The news that London's Design Museum is about to open a major exhibition devoted to the work of Marc Newson would normally make waves only among the industry's cognoscenti. Design is, after all, something of a minority interest. While the arts pages of all the national broadsheets include regular architecture columns, design is generally relegated to lifestyle sections that have more to do with shopping than serious criticism. Design exists at the intersection of too many other disciplines - fashion, art, engineering, architecture, technology, branding and commerce - to be neatly boxed.
However, the Newson show is different, because design is getting rather a lot of column inches at the moment. Sadly, this has little to do with the Australian designer's playful and often unique work, and instead has to do with a very public squabble at the museum. It goes something like this. James Dyson, he of the renowned bagless vacuum cleaner, has resigned as chairman of the board of trustees, complaining that, under the director Alice Rawsthorn, the Design Museum is "betraying its purpose" and has "become a style showcase". Into the debate has waded Terence Conran, the man who founded the museum and still subsidises it. He broadly supports Dyson's view that the director should concentrate on the technical aspects of how products are made, even telling the Observer that "if things go on as they are, then I can't stay". Raws-thorn, meanwhile, has maintained a diplomatic silence.
Inevitably, the press has characterised the argument as a battle between two distinct camps. On one side are Dyson and Conran arguing for substance and function; on the other are the fashionistas, personified by Rawsthorn, for whom style and form are everything. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Innovative engineering has been vital to Dyson's products, but he's also been careful to make sure they look good. Both his vacuum cleaner and washing machine would pass the Elle Decoration "funky" test, and both have helped shape consumers' increased expectations of such products - that they must work well but also look good, because the brand of washing machine you choose says as much about you as the clothes you wear. Likewise, there can be no doubt of the vital role that Conran has played in changing the way we live, creating products that enhance the quality of consumers' lives. Yet he is also capable of ideas that are expensive and spirit- sapping. Have you ever visited Mezzo on a Friday evening?
Since taking up the position of director of the Design Museum in 2001, Rawsthorn has produced an eclectic mix of shows, and visitor numbers have risen by 20 per cent. In the past 12 months alone, the museum has hosted shows on the graphic designer Peter Saville, the classic E-type Jaguar and the ground-breaking 1960s architectural collective Archigram. Next year, the museum will stage an exhibition devoted to the work of one of the UK's most influential thinkers on architecture, the late Cedric Price. To be sure, the museum has also showcased the hat designer Philip Treacy, the florist Constance Spry and the shoe fetishist Manolo BlahnIk. But to characterise the museum as a south London branch of Gucci is wide of the mark.
The current disagreement would therefore appear to come down to the question of emphasis and a lack of communication rather than to a schism in ideology. It is rumoured that Rawsthorn runs a very tight ship. A former journalist on the Financial Times, she not merely vets but in fact writes all of the museum's press releases. And she has been aggressive in promoting the work of certain designers. Over the past three years, the same names have cropped up time after time: Jasper Morrison, the Bouroullec brothers, Tord Boontje and Newson (who has also been the subject of a book by Rawsthorn). Both Dyson and Conran, who have reportedly felt out of the loop, are wildly successful entrepreneurs, used to having their ideas not only listened to, but acted upon. With this in mind, it's a wonder that a clash hasn't happened long before now.
Will the Newson show deflect some attention away from the wrangling? It's unlikely. The Australian designer is a huge talent who has created a fantasy jet for the Fondation Cartier, Paris, a concept car for Ford and an aluminium bike for Biomega, as well as some of the most iconic products, furniture and interiors of the past decade. Since coming to prominence in the late 1980s with the extraordinary Lockheed Lounge chaise longue, made from fibreglass and beaten metal, Newson has matured into one of the few designers whose influences it is almost impossible to trace. According to the exhibition's curator, Libby Sellers, Newson puts this down to growing up in Australia, where he could "view things fresh without having 150 years of modernist design history shoved down his throat".
That he is one of a clutch of designers feted by the style press is a double-edged sword. On one side, his work is exposed to more potential clients and important commissions; on the other, it is left open to accusations that it is aimed at the rich end of the market. And with one or two exceptions, such as the Dish Doctor washing-up tray for the Italian manufacturer Magis, Newson's work does tend to be expensive and elitist. His furniture is more likely to be seen at a Madonna video-shoot than in the average living room, while his interiors include a recording studio in Tokyo and New York's Lever House restaurant. His awareness of the importance of his image only compounds matters.
For the sake of the museum, I hope the current differences can be sorted out. Rawsthorn has her faults, but she has brought the place to life. The Design Museum is far more vital and controversial than it was under her predecessor, Paul Thompson. Innovations such as Designer of the Year may not be to everyone's taste, but there's no question that this small museum, tucked away in Shad Thames, south London, has become a talking point. As the UK economy has transformed from being manufacturing-based to being service-based, so the role of the design industry has changed. Rawsthorn is right to reflect this, and the museum should be looking at website design, fashion, film credits and gaming alongside the industry's more traditional disciplines. But she needs to make sure she doesn't entirely forget its roots. Conran and Dyson want to apply a brake. It's just a pity they put their feet down so hard.
"Marc Newson" is at the Design Museum, London SE1 (0870 833 9955) from 23 October to 30 January