Obituary: Moira Gemmill FRIBA FRSA, arts and design visionary

Born: 18 September, 1959, in Campbeltown, Argyll. Died: 9 April, 2015, in London, aged 55

Moira Gemmill FRIBA FRSA: Scottish arts and design leader who transformed the fortunes of the V and A. Picture: Graham Jepson
Moira Gemmill FRIBA FRSA: Scottish arts and design leader who transformed the fortunes of the V and A. Picture: Graham Jepson

AMONG the many tributes to Moira Gemmill, the arts and design visionary killed in a cycling tragedy, was one that succinctly summed up what made her so gifted and successful: she had a “laser-focused passion”.

That ability to penetrate right to the heart of an issue, with clarity and unbounded enthusiasm, was undoubtedly a major factor in both her emergence as a highly respected champion of design on the international stage and in making one of the UK’s most loved institutions a global leader in museum 

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Best known for her work at the V&A, she had led the transformation of its galleries and facilities in an ambitious programme of restoration and renewal but had recently left the museum for a prestigious new role with the Royal Collection Trust, a post for which she was rumoured to have been hand-picked by Her Majesty the Queen.

Yet it was a career trajectory that had begun more than 30 years earlier in the rather more mundane fringes of the North Sea oil industry.

She was born into a Kintyre farming family and already had an artistic streak in her background thanks to a grandmother and aunt who had both attended Glasgow School of Art. After developing a flair for design at school – she was educated at Carradale Primary and Campbeltown Grammar – she too embarked on studies at the Glasgow School of Art, taking an art and design degree and specialising in graphic design and photography.

She graduated in 1981 at a time when jobs in her field were scarce and eventually moved to Aberdeen after securing work as an illustrator on a technical magazine for the offshore oil industry.

It was, she said, “excruciatingly boring” and, along with some friends, she subsequently set up a company publishing a magazine, Citygirl. However, a slump in the oil industry put paid to that venture and her next job was to take her into the realm where she would really make her mark – she went to work for Aberdeen Art Gallery.

The gallery, which holds a number of fine collections, was fairly forward-thinking and she absolutely adored the new opportunity. Working in various different roles, mainly planning and implementing exhibitions, she was involved from 1988 in mounting many temporary displays in the gallery and at the city’s Maritime Museum.

After a decade at the gallery she left Aberdeen as head of exhibitions and moved to the post of head of design and exhibitions at the Museum of London, where she spent three years.

Then in 2002 she joined the Victoria and Albert Museum as head of design, where she established and implemented a new graphic style for the V&A, developed design strategies for FuturePlan projects and rebuilt the in-house team of 2D and 3D designers.

Projects included major exhibitions such as those about Art Deco and Vivienne Westwood as well as new galleries for paintings, photography, metalwork, prints and drawings and portrait miniatures.

One of the first changes she oversaw was restoring the integrity of the iconic V&A logo which she described as “a beautiful piece of typography that had been relegated to a little nook in the corner.” She ensured that the instantly identifiable image became central to every piece of printed material the museum produced and acknowledged, in a Scotsman interview: “People love that logo and they love this museum but when I arrived the place didn’t feel very loved, it felt slightly tired around the edges.”

But under her dynamic guidance that all changed and the great institution was infused with a new vibrancy. In December 2005 she was appointed the V&A’s director of projects and design, with overall responsibility for the ongoing planning and implementation of the museum’s ambitious FuturePlan development to redesign and renew its permanent galleries and visitor services.

She had a vast portfolio of projects which included the Sacred Silver and Stained Glass gallery; the V&A shop and café; the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art; Sculpture 1300-1600; the Sackler Centre for arts education; the William and Judith Bollinger Jewellery Gallery plus galleries of Theatre and Performance, Ceramics, Medieval and Renaissance, Fashion and Furniture as well as the Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Weston Cast Court, home to a collection of the finest 19th-century reproductions of important Italian Renaissance monuments.

She was also the project lead for the new V&A Museum of Design Dundee, due to be completed in 2017, and was instrumental in the ongoing V&A projects to develop Exhibition Road and create a new entrance, courtyard and exhibition galleries and the Europe Galleries 1600-1800.

Martin Roth, director of the V&A, said the impact she had made in transforming the museums galleries and facilities was extraordinary. “I cannot overstate Moira’s remarkable contribution in making the V&A the global leader in museum design that it is today.”

