The new design of the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft by Adam Richards


For many decades, the English Rural Museum was a typology undisturbed by architects. All of this of course changed with the idea that a museum could be a destination in its own right, a piece of architecture equal to or even greater than the value of the collections it contained.

Nestled in the rolling East Sussex landscape, the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft seemed even less concerned with appearances than most. Former village school, reinforced by the gentle build-up of two decades, the museum has brought together art, crafts and design, building on the village’s long-standing association with some of the key figures in art applied, design and sculpture of the early twentieth century.

Last week, the revamped museum has been officially opened by Sir Nicholas Serota. Rebuilt, re-hung, reorganized and completely transformed, the new museum buildings were designed by Adam Richards Architects, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. They lasted for five years, after winning in competition in 2008.

Richards’ approach is one of unification and restoration, with new construction carefully sandwiched between existing structures. Previously, the museum had entered through St Margarets Cemetery, but Richards, working with project architect Sam Dawkins, reversed the focus, transforming a carefully restored 18th-century cart lodge into an entrance, café and a shop, leading to the main gallery reorganized via a connecting building clad in terracotta.

The original orientation of the museum has been reversed, transforming a carefully restored 18th-century cart pavilion into an entrance, café and shop, leading to the reorganized main gallery via a terracotta-clad connecting building

Richards describes the commission as “a great pleasure,” and the architecture is domestic and meticulous in detail, despite the tight budget. He talks about trying to “imbue the museum with the spirit of his collection,” a process that begins simply and honestly with the cart hut restored, stripped of its bones and rebuilt – “pinched and tucked away” – in a sort of way. rustic pavilion, the first floor cut to reveal the beams above and a window placed just so as to give a view of the church. Richards visited a wide variety of museums to research the work, from Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge to the Neues Museum in Chipperfield in Berlin, but in the end it was the West Sussex vernacular that won out, as well as a soft, earthy color palette – grays, browns and reds.

The domestic ladder is carried out through the new connecting building, at the top of a tapered concrete staircase and clad on the outside with terracotta tiles. From here one enters a new gallery building, a zinc-clad barn form with a single large window overlooking the village pond. Here, the architects built a large display case – a wunderkammer – which alludes to the collection inside and its connection to village life.

Ditchling’s pivotal artist is of course Eric Gill, the deeply complex and devout Catholic scholar and typographer. Gill arrived in Ditchling in 1907, and from that point on, the small village became home to a group of artists and artisans who remained true to the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. Often pious and otherworldly – Gill established the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic in Ditchling and ritual, liturgy and prayer were an integral part of their lives – and certainly artistic and eccentric by modern standards, the artists were also devoted to the highest levels of craftsmanship and quality.

The architects’ approach was one of unification and restoration, with new construction carefully sandwiched between existing structures

The main gallery, planned and furnished by Richards with signage and guidance by Phil Baines, showcases the lives and work of key community players – Gill, Edward Johnston, Hilary Pepler, David Jones, Desmond Chute, Philip Hagreen, Edgar Holloway, Ethel Mairet and Hilary Bourne (who established the museum in 1985).

Perhaps they would have remained marginal but revered figures in art history, had it not been for their impact on the look and feel of modern life. Edward Johnston, who had taught Gill and arrived at Ditchling in 1912, is best known for shaping the typography and identity of the London Underground, having been commissioned by Frank Pick in 1913, while the typeface of Gill, Gill Sans, is still widely used.

The Museum of Art + Craft looks both timely and old-fashioned, replacing the ad hoc, ramshackle arrangement of the original buildings with a sleeker, crisper, and crisper version of the original, filled with the analog totems of the digital age – typeface, sculpture, craftsmanship, honesty and virtue. The printing press itself, once the center of the community, is given a reverent location, an altarpiece associated with alcoves containing the tools, materials and output of the Ditchling press.

Richards and his team use architecture to allude to the divine in the ordinary, giving a modern audience, largely secular, just a taste of the motivations and obsessions that have shaped a very singular community.

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