‘Velvet’ 2006 by  Mårten Medbo; Photograph: Mårten Medbo, 2006

Telling Tales at the V&A

The Honeycomb Vase, Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny and Fig Leaf Wardrobe, Toord Boontje

The Honeycomb Vase, Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny and Fig Leaf Wardrobe, Tord Boontje

Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design
14 July – 18 October
V&A, London
Reviewed by Grant Gibson
Book V&A Publishing £19.99

It would be wrong to say there’s a civil war taking place in the design world at the moment but there is a minor skirmish. On one hand you have designers such as Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa who believe that design should be fundamentally understated and that the media has encouraged an unnecessary (and usually undesirable) flamboyancy. En route we have forgotten that beauty can be found in the most ordinary objects.

On the other is a school of thought, led by a clutch of young Dutch designers, who see design as another form of self-expression. Working on one-off or small batch production pieces, they skate around the fringes of industrial design, fine art and craft. So while Morrison admits that he thinks ‘design is in danger of becoming something false and out of tune with real life, when it could be doing something worthwhile’, Job Smeets says he hopes ‘our work is a little bit artistic because otherwise it would be a little bit boring, it wouldn’t show anything, it wouldn’t be expressive.’

If Morrison and Fukasawa’s 2006 exhibition and book Super Ordinary was a celebration of delightful everyday objects then perhaps Telling Tales, curated by the Royal College of Art’s Gareth Williams, could be seen as a repost. It’s split into three sections. The Forest Glade displays objects inspired by fairytales; The Enchanted Castle investigates work that parodies historical archetypes; and Heaven and Hell showcase products inspired by death and notions of the after life.

It’s trying to fit a lot of ideas into what is actually quite a small show and the finished result is something of a curate’s egg. Some of the work, taken from only a handful of (largely Dutch) designers, is conceptually clever, such as Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny’s The Honeycomb Vase, made by bees swarming over a vase-shaped frame. Some, like Julia Lohmann’s Cow bench and Lasting Void stool, possesses insight. And others, like Tord Boontje’s Fig Leaf wardrobe are beautifully crafted.

By the same token there are pieces that seem pointless – even Williams confesses that the oversized Bella Bettina is not among Marcel Wanders’ finest work. And a handful that stand accused of being indulgent. In its original plywood form Jeroen Verhoeven’s Cinderella table was a wonderful pastiche of an eighteen century commode. But the marble version shown here blunts its satirical edge. In the accompanying book the curator admits that ‘while it demonstrates a virtuoso handling of material, the table loses an element of humility.’

Likewise the exhibition design ranges from the delightful (the magical forest in the opening space) to the irritatingly obtrusive – in the final room a black wall punctured by holes gets between you and the pieces for no good reason. The fact that a large slab of text on the wall of the second space has been printed on a background that renders it all but illegible is a bad mistake too.

However, perhaps the show’s biggest flaw is its curatorial structure. Try as he might Williams can’t quite force all the pieces to fit in his narrative arch. While the first two spaces appear to have some (albeit tenuous) relationship, the fairytale plotline is abruptly dumped for the third room. If the work contains a strong sense of narrative then it seems a shame that their individual stories – which are often amplified fascinatingly in the book – get drowned out by the curator’s artifice.

Over-complicated then and rather too reliant on the same handful of designers, Telling Tales is enjoyable enough and provides some insight into a particular sub-section of contemporary design but doesn’t quite satisfy.

Grant Gibson is the editor of Crafts magazine



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