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Design Museum Boston gets a home on the waterfront

The interior of Design Museum Boston.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The interior of Design Museum Boston.

Sam Aquillano knows that design, in all its forms, is all around us. He also knows that it’s something people often ignore.

“Design is so ubiquitous, but ubiquity is its downfall,” said Aquillano, cofounder and executive director of Design Museum Boston. “People only think about design when it’s bad.”

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That’s why, since he founded the nonprofit with friend Derek Cascio in 2009, Aquillano has made it Design Museum’s mission to highlight design’s important role in people’s everyday lives. Rather than operating out of a centralized space, the museum has spent the past four years living by the motto “Design is everywhere. So are we.” The organization has staged pop-up exhibitions around the city, from galleries and outdoor venues to public spaces like City Hall and Logan Airport.

Now however, Design Museum has a permanent brick-and-mortar location near the waterfront to call home. A donation by real estate firm The Chiofaro Company, the museum’s new headquarters — a former bank off Atlantic Avenue that has sat empty for years — opened last month.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Executive director Sam Aquillano, who founded the organization with friend Derek Cascio in 2009.

“The gift that Chiofaro gave us has propelled us forward in amazing ways,” said Aquillano, a former product designer for Bose. “Since we’ve opened, it has been great.”

Besides serving as a home base for citywide exhibits — like last year’s “Street Seats: Reimagining the Public Bench,” which put uniquely designed benches on display around Fort Point Channel — the new location has room to host small events and showcase current exhibits. Minutes away from the Aquarium, Children’s Museum, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, the museum — not to mention the gift shop, which offers everything from jewelry and alarm clocks to children’s toys and T-shirts — has been steadily drawing people in and bolstering membership.

Design Museum’s transition from a little-known presence to a permanent organization may be indicative of an increasing public awareness of design as both an art form and a central element of everyday life.

“Understanding the role of design as a key component in two areas — in cultural life and in the ecology of how the world works — is so important,” said Dawn Barrett, president of Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “Everything we touch has a man-made interface, and bringing that tangibility into daily life is the great strength of the museum.”

For the local design community, having a design-related museum — one of few in the country — makes perfect sense.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Furniture on display outside.

“In Massachusetts and particularly Boston, we have some of the strongest in the design field,” said Barrett, who serves on the museum’s board of directors. “People may think of cities like New York, Chicago, and LA, but Boston’s always been the design brain.”

Aquillano hopes the growing museum will help establish Boston as a design hub in people’s minds.

“There’s over 60,000 designers in Massachusetts, and their [products] go around the world,” said Aquillano. “When you look at design, that’s one of Boston’s major exports, along with technology, financial services, and health care.”

To help heighten that awareness, the museum has a multitude of plans in the works, including expanding its programming and operations beyond Boston. With the opening of a sister location in Portland, Ore., last fall, Design Museum has officially become the head of a national network that hopes to have a presence in other US cities down the road.

Back in Boston, the museum will soon host an open design competition to decorate the columns outside its space, and the next exhibit, “Better Business by Design,” will be on display in the Innovation and Design Building starting in July. In the meantime, Aquillano and his team are planning a big five-year anniversary for later this summer.

“We’re so excited to make it to the five-year mark,” he said. “And I think this is just the beginning.”

A view from the gift shop.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

A view from the gift shop.

Design Museum is located at 70 East India Row. Eryn Carlson can be reached at eryn.carlson@globe.com.
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