The Design Museum in London, one of the few museums dedicated to contemporary design, is reeling after a difficult month. At the end of September, James Dyson, design entrepreneur and inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, accused the museum of "ruining its reputation" and "neglecting its purpose" and resigned as chairman of the board of trustees. He claimed the place was "no longer true to its original vision" and lambasted it for becoming a "style showcase". His company website spells out his own engineering-led conception of the design process in no uncertain terms: "'design' means how something works, not how it looks - the design should evolve from the function."
In the firing line is the museum's director, Alice Rawsthorn, a former Financial Times journalist appointed in 2001. Rawsthorn has mounted exhibitions by ultra-fashionable shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, hatmaker Philip Treacy, and trendy 3D designers such as Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Hella Jongerius and Marc Newson (now showing). None of this sat well with Dyson, who initiated an exhibition about heroic Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in 2000, but it was the current exhibition about mid-century society flower arranger Constance Spry that proved the final straw.
Adding to the controversy, the museum's founder and benefactor, Terence Conran, one of British design's most prominent figures, made no secret of sharing Dyson's views. "I cannot be involved if it goes on like this," he told The Observer. In a letter to The Guardian, he drove home the point: "James Dyson and I are confused by the 'high-society mimsiness' of Constance Spry and its suitability for the Design Museum . . . which was set up to explore the industrial design of quantity-produced products. We both understand the importance of style, but at the moment there is very little content at the museum and we want to see the balance redressed."
The British newspapers, not usually quick to give design much serious consideration, swooped on the story, and even The Washington Post took notice. The focus, inevitably, has been less on the design issues raised by the dispute, and more on the three strong-willed personalities involved, with Rawsthorn, in particular, subject to some less than fair criticism. Her reaction has been to preserve a diplomatic silence.
For many bemused onlookers inside the design world, though, Dyson's complaints were not only mistimed, but curiously out of touch with evolving public perceptions of design. Editorials in support of Rawsthorn appeared in Creative Review, Grafik and Blueprint. Under her dedicated leadership, which no one questions, the museum's exhibitions programme was in better shape than it had been in for years, especially to anyone with an interest in visual communication.
In 1990, the year after it opened, the museum presented the masterly "Graphic Design in America" conceived by the Walker Art Center; exhibitions about the Dutch post office and Czech avant-garde with a strong graphic component; and shows devoted to the British designers Abram Games and Hans Schleger. It seemed to promise great things, but under director Paul Thompson (1991-2001), now director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, the museum appeared to lose interest in graphic design and there were no exhibitions about the subject of comparable ambition and significance during his time. From 1996 to 1998, funding difficulties meant the entire exhibition programme had to be scaled back.
Attendances dropped during the recession and tourism slump that followed 9/11, but since March 2001 visitors have increased by 20 per cent. Rawsthorn has put the museum back in the public eye and graphic design is finally receiving the attention it deserves as part of the mix. Last year's widely reviewed Peter Saville retrospective drew 59,816 visitors. The Saul Bass exhibition, which has just closed, drew 65,550. (Brunel, by comparison, attracted 31,299.) Next year, Rawsthorn plans a long-overdue exhibition about influential American graphic designer Robert Brownjohn, who worked in London during the 1960s. Her initiatives, such as the Designer of the Year prize, have helped to make the museum an essential place to visit despite its slightly awkward location.
Conran has done as much as anyone to make the British style-conscious - with his Habitat stores, Conran shops, string of restaurants, and frequent invocations of the pleasures of the good life - so it was ironic, to say the least, to see him become agitated about a floral designer who likewise focused on beautifying the home. Dyson's first cleaner, one might also note, was a costly cult item in fashion-conscious Japan before it took off in Britain and around the world. Stylish looks, quite as much as cyclonic technology, was the thing that set his brightly coloured product line apart in the shops.
Both Conran and Dyson have contributed to a cultural climate in which style is a priority. Design Museum visitors understand that appearances have become vital transmitters of meaning, as well as a way of adding commercial value. While the uses of style should be rigorously examined and where necessary critiqued, it's entirely appropriate for a museum focusing on design to acknowledge and investigate the inextricable relationship of form and content, style and purpose, in contemporary life.
More than one observer has noted the whiff of misogyny that seemed to emanate from this middle-aged, masculine emphasis on engineering and against-the-odds invention versus such supposed fripperies as shoes, hats and - so it appeared - graphic communication. Perhaps some of the areas addressed by the museum's exhibitions do appeal more to its many women visitors, but so what? The boys can make a beeline for an exhibition about the evolution of the E-type Jaguar, showing on the same floor as Spry.
With any luck, this storm in a teacup will now blow over and Rawsthorn and her team will be allowed to get on with the task of developing one of Europe's most valuable design institutions. After a meeting of the trustees on 28 October, the museum announced that Conran had been invited to become "Life President and Life Trustee . . . in recognition of his unique contribution as its founder" - a signal that he has decided to stick around, after all. The search for a replacement chairman is under way.