When photographer Koto Bolofo first visited London’s Commonwealth Institute in 2011, he found a forgotten architectural relic in the centre of London. Shrouded by park trees, overgrown with wild strawberry plants and home to a family of foxes, ‘it was like a dormant cathedral,’ he remembers. ‘Despite the buzz of the traffic whizzing past on Kensington High Street, you wouldn’t even know it was there. That was the strange thing.’
The visit had followed a call from his long-time friend, design entrepreneur Sophie Conran, who is also the daughter of Design Museum founder and trustee Sir Terence Conran. ‘She said, “You know the Commonwealth Institute?’’’ says Bolofo, retelling the conversation. ‘Well, my dad’s bought it and he’s going to turn it into the new Design Museum. Would you like to photograph the renovation?’
South African-born, London-based Bolofo, famed for his award-winning fashion photography and films, was apprehensive about taking on his first ever architectural project, but agreed to a test run. At the time, the 1962 Grade II*-listed building, just south of Holland Park, had been empty for more than a decade. It was yet to be publicly announced as the museum’s new home and it would be a year before ground broke on its £83m John Pawson-designed facelift.‘I was doing 8-12 second exposures, which I’d never done before, so I wasn’t even sure the pictures were going to come out,’ Bolofo remembers. Happily, the Design Museum were thrilled with his ‘non-architectural’ approach and so he spent the next five years revisiting the site every few months in order to track its transformation.
‘I fell in love with the building,’ he says. ‘I photographed it like I would photograph a woman – for me, it had so much femininity. The lines, the curves, there is absolutely nothing masculine about it.’
As the construction team dug out the foundations to reinforce the structure and stripped the building back to its skeleton, Bolofo captured the still moments in between; the rhythmic twists of the roof trusses, the empty walkways and the piles of debris illuminated by shafts of ethereal light. ‘I know nothing about construction; I had to use my instinct and my knowledge of form in order to document it. It was like watching a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis,’ he says.
With the butterfly now almost fully emerged, the finishing touches are being made to the museum’s interior, while, on the second floor, a dramatic cafe and restaurant space is promising to steal the show. ‘Because it’s such a significant and important building, there is very little we can actually do in terms of design in the interior,’ explains Jay Osgerby of Barber & Osgerby, the design studio tasked with fitting out the restaurant interior. Instead, the duo set about creating a scheme that made the most of the restaurant’s spectacular views outwards across the tree tops of Holland Park and inwards towards the cavernous atrium. For this purpose, the duo developed what they describe as ‘quiet and refined’ pieces of exclusive furniture and lighting that will let the view do the talking. A new wooden chair and a range of upholstery is in development with Vitra, while a number of lighting pieces are being produced by Flos.
The menu, provided by Sir Terence’s food, wine and hotel group Prescott & Conran, will ensure that the whole operation lives up to its founding father’s exacting standards. ‘Seeing this quite remarkable project on the cusp of completion makes me tremble with excitement and anticipation,’ beams Conran, who cites the museum as his most rewarding achievement. ‘It really does feel like our moment has arrived, and seeing the Design Museum move to this magnificent building demonstrates just how important design has become to industry in this country. It makes my rather long career absolutely worthwhile because it is putting design at the very heart of British creativity.’
As originally featured in the October 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*211)