Tim Marlow’s Beautiful Obsession

The Director of The Design Museum Brings His Love of Football to a New Exhibition

Editorial Team20 May 2022

Sitting in front of a computer screen in his Kensington office, Tim Marlow, chief executive and director of London’s The Design Museum, can barely contain his excitement. Two weeks away from the April 8th opening of Football: Designing the Beautiful Game, he’s knee deep with his team in the work of mounting the exhibition, an ambitious multimedia immersive presentation of videos, sounds, ephemera and historical collections that will explore the game of football in an unexpected and innovative way: through the lens of design. 


The exhibit will eventually garner rave reviews from British media – “a wonderful reminder of why football is still a magical game.” However, when we spoke to Marlow, he had other things on his mind besides critics and their reactions. 


Earlier that day, he’d opened a box filled with one of the exhibition's prized collections–actual football jerseys worn by icons of what’s arguably the world’s most popular sport (the last World Cup was watched by 3.5 billion people!). Inside was a football Holy Grail: the shirt actually worn by the Brazilian icon, Pele. 


Marlow lowers his voice conspiratorially and chuckles: “Well, it's unethical and of course I wouldn't do it but I can tell you the temptation to make sure that no one was looking and slip it on was very strong. I promise you, though, I resisted.” 


For Marlow, a keen football fan (and Chelsea supporter from boyhood) this show is much more than a museum exhibition – it’s the culmination of a lifelong passion. He shared some of his thoughts about the exhibit, the game, and its culture. 



How did the idea for this show get started? 


Marlow: I have to confess that I'm a football obsessive. So it's obviously something close to my heart. When I joined the museum in January 2020. I had a meeting quite early on and we were looking at some ideas and football was one of them. Gradually we all realized that this could be a big show…No one's ever looked at the great global game of football through the lens of design. We programmed it pretty quickly because one of the things that the Design Museum should be doing is expanding audiences but also using design as a way of looking at different aspects of culture, reflecting how design permeates so much of our culture, in fact, all aspects of it.  



Football is such a huge subject. How did you decide to organize the exhibit? 


Marlow: We have five themes: performance, identity, crowds, spectacle and play. Performance looks at the kits (the uniforms) but also at the body. Over the years, exercise and training regimes have fundamentally changed the body types of footballers, and so the look of the game and the way that the kit has been designed changed with the body. 


The second is identity and that's focused on the clubs’ graphic identity. Jersey design comes in here, because that's actually how you identify the different teams’ players. The third section is crowds. And that's where we also look at a brief history of stadiums. The fourth is spectacle–  tournament play, and the technology and the massive mediation of football as a live streaming and spectator sport, to “virtual” football, that is, online digital gaming. 



Modern football was invented in Britain in the mid 19th century as an upper class, public school pastime. But it became a working class entertainment, and eventually a global sport. How do material artifacts like the kits and the equipment reflect these changes over time? 


Marlow: One example is that public school elite teams used to wear blazers and white trousers. But when it became popular with the working class, some clubs cut the trousers off at the knees to give them more flexibility. These clubs were ridiculed by their upper class public school opponents, because it was seen as “unmanly”. You might argue it is more “manly” to be playing with short trousers – it's really comical from our eyes. 



What aspects of football’s design culture have remained similar over the years, despite the great changes in the game and its expanded global audience? 


Marlow: It’s interesting to look at something like the football scarf, which became part of fan culture because football was emphatically a British autumn and winter and spring game and we have long winters in this country. You think that fans in tropical countries like Kenya for example wouldn't have football scarfs. But they do. And I mean, they don't wrap them around their neck, they’re waving them in the stands.  



The fans are such an important element of the game. What role do you think design plays in attracting people to football? 


Marlow: There's no doubt that people's love affair with a club at the beginning has something to do with the design. Sometimes it's going to the stadium for the first time, seeing the whole spectacle of the game: the kits, the graphics, the sounds. 


My own love affair with Chelsea began because my younger brother had been given a blue and white scarf. So he was looking for a team to support whose colors were blue and white and decided Chelsea was it. He chose them, so I thought, well I'll choose a different club. Then I realized that my passion was for Chelsea, so I said to my brother, right you can't support Chelsea anymore. They’re my club. 



Football, particularly in the UK, is so very partisan, isn’t it? You’re almost required to choose the club – and since we’re talking about design, the colors and logos – you support from birth! 


Marlow: It does strike me that our cultural approach to football in Britain is quite “of the moment'', and “now”. And also tribal. So many small museums of football are only interesting to the fans of a particular team because of obsessive tribalism. So, for instance, the Manchester United museum is for fans of Manchester United and very focused on that. The interesting thing that we're trying to do with our exhibit is disperse and examine some of the tribalism. To try and appeal to people who actually are interested in the game or remind them why they love the game itself, rather than a particular team. Focusing on design has given us a way to look at that bigger picture. 



What would you like the museum goer to take away from Football: Designing the Beautiful Game?  


Marlow: I hope it would tell them things about areas of the game they thought they knew, or that it might make them look at football in a slightly different way. Which is always what a good exhibition should do. And I'd love for them to understand the richness of the game that they're so much a part of. 



Football: Designing the Beautiful Game will be at The Design Museum in Kensington, London, from 8 April - 29 August 2022. 


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