Bexleyheath, Red House is the perfect place to start. Designed by William Morris and the architect Phillip Webb in 1859, it was created as a family home for William and his wife Jane Morris. It was also conceived as a space that would also serve as the hub for a group of Victorian artists working in what would become the Arts & Crafts Movement. The home features a blend of Medieval, Neo-Gothic and romantic elements inspired by Morris and wall murals painted by Pre-Raphaelite painters Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Surrounded by a lovely garden, the home can be visited thanks to The National Trust. Red House, Red House Lane, Bexleyheath
If you’re curious to learn more about the Arts & Crafts Movement, don’t miss the chance while in London to visit the William Morris Gallery located in east London at Walthamstow. Inside this historic Georgian home overlooking beautiful Lloyd Park, this small museum is a treasure for designers and anyone interested in learning more about the life and multifaceted work of William Morris. A designer, a craftsman, a celebrated writer and a political reformer – Morris was revolutionary in everything he touched. The exhibits take you through a journey, from meeting William Morris to his early artistic influences and later the founding of Morris & Co. design company. Along the way, you’ll get to see up close the beautiful pattern designs that Morris is known for along with stained glass, book designs and printing press, and so much more. Just be prepared to be incredibly tempted in the gift shop before you go! William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Architects’ homes truly are the best homes when it comes to design and there are few that offer such a glimpse into an architect’s life and work better than the Sir John Soane’s Museum. The house is set in, or should we say stands out from, a row of houses near Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Holborn, and was the home of John Soane (1753-1837), a celebrated architect noted for his Neo-Classical designs. The museum is an experience thanks to Soane’s broad and extremely diverse collection as well as the exquisitely decorated rooms and truly unique gallery spaces displaying the paintings, architectural models and design fragments, sculptures, and antiquities he collected and careful curated. There are many unexpected finds in the museum, seemingly around every corner. Follow the corridors deep to the Sepulchral Chamber where the sarcophagus of Egyptian King Seti I takes center stage.
Stepping inside the museum is a rare chance to see the home as Sir John Soane himself would have enjoyed it since the house and its collection have been preserved, at his request, exactly as he left them. While changes inevitably happened over the years, since 2011 a massive project has been underway to return the spaces and the display of the collection to exactly as they would have been as well as create new spaces to enhance the visitor experience. Until we can visit in person, take a look inside the museum with Explore Sloane, a project using 3D technology and scans to bring rooms of the museum to life digitally. Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London
Museum of Brands
Located just a couple of minutes from Notting Hill’s popular Portobello Road, the Museum of Brands is an unexpected find sitting along a pretty London street. Inside is a treasure trove of objects that trace over 200 years of the history of brands, packaging and advertising collected by consumer historian Robert Opie. Nostalgia is just the start. We all have memories connected to the things we use every day – often without even realizing it. Yet, without the thought of historians and collectors like Opie saving these items, they are often lost to time.
At the Museum of Brands, the objects that fill our days—like cereal boxes, toys, magazines, games and all the countless branded items we consume on a daily basis—have been transformed into the Time Tunnel. This display traces the journey of design from Victorian times and is jam packed with, well, a little bit of everything. You’ll see food brand packaging, toys, advertisements, posters, games, and oh so much more. Enjoy a trip down memory lane and you might just find yourself looking at design and packing in your everyday life in a new light! Museum of Brands, 111 – 117 Lancaster Road, Notting Hill
Victoria and Albert Museum
On the topic of design in London, there’s one museum you simply cannot miss. The Victoria and Albert Museum, called the V&A, is not only one of London’s top museums but also the world’s largest collection of decorative arts, design and sculpture. With four levels, 145 galleries and over 2.27 million objects, the museum follows 5,000 years of creativity and design from around the world. Here’s where you can admire Italian Renaissance sculptures, Chinese ceramics, silver as far as the eye can see, precious jewellery, costumes, medieval stained glass, Islamic textiles and so much more. With a collection so rich it speaks for itself, just take a look at the V&A collections online to get a sense of all there is to discover. V&A Museum, Cromwell Road, Kensington
This is only a taste of what London offers for design enthusiasts or museum lovers of all kinds. Check out our recommendations in Beyond the British Museum: The Best Small Museums in London for even more addresses to add to your London list. Included there are the Leighton House and 18 Stafford Terrace, both near Holland Park and Kensington, which are two design musts, along with the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey. With so many fine museums, London is the place to be inspired – from the past and as well the present thanks to the strong crafts tradition and vibrant contemporary design scene. Now is the perfect time to start designing that dream trip to London!