If you want to learn about the history of design, going to a design museum is a great way to immerse yourself in the beauty of the best design in the world. The buildings themselves are a marvel, and they are filled with incredible collections of everything from furniture to ceramics. Let’s look at the top ten design museums in the world.
Although museums have been around for centuries, there weren’t many focused entirely on design. But luckily for us, times have changed. For design lovers, starting at the end of the 21st century, institutions have begun to specifically focus on design. And although many museums are dedicated to the industry, there are some that stand above the rest. As such, we’ve put together this list of 10 fantastic design museums to add to your must-visit list. There are many fantastic museums that have design sections in them, in addition to the museums solely dedicated to it. Often, however, the design sections are tucked away in a back corner of the museum, or are situated as an archive and not always open to the public. If you are interested, it’s worth looking into whether your local museum has a design section you’ve just never seen before. If, however, you’re looking for a museum entirely dedicated to design, check out these top ten museums around the world for a full design experience.
1. Vitra Design Museum
Inaugurated by Rolf Fehlbaum, chairman emeritus at Vitra and member of the board, the Vitra Design Museum opened its doors in 1989, originally intended as a home for Fehlbaum’s private collection. Over time this space expanded to house retrospectives of important architects and designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Ray Eames. The spectacular museum building was designed by Frank Gehry, and it is located in the German town of Weil am Rhein, near Basel. It is dedicated to the research and presentation of design, past and present, and examines design’s relationship to architecture, art and everyday culture. In the main museum building by Frank Gehry, the museum annually mounts two major temporary exhibitions. The work of the Vitra Design Museum is based on its collection, which includes not only key objects of design history, but also the estates of several important design personalities. The museum library and document archive are available to researchers upon request. The museum conceives its exhibitions for touring, and they are shown at venues around the world. On the Vitra Campus, they are complemented by a diverse programme of events, guided tours, and workshops.
MoMa is a contemporary art and design museum in Manhattan, New York. In the late 1920s, three progressive and influential patrons of the arts, Lillie P. Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, perceived a need to challenge the conservative policies of traditional museums and to establish an institution devoted exclusively to modern art. They, along with additional original trustees A. Conger Goodyear, Paul Sachs, Frank Crowninshield, and Josephine Boardman Crane, created The Museum of Modern Art in 1929. Its founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., intended the Museum to be dedicated to helping people understand and enjoy the visual arts of our time, and that it might provide New York with “the greatest museum of modern art in the world.”
The rich and varied collection of The Museum of Modern Art constitutes one of the most comprehensive and panoramic views into modern art. From an initial gift of eight prints and one drawing, The Museum of Modern Art’s collection has grown to approximately 200,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, media and performance art works, architectural models and drawings, design objects, and films. MoMA also owns approximately two million film stills. The Museum’s Library and Archives contain the leading concentration of research material on modern art in the world, and each of the curatorial departments maintains a study center available to students, scholars, and researchers. MoMA’s Library holds over 320,000 items, including books, artists’ books, periodicals, and extensive individual files on more than 90,000 artists. The Museum Archives contains primary source material related to the history of MoMA and modern and contemporary art.
3. Victoria and Albert Museum
Established as the Museum of Manufactures in 1852, the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) was renamed after Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of the current building in 1899. This museum features over 5,000 years of art and design objects from around the world, like ancient Egyptian textiles, Eames furniture, and even Alexander McQueen dresses. Thanks to its varied collection, this is one of the most visited design museums in the world.The museum houses a permanent collection of over 2.8 million objects, books and archives that span over 5,000 years of human creativity. The museum holds many of the UK’s national collections and houses some of the greatest resources for the study of architecture, furniture, fashion, textiles, photography, sculpture, painting, jewellery, glass, ceramics, book arts, Asian art and design, theatre and performance.
From its early beginnings as a Museum of Manufactures in 1852, to the foundation stone laid by Queen Victoria in 1899, to today’s state-of-the-art galleries, the museum has constantly evolved in its collecting and public interpretation of art and design. Henry Cole, the V&A’s first Director, declared that the Museum should be a “schoolroom for everyone”. Its mission was to improve the standards of British industry by educating designers, manufacturers and consumers in art and science. Acquiring and displaying the best examples of art and design contributed to this mission, but the ‘schoolroom’ itself was also intended to demonstrate exemplary design and decoration. The story of the design and construction of the V&A’s buildings, and of the personalities who guided this process, is one of persistent vision and ingenuity, amid the changing artistic, political and economic circumstances of the last 150 years.
4. Triennale Milano
Opened in 1923, La Triennale is an international institution that organizes exhibitions and conferences on art, design, architecture, fashion, and cinema. This museum is located in the Parco Sempione in Milan, and it is one of the most beautiful establishments in the area. It is housed in the Palazzo dell’Arte, which was designed by Giovanni Muzio and built between 1931 and 1933; construction was financed by Antonio Bernocchi and his brothers Andrea and Michele.
