Friday, June 09, 2006

Travelogue > London: The Design Museum, A Walk Along The South Promenade, And London Bridge

I'm on vacation in London at the moment. This is a combination of a blog post, and a travelogue outline and general notes for possible articles for brainwavez.org when I return to Cape Town. I can't access (FTP) my site at the moment so it's all here. I've added subheadings so you can skip to bits that may interest you (or, more likely, skip past bits that don't).

I had a late start to the day as I got up slightly later than I should have - but I'm still struggling to drag myself out of bed - had the usual long conversation with Neil while we had tea and ate breakfast, and then, after he had left, went online to check email and such, before realising the time and making a hurried lunch with whatever I could find in the fridge and cupboards.

I finally left the house at 2:30pm and caught a bus to Canning Town station for the Jubilee line, alighting at Bermonsey station. This area isn't covered by the maps in my The Mini Rough Guide To London [Kalahari.net] but, luckily, there was a map of the area near the station exit so I had a fair idea of where to go. I left the station and turned left into Jamaica Road and walked for about 500 metres before turning right into Shad Thames [map], which eventually curves to the left and you end up behind the Design Museum. I turned right and entered the museum by the main entrance, which is on that side. Unfortunately I chose to go to the museum a day too early, as tomorrow a new exhibition starts, which is entitled My World - The New Subjectivity In Design. However, there was enough to keep me busy for a few hours, including the primary reason I wanted to visit the museum, the Designer Of The Year exhibit. I was just in time, as it closes in about a week.

The Design Museum
The Designer Of The Year exhibit features displays of the work of the finalists and winner of the yearly Designer of the Year Prize. This year's winner was Jamie Hewlett, for his work as the designer of the virtual band Gorillaz, which he co-created with Damon Albarn of Blur. (Hewlett is also known for being the co-creator of the comic Tank Girl.) The primary room of the exhibit - the last in the sequence - was devoted to the Gorillaz and included many of Hewlett's actual sketches for character designs and storyboards for music videos, as well as a table in the middle that houses examples of Gorillaz merchandise (much of which can be bought at the Gorillaz web site). Two of the walls of the room are filled with reproduced stills, drawings and artworks, with a third showing a projected animation of the band, and a fourth housing a series of television screens showing the band's transformation into a 3D band (using a technique based on the principles of Pepper's Ghost) for live performances at this year's Grammy awards and MTV Europe awards, among other things.

The rest of the exhibit is devoted to the finalists. The first room you enter houses a showcase of the process that went into the redesign of The Guardian newspaper in 2005, including everything from the change in size of the paper to the development of the proprietary font and the redesign of the layout grid, as well as an explanation as to how it works. As a journalist and designer I found this part of the exhibit to be particularly fascinating. The other two finalists were Tom Dixon, who is probably best known for his S chair (also here), and Cameron Sinclair for his work with Architecture For Humanity: one of the 2005 projects on display at the exhibit included the Siyathemba soccer pitch and youth community centre in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).

The other exhibition currently running is Designing Modern Britain, which looks at the impact of (primarily British) design on British life, and features a variety of products and objects designed during the course of the 20th century. Items on display include a number of cars, such as a Bond Bug (1970; designed by Ogle Design), a Morris Mini-Minor (in production from 1959; designed by Alec Issigonis) and a Morris Minor MM (in production from 1948; designed by Alec Issigonis), and an Austin Seven Chummy (in production from 1923; designed by Sir Herbert Austin and Stanley Edge). There are also a number of displays featuring Penguin Books from various decades, starting with the design of the first Penguin Books, by Edward Young. Other notable publications showcased include Industrial Arts Magazine from the late 1930s (a magazine that was a "champion of the modern movement"), i-D magazine, Time Out magazine in the 1970s, a condensed showcase of the 1988 redesign of The Guardian (which is also covered in the Designer Of The Year exhibition as a companion piece).

The exhibition also covers design related to London's transport systems, including the first diagrammatic map by draughtsman Henry Beck in 1931 and the design results of the unification and streamlining, by Frank Pick, of a large number of the London transport systems that were operating throughout the city (which became known as the London Passenger Transport Board.

Furniture design and, especially, a century's worth of chair designs, is covered in detail, and the exhibit also looks at the Concorde, Britain's collaboration with the French to produce a supersonic passenger airline (the display includes ephemera and cutlery used on board the aircraft), famous album covers (of The Beatles, amongst others) and how design evolved to accommodate the new, smaller size of CD covers.

Of special interest to me, and complementary to the The Guardian displays, the exhibit looks at various typefaces, including Gil Sans (1928; Eric Gil) and Times New Roman (1932; Stanley Morrison with Victor Lardent) from earlier in the 20th century, as well as Matthew Carter's Verdana font, which was deisgned for Microsoft. The font is instantly recognisable as it was designed to be legible on all sizes of computer screens and has become one of the most ubiquitous fonts on the Web.

Finally, the exhibition showcases a number of interactive console (PlayStation) games that visitors can play, if they wish, including Core Design's Tomb Raider (1996), various Midway Games arcade console games, and what was identified as "Streetfighter (1997)" but which I think was actually Street Fighter Alpha (1995).