This January she was thrilled to take up a new position with the Royal Collection Trust as director, capital programmes. Based at St James’s Palace, she was responsible for planning and delivering major capital programmes at Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

An Honorary Fellow of Royal Institute of British Architects, she had been a judge for the Architects Journal’s Women in Architecture Awards since their launch in 2011 and believed in creating a more equal playing field for women in the profession.

A director of Dundee Design Limited (V&A at Dundee) and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, she was also a former board member of the US-based Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD).

She was instrumental in the society’s 2012 International Symposium, moderating sessions held at the V&A and sharing her perspective gained from working with some of the world’s top architects, designers and engineers on FuturePlan projects.

“You couldn’t be in Moira’s presence for more than a few minutes on a phone call or in person to realise she had something very special to offer,” said Clive Roux, SEGD chief executive.

“I have met very few people who were more impressive. Moira had the ability to see through all the issues and bring a sharp clarity to any conversation very quickly. It is little wonder that she was such a big player in the London art and design community.”

Though her high-powered position took her all over the world she returned, when she could, to Kintyre, where she grew up overlooking the Kilbrandon Sound, and to the family to whom she was an absolutely extraordinary and inspirational yet modest woman.

She is survived by her parents Helen and John, brother Andrew, sister Jennifer and nieces and nephews.


Christopher Breward: “Moira’s wit and conviction did much to challenge ingrained complacency”

Wisitors to the United Kingdom’s national museums have over recent decades grown used to experiencing a sense of awe. Entrance halls, galleries and exhibition spaces have been transformed from the cluttered, faded and slightly dusty haunts beloved by previous generations into limpid and inspirational spaces of wonder.

The loss of Moira Gemmill, whose work and vision were so crucial to the delivery of that change at Aberdeen Art Gallery, the Museum of London and the Victoria & Albert Museum will be dearly felt by the museum community in England and Scotland.

It was in her role as director of design and FuturePlan projects at the V&A, and the crucial part she played in progressing work on the specification of V&A Dundee that Moira’s legacy resides. She brought an incredibly strong design aesthetic to an institution that was radically re-forming itself for 21st-century audiences.

Through her stewardship of major projects including the subtle redesign of the axial sculpture gallery, the re-focusing of the formerly gloomy subterranean tunnel entrance, the sophisticated fitting out of the shop and café with its historic Morris, Poynter and Gamble rooms, the creation of education spaces and lecture theatres fit for contemporary learning practices, the glorious creation of medieval and renaissance, ceramics, metalwork and mosaic, fashion, and furniture galleries, Moira demonstrated keen leadership skills and impeccable taste.

Educated at Glasgow School of Art, she honed an intuitive understanding of the power of historic interiors, the history of 20th-century modernism and the excitement of contemporary design culture.

At South Kensington her approach pulled these passions together, bringing out the V&A’s inherent beauty through simple solutions that never overwhelmed the objects on display, but instead enhanced our appreciation of them – providing a calm spatial coherence.

There is both subtlety and glamour in, for example, the revelation of the intricate mosaic floor across the ground floor of the museum, unifying its confusing architectural plan; or the stunning application of gold leaf and translucent onyx marble to suggest the splendour and magnificence of medieval and renaissance cultures.

Under Moira’s watch, working with some of the world’s most successful and innovative architectural and design practices (no mean feat in itself), the V&A found an unprecedented confidence in its identity that both brought in and thrilled hugely expanded visitor numbers.

Moira brought the same exceptional standards to her work with director Phil Long and architect Kengo Kuma at Dundee, where this same sensibility promises to imbue the new building with a sublime and transformational quality.

But it is perhaps in her human contributions that Moira also leaves such a positive influence in the world of museum design. She was an influential figure, both with her peers and with junior colleagues, fiercely supportive of the career development of young women.

The museum and architecture professions are often caricatured as conservative fields of practice, but Moira’s wit and conviction did much to challenge ingrained complacency. It is deeply tragic that her new role at the Royal Palaces had only just begun, but the huge material achievements of her career will ensure that future generations of designers and curators have a formidable benchmark against which to measure themselves.

• Christopher Breward is principal of Edinburgh College of Art at the University of Edinburgh and a trustee of the National Museums of Scotland. He worked at the V&A between 2004-2011.