The Milan Triennial, an international exhibition of art and design, was held at the museum thirteen times between 1936 and 1996, and – after a break of twenty years – again in 2016. Since 2003 the Triennale has awarded the triennial Gold Medal for Italian Architecture. A permanent museum of Italian design, the Trienniale Design Museum, was opened in 2007. It hosts design, architecture, and the visual, scenic and performing arts. The building houses a theatre, the Teatro dell’Arte, which was also designed by Muzio. In 2019, the XXII Triennale was celebrated under the title “Broken Nature”, focusing on design approaches that explore the relations between humans, nature and other species. Its aim is to find broader, more innovative ways of thinking, bringing the experiences of different cultures and languages together in a single place and time.
In the immediate post war years the Triennale tackled the problem of reconstruction by promoting, with Piero Bottoni, the building of the experimental QT8 area, in Milan’s Monte Stella district. In the 50’s it also addressed the issue of industrial design, with shows dedicated to this specific sector. The phenomenon of Italian design evolved exactly at that time and was associated to the cult of all things Made in Italy, alongside the country’s industrial development. Then, starting in the 60’s, the Triennale had to face the problems linked to economic development and social transformation, producing exhibitions such as “La casa e la scuola”(Home and school) in 1960.
5. The Bauhaus Archive
The Bauhaus Archive was founded in Darmstadt in 1960. Walter Gropius and other members of the Bauhaus movement gave their support. The collection grew so quickly that a dedicated museum seemed attractive and Gropius was asked to design it. In 1964, he produced plans for a new museum in Darmstadt, on the Rosenhöhe, which was prevented by local politics.
The collection documents the history of Bauhaus in art, teaching, architecture and design. The collection includes teaching materials, workshop models, architectural plans and models, photographs, documents and a library. The Bauhaus archive looks after works by Lyonel Feininger, Johannes Itten, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy, Werner Drewes, Gunta Stölzl and Oskar Schlemmer. The comprehensive graphic collection includes drawings, watercolours and prints. Apart from the permanent exhibition, each year there are about four special exhibitions. There are also lectures, workshops and discussions, exhibitions in the sculpture yard, readings and concerts. The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin has long held the only official Bauhaus trademark label to reproduce a limited number of Bauhaus designs. My experience visiting this museum was very special: the building itself is worth the trip, as well as the gift store. The collection is exciting and informative, and
The Senate of Berlin was however ready to supply both space and money for the project. In 1971 the Bauhaus Archive moved to temporary accommodation in Berlin. Modifying the plans for the location beside the Landwehrkanal, political decisions and financial restrictions delayed things. The foundation stone was finally laid in 1976 and the building was ready by 1979. There is not that much left of Gropius’ original 1964 design apart from the characteristic silhouette of the shed roofs. The necessary changes to the plan were carried out by his former colleague Alex Cvijanović, in conjunction with the Berlin architect Hans Bandel.In 1997 a conservation order was placed on the building. In 2005 it served as an outdoor set for the science fiction action films V for Vendetta and Æon Flux.
As space only permits exhibition of 35 percent of the museum’s holdings, the Bauhaus Archive invited six architectural firms to participate in a co-operative competition: Diener & Diener (Basle), Nägeli Architekten (Berlin), SANAA (Tokyo), Sauerbruch & Hutton (Berlin), UN Studio (Amsterdam), Volker Staab (Berlin). In 2005, the jury chaired by Wolfgang Lorch (Saarbrücken) awarded first prize to the design of Japanese firm SANAA. In 2009, the Berlin Senate abandoned the extension plans.
6. ArtScience Museum
ArtScience Museum is a museum within the integrated resort of Marina Bay Sands in the Downtown Core of the Central Area in Singapore. Opened on 17 February 2011 by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, it is the world’s first ArtScience museum, featuring major exhibitions that blend art, science, culture and technology. Although a permanent exhibition at the ArtScience Gallery has been planned, the Museum mainly hosts touring exhibitions curated by other museums.
The architecture is said to be a form reminiscent of a lotus flower. It is designed by Moshe Safdie. Rainwater is harvested and channelled down the centre of the building, flowing through its bowl-shaped roof into a reflecting pond at the lowest level of the building. The rainwater is then recycled for use in the building’s restrooms. Referred to as “The Welcoming Hand of Singapore” by Las Vegas Sands chairman Sheldon Adelson, the ArtScience Museum is anchored by a round base in the middle, with ten extensions referred to as “fingers”. The design concept for each finger denotes various gallery spaces sporting skylights at the “fingertips”, which are included as sustainable illumination for the curved interior walls.
7. Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
In 1895, the granddaughters of Peter Cooper, Sarah Cooper Hewitt, Eleanor Garnier Hewitt and Amy Hewitt Green, asked the Cooper Union for a space to create a Museum for the Arts of Decoration. The museum would take its inspiration from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris and would serve as a place for Cooper Union students and professional designers to study decorative arts collections. Cooper Union’s trustees provided the fourth floor of the Foundation Building. It opened in 1897 as the “Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration.” The museum was free and open to the public three days a week. The museum, which was the first Smithsonian museum outside of Washington, D.C., moved to its home at the Andrew Carnegie Mansion in 1970.The Georgian style mansion was built over the course of the years 1899 to 1902 and has 64 rooms. The home served as not only the home for Andrew Carnegie, his wife, and daughter, but also as his office for his philanthropic work after his retirement. In 2008, the museum started to undergo renovations. The renovation cost $91 million and was the largest in the museum’s history, partially financed by the museum endowment.
The Cooper Hewitt collections consist of decorative and design objects. The museum’s original collection focused on architecture, sculpture, painted architecture, decorative arts, woodwork, metalwork, pottery, costume, musical instruments and furniture. Upon its opening, Abram S. Hewitt’s wife, Sarah Amelia Hewitt donated a lace collection, George Hearn donated two fountains worth $1,000, and Lloyd Bryce’s wife donated art and objects from the Palace of Fontainebleau.
8. Red Dot Design Museum
9. Design Museum Helsinki
Design Museum is a museum in Helsinki devoted to the exhibition of both Finnish and foreign design, including industrial design, fashion, and graphic design. The building is situated in Kaartinkaupunki, on Korkeavuorenkatu Street, and is owned by the Republic of Finland through Senate Properties. The building was completed in 1895 and originally built as a school building for the Swedish school Läroverket för gossar och flickor.
The museum, which is 140 years old (2013) and one of the oldest in the world – was first founded in 1873 but has operated in its present premises, a former school, designed by architect Gustaf Nyström in 1894 in the neo-Gothic style, since 1978. In 2002, the museum changed its name from Taideteollisuusmuseo to Designmuseo (“Design Museum”) because the original name was too long and complicated. The museum also has a cafe and shop. Situated on the same city block is the Museum of Finnish Architecture.
The museum includes a permanent exhibition devoted to the history of Finnish design from 1870 to the present day, as well as space for changing exhibitions. The museum’s permanent collection consists of over 75,000 objects, 40,000 drawings and 100,000 drawings. Design Museum arranges also international touring exhibitions and publishes books and exhibition catalogues. From museum’s home page, there is a free access to several web exhibitions on Finnish design, for example about the production of Arabia Factory, Marimekko and designers Kaj Franck and Oiva Toikka. Latest web exhibition is about 1950–60s design – an iconic golden era of Finnish Design.
10. Museum of Arts and Crafts, St Petersburg
The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement (MAACM) is the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to the American Arts and Crafts movement. Founded by local philanthropist and collector Rudy Ciccarello, MAACM is St. Petersburg’s newest museum, featuring stunning architecture, incredible works of art, and an ideal location in the downtown waterfront arts district.
Ciccarello, along with Alfonso Architects, designed and oversaw the incredible task of creating the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement in St. Petersburg, Florida. The five-story, 137,000 square-foot museum is a work of art itself, with incredible architectural elements such as a grand atrium, skylights, and a dramatic spiral staircase—all adorned with period art, light fixtures, windows, fireplaces, and more. MAACM features more than 40,000 square feet of gallery space, as well as a destination restaurant with private dining rooms, a retail store, an upscale café, a children’s gallery, a reference library, a theater, a graphic studio, a beautiful event space for weddings and corporate events, and an outdoor green space enhanced by original period tiles and fountains.
Emerging at the end of the Victorian era in England, the Arts and Crafts movement was fueled by anxieties about the quality of life in the industrial era and the rise of mass-produced goods. Arts and Crafts designers sought to reform both decorative design and daily life, creating objects that were beautiful and functional. In America, the Arts and Crafts movement spread across the country from approximately 1890-1930. The tenets of the movement – simplicity in design, honesty in materials, hand craftsmanship, and depicting the natural world – are still widely valued today. The most important artists and enterprises of the American Arts and Crafts movement are represented at MAACM. Visit us to see fine examples of Gustav Stickley, Charles Rohlfs, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Roycrofters, William Grueby, Newcomb Pottery, Margaret Patterson, Greene and Greene, Louis Sullivan, and many other gifted craftsmen and women. Immerse yourself completely in the movement with furniture, pottery, tiles, lighting, textiles, photography, fine arts, woodblocks, metalwork, period room installations, and more.
I hope this list gives you a good place to start exploring the world of design around you!