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Jeremy Myerson photographed by Alice Finbow
19th January 2017

Interview: Curator Jeremy Myerson

Jeremy Myerson is 60 years old. He tells me that in some cultures that makes him “old”, in the same breath he told me he how busy he is getting ready for the opening of NEW OLD: Design for our Future Selves at the Design Museum — an exhibition he just curated that showcases the work of sublime design talents from around the world, including Zetteler favourite Special Projects, as they attempt to address the enormous demographic shift we are about to witness and the lack of accommodating design-led experiences.
I called Jeremy to pick his brilliant brain about the increasing necessity for designers to focus on age-inclusive design, why he doesn’t feel old at all, and how an exhibition he first saw more three decades ago at the Victoria & Albert museum (New Design for Old) inspired a new generation of designer thinking and his latest exhibition.
In the 1990s, you described the design industry as “relentlessly ageist”. Do you think that is still as true today, or has progress been made?
Did I say that? Hmm. Well. I feel that a change has been made in the last 30 years, The Helen Hamlyn Centre set the ball rolling in raising people’s expectations around it, raising the agenda that designers needed to design for a wider spectrum of age range. So I think there's been progress, still a long way to go. I think what has helped is the rise of inclusive design in the last 15 years. Most designers want to take an inclusive approach as much as they want to take a sustainable approach. The whole reason we’re doing the exhibition is that we still have a way to go. We want to make sure that designers are ready for the biggest demographic shift in the population for 150 years.

What does that demographic shift mean for society as a whole?
We’re going to be living in a world where we have more older people and fewer younger people. The average age of the population is rising. People are going to be living for longer. Rather than seeing these extra years as a burden the idea is that we see these years as a gift, it’s the result of advances in medical science and economic development. But how will people live, that’s the issue, and where design comes in. Are people going to live out their later years isolated and struggling with everyday activities or are they going to have more fulfilled and richer lives with wider connections to society? That’s what the exhibition is about. 
What do you think is principle obstacle when it comes to designing for older age?
I think historically a lot of designers have seen older people as a special needs group, they’ve not seen it as connected to their own lives, that’s why we’ve called the exhibition NEW OLD: Designing for our Future Selves. All of us are going to get older! So I think the major obstacle is overcoming the burden of stigma, but also asking what happens to people when they age? We develop a series of what you might call minor medical impairments, in terms of cognition and memory, balance and dexterity etc. But actually, as you age you gain various things such as perspective, wisdom, and clarity of thought. We need to think of ageing as something natural, positive and progressive. We need to think in terms of using design and innovation to address that.
New Old exhibition. Photography by Luke Hayes.
How does the remit of this exhibition differ from that of the 1986 show?
So since 1986 both design and ageing have changed dramatically. In 1986 the show was comprised entirely of products for the home. It was products for the home designed to make it easier for people to grow older in their homes, rather than going into institutional care, but older people were still seen as passive consumers of things, rather than active economic contributors. So the big frame of reference that’s changed is that this exhibition is about social connection. It has sections on mobility, working life and community. These things really show models of ageing which are to do with the social and culture model of ageing, rather than the medical. And also design is not just about products, it’s about experiences — as with Special Projects — it’s about interactions, it’s about services, digital communications. So the frame of reference of older people in society is wider and the range of disciplines is broader.
 
How were the participating designers selected? Why did you want Special Projects to be involved?
I approached a number of design companies, I wanted to keep to the spirit of the show and focus on industrial design, we wanted ones who were thinking. I chose Special Projects because they’d been through the system that was built after the New Design For Old show from 30 years ago. It led, in 1991, to the formation of the Design Age research programme, which became the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. Adrian and Clara (Special Projects) had been research associates there and therefore we decided to have them in the show.
The exhibition is accompanied by a nationwide survey – what sort of things will you be attempting to find out?
What I want to do is get people’s interest, we had a seminar before Christmas and it was interesting to see what came out of the survey. What people think of as old, when they think they’re going to die, whether they’d prefer to be cared for by a robot or a human, where they want to retire to. It adds to the richness of the exhibition. 
 
Are you yourself optimistic about ageing? Both personally and for society at large?
Well yes, I’m on the foothills of this. I’m 60 — which in some cultures is classified as old. I don’t feel old, and I want a world in which I can continue to feel connected and productive, and I think design and innovation will help us to do that.
New Old exhibition. Photography by Luke Hayes.
New Old exhibition. Photography by Luke Hayes.
You mentioned that you don’t feel old, what are the key factors in that?
I’m still working, I think that’s quite important. I’m still travelling. It’s the luck of the draw though really, whether you’re healthy or not healthy. When you’re in your sixties and something’s the matter with you you begin to feel your age. When you’re feeling relatively fit you feel younger, and a lot of health issues are simply genetic. I don’t want in later life, when it comes to hospital, home and institutional care, to have the very low standards of design we’ve had before. I want the best designers creating the best environments and devices to support my older age. To do that we’ve got to raise awareness. 

Was your awareness raised by the original exhibition in 1986?
Yes, definitely. I was Editor of Creative Review at the time, and it was all about youth. Even though my parents were much older I didn’t give two hoots about it. I thought design was all about speed and youth — a marketing stereotypical approach. Then I saw this exhibition and thought, “that’s interesting”. Lots of the objects were quite beautiful, and a lot of the things in this exhibition are beautiful too, but it’s much broader, it’s much more provocative and enquiring. Having a fourth plinth idea where you get to talk to older people is fabulous.

Visit NEW OLD: Designing for our Future Selves at the new Design Museum before 19 February.
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