London: “Sneakers Unboxed” and Margaret Calvert @ the Design Museum

That’s right, I’m back to visiting museums again! Unfortunately, my first time in a museum as a visitor since December was a bit of a letdown, but it was my own fault for choosing the exhibition poorly. I pre-booked “Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street” way back in March in hopes that museums would actually be able to open in May, and there weren’t a lot of exhibitions available for booking that far in advance, so I chose something that I would have probably not bothered with otherwise.

 

When the day in May finally arrived, we turned up to the Design Museum at the appointed time and were let straight into the museum after scanning the Test and Trace QR code. The Design Museum gives you a bit more freedom than some other museums in that once you’re in, you’re in, and you’re welcome to look at the free exhibitions as well without booking a separate ticket (unlike at the British Museum, for example). Admission to Sneakers is normally £12.50, but we only paid £6 with Art Pass. The exhibition is located in the basement exhibition gallery where we’ve seen quite a few other things here, and we were the only people in the first room when we walked in; though we were quickly joined by others, it was definitely much less crowded than other exhibitions I’ve been to recently, possibly because we were there on a Monday afternoon.

    

When I booked tickets, I was anticipating that the exhibition would be about the history of sneakers, with maybe some fashion elements thrown in, but it ended up being more like a shrine to the cult of expensive kicks. Honestly, I’m not even super into sneakers – I wear a lot of dresses and jumpsuits and things, so I tend to opt for slightly dressier shoes most of the time, and sandals 100% of the time as soon as it’s warm enough (I hate socks), so I only own a few pairs of sneakers that I wear regularly, which are black Vans slip-ons (I’m wearing them in the photo at the start of this post, but I was still breaking them in and they tore up the backs of my heels so bad that blood started gushing out and pooling in the bottom of my shoes on the way to the museum. Fun!), black Converse high-tops, and black Ash high-tops, which are like a more comfortable version of Converse with buckles instead of laces – so I am probably too boring sneaker-wise to have been the target audience. This was more for the Air Jordan/other overpriced sneakers crowd. Most of the shoes here were the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in my life, especially those white ones, above left, with the giant gross treads. They seriously remind me of the bottom of a horseshoe crab or something else disgusting.

  

Because most of the signage just consisted of a label under each pair of sneakers with their name and date of production, we ended up going through this pretty quickly. The most interesting parts were the section on Converse, because I liked looking at all the old advertising posters and the early models of the shoes from the 1910s and ’20s, and a short video at the end about the evolution of sneaker shapes, which was the only bit of the exhibition with the history I was looking for (and I think the video was part of an advert for a sneaker brand, rather than something the Design Museum had created). There was also a small section about the sustainability of the materials used in sneaker production, and some great photos of various subcultures that placed an emphasis on specific types of sneakers, like hip-hop culture in the 1980s, and intriguingly, a Latin American subculture where teenagers wear clothing featuring religious iconography and elaborately decorated Converse. I would have loved to learn more about these subcultures, particularly the latter group, but I forgot to take a picture of the sign with their name, and Google has gotten me nowhere (I’m not even sure which country these teens are from – I thought it was Mexico, but I could be wrong). The rest of it was decidedly meh, and I was glad we only paid £6. If they had spent more time focusing on the evolution of fashion and the development of the aforementioned subcultures, rather than just displaying loads and loads of sneakers, I think this exhibition could have had some real potential, but as it is, unless you’re really into sneaker collecting, I’d give this a miss. 1.5/5.

 

However, the trip wasn’t a total loss (it wouldn’t have been a total loss anyway, because it gave me an excuse to go to High Street Ken and get reunited with two of my loves – Ben’s Cookies, and chocolate chip muffins from Whole Foods – after an absence of more than a year), because the museum also had a free temporary exhibition on typography, specifically the work of the designer Margaret Calvert, who developed some of the most iconic signs and typefaces in Britain, including a new font for National Rail, the pictograms for British road signs that have been in use since the 1960s, and the typefaces for British airports, British Rail, and the gov.uk website. It’s pretty crazy to think that one person designed so many fonts, especially a woman who started her career in mid-century Britain, and I was completely fascinated by this exhibition. It detailed Calvert’s design process, which involves hand-drawing so she can have more control of design; her desk space, with many quirky signs; and the research that goes into the design process to determine how big fonts have to be, whether they should be all upper case or if upper case and lower case letters should be used, and where signs should be positioned in a train station or airport.

  

I honestly wish this could have been the main special exhibition instead of Sneakers so it could have had a larger space devoted to it and we could have learned even more, because words and fonts are so much more my jam than elaborate sneakers, but I’m glad it was here at all so we could learn about Margaret Calvert (who is still alive – she starred in a short video in the exhibition). Definitely recommend seeing this – it runs until August, and I think you can book a free ticket to see this and the small temporary display on artificial intelligence without having to pay to see Sneakers, which I would advise doing if your footwear preferences are the same as mine.

 

8 comments

    1. I don’t even think these were the kind of sneakers people actually wear. At least, I’ve never seen people walking around in the more ridiculous pairs here. I think you’re just meant to collect them or something, and presumably hide them in your closet because they’re far too ugly to have to look at.

  1. So glad you were able to get out! Even a disappointing exhibit provides a sense of adventure that’s been lacking for so long. I was happy for days after going on my first house tour last month.

    1. I guess that might have been the case if I hadn’t been to anything else, but I’m pretty much back to my old museum visiting schedule now (or at least whilst it lasts, in case we end up back in lockdown again), so this one really didn’t do anything for me. I was far more excited by the muffins and cookies!

  2. Doesn’t sound all that interesting to me, especially as they are ‘trainers’ to me not sneakers. So American. Thank goodness you got the cookies and muffins to make up for it.

    1. My mother calls them “tennis shoes”so that’s what I said when I was younger, but I switched to sneakers to avoid embarrassing myself when I was a teenager. I definitely still say sneakers more often than trainers, but that’s just the American in me.

    1. The pink ones are also hideous, I agree. Bunions is a good description! If I pointed out every pair of ugly sneakers in this exhibition, it would have been about 10,000 words long, so unfortunately, I had to pick and choose.

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