In all, it's quite a comprehensive look at British design packed into a surprisingly small space.

The Riverside Promenade
After visiting the exhibitions I returned to the ground floor and browsed through the museum shop, which is next to the museum's café and main entrance. I then left and walked to the riverfront promenade at the front of the building, where I found the museum's fourth exhibit space, the "Design Tank", which, due to it being out in the open, is accessible, for free, to everyone. It currently houses a display, Football Fever, of innovative redesigns and reinterpretations of the football, by various product and textile designers.

At the promenade at the riverside outside the Design Museum you have a wonderful view to the west of Tower Bridge, The Tower Of London, and the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe). It was slightly warm outside, but not unbearable, with a light breeze, and I couldn't have asked for better weather conditions, so I decided to take a walk, since I may never have the chance with those kinds of conditions again.

I walked westwards along the promenade, pausing briefly next to Tower Bridge to take a closer photograph - and then taking a photograph of an Asian tourist who was passing in the opposite direction and wanted a photo of himself in front of the bridge. I then walked under the bridge, continuing along the promenade, past City Hall and the HMS Belfast and, unknowingly, nearby the London Dungeon, before I climbed the stairs that lead up onto London Bridge, and crossed the bridge. As it was early evening and the river runs in a west-east direction all the buildings along the riverfront are bathed in the setting sun, which makes it a perfect time to linger on the bridge to take photographs or just admire the architecture, although you also have to contend with a mass of rush-hour pedestrian traffic.

At the north end of the bridge I entered Monument station (passing Sir Christopher Wren's Monument to the Great Fire Of London [read more] on the way) and took the District line, which was surprisingly uncrowded, to Plaistow station, and then the bus to the local bus stop.

When I arrived home at 7pm no one had yet returned from work. It was almost spooky, so I made tea.

(And then realised that this would be a perfect time to catch up on my travelogues).

Sam's Chicken
At 8pm I started to feel a bit peckish and, remembering the "two veggie burgers with chips for GBP2.49" [?] deal that's being advertised at Sam's Chicken, a primarily chicken fast-food outlet (think KFC without the 11 herbs and spices) that I pass every day on my way to the bus, I hunted in my wallet for coins worth GBP2.50, then walked to Sam's Chicken. The clerk behind the counter was slow to serve me, and did so as he wiped his nose with a serviette, which rather grossed me out. I placed my order, was told "2.49", so I handed over my coins as the cash register flashed "2.49" and then waited for my change, which I never received. Now, to most people, a penny really isn't a big deal, but to me that's ZAR0.12, which is quite a bit of money. However, a few days ago I did pick up a penny (because I saw it and thought "Wow, 12c!"), so I guess I'm technically even.

Back to the tale of Sam's Chicken. I watched as the clerk dipped chips in oil and then had a friend hand him a box of frozen veggie burgers, out of which he took two, placed them in one of those metal baskets, and proceeded to dip it in a vat of oil next to the chip machine. At this moment I had the sudden realisation that this was probably the same oil used to fry the chicken, considering the health code violations that I'd already seen, but there was also another machine next to it, so I'm hoping that that was the chicken machine (really hoping). Then, to my continued fascination, he took burger buns and placed them in a huge toasting machine and then tranferred them to two polystyrene takeaway containers. The chips were placed in two paper bags. He opened a drawer below the counter and used tongs (thankfully) to place lettuce on one half of each burger and then asked me if I wanted mayonnaise, although I had to ask him to repeat it as I couldn't understand him at first. The maynonnaise was also stashed in the drawer, in a large metal icing-gun-like device (think of a metal tube used to pipe icing on a cake, but then imagine it about four times the size) and he liberally piped it onto all four bun halves. Then it was back to the burgers, to watch them cook, while I stared at the many unflattering images of myself on the CCTV television. Eventually the burgers were cooked and assembled, and the entire package, with serviettes (and, I later found, many little packets of salt), was placed in a plastic bag and handed over the counter to me. Realising I wasn't going to get my penny, and not in a mood for a fight, I returned home.

(Point of the story: I won't be eating at Sam's Chicken again, even though it's a really good deal.)

Dinner Number Two
Neil eventually arrived home, hungry, and Audrey phoned to say that she was on her way, so we ordered Chinese food from East Ham's Golden Dragon takeaway restaurant. Meanwhile, I tried one of my burgers and chips, and stashed the rest in the fridge for weekend food emergencies.

It being the night on which the World Cup started, Audrey returned home long before the delivery arrived, but when it did, in between eviction and live-broadcast Big Brother episodes, we happily tucked in. The food was good, as was the price. Golden Dragon is definitely recommended!

Moment Of The Day
After my experience at Sam's Chicken it's a bit of a toss up, but I think the moment still goes to the following: as I left the house in the early afternoon and was walking along the suburban roads heading for the bus stop and a man crossed the road right in front of me from the opposite side, and then proceeded to blow a huge wad of snot out his left nostril onto the pavement near me.

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