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What is Luxury? blog

A blog looking at the themes of the Crafts Council and V&A exhibition What is Luxury?

This blog looks at some of the themes of the current Crafts Council and V&A exhibition What is Luxury? on at the V&A until 27 September 2015.

And for more exploration of craft’s complex relationship with luxury Crafts magazine's May/June issue is a special Luxury edition.

Interview with Iris van Herpen - Leanne Wierzba
18 September 2015

What is Luxury? exhibition, V&A

Leanne Wierzba: Thank you for agreeing to meet with me to discuss your work, in particular the dress that you have loaned to us for What is Luxury? – designed in collaboration with architect Philip Beesley for the Voltage Haute Couture collection. I am so pleased that we were able to include this piece, as it has facilitated our discussion of luxury as innovation, experimentation, risk-taking and time investment in the making of objects – all principles that the dress and your design practice more generally embody so well. Could you start off by telling me a bit more about the concept for the collection?

Iris van Herpen: The inspiration for the Voltage collection came from Carlos Van Camp, an artist from New Zealand who is known for his experiments with the Tesla Coil. He will actually stand on top of it, using his body as a conductor for the electricity. He has worked on many of the details about how to do this. I was in contact with him while working on the collection.

At the same time, I also went more into my own body. I was reading a lot about the way that we use the energy inside of us. We have a massive amount of energy trapped in our bodies that we are not really that good at accessing. So, on the one hand I was doing research into technical aspects of electricity and how we use it in our daily lives, and also in a work of art. At the same time, I had questions about whether human beings can get any better about finding these levels of energy that we have inside of us.

Dress Detail, Voltage Haute Couture, Iris van Herpen, 2013. Image courtesy of the V&A

How does this research translate into clothing?

I think there is an interesting relationship between clothes and the human body, in that wearing different clothing can definitely create some form of energy. It is psychological and very strong. I used to dance a lot, so movement, energy, its transformation within the body and how you can control this has always been very fascinating for me. With Voltage, I dived into that subject directly.

Would you say that the biggest barriers to accessing this energy are psychological?

Totally – and also our daily lives are not really based on movement anymore, which has a lot of influence on our psychological health. I find this true in my own life – I used to dance a lot but now it’s much more inside my head. I’m hoping to find that balance again, because I think there is a lot of energy and also knowledge inside our movement and bodies. I feel that it is an important balance and that a lot of people are missing it.

Dress, Voltage Haute Couture, Iris van Herpen, 2013, Paris.

The placement of signature embellishments across the entire surface of the Voltage dress appears to make the dress quite challenging to sit in. Is this an inbuilt incentive to keep moving?

Well, it is easy to sit in, in the sense that it is light and flexible. However, if you sit in it, the back will be flat. The piece is really not made to be perfect. Each of the individual shapes is meant to be a little bit different – they are so delicate that they need to shift about a bit. This really helps to create the feeling of energy and movement. It gives the impression of static electricity.

The catwalk presentation pushed this concept of electricity even further. It was quite dramatic. At the centre of the room, a model stood on top of a Tesla Coil and you could actually see the electric discharge shooting from her body like lightening. What does the experience of standing on the Tesla Coil feel like?

I only know from her experience. I still want to do it myself but it wasn’t the right timing. She said it was one of the most beautiful things that you can ever experience.  You can literally see the electricity coming out of your nose and even out of your eyes. The way she described it was really inspiring. It was a special moment because the show was her first time, and it was also the first time that we made a garment for that purpose. We worked on it for two or three months.

Did she not have to rehearse extensively in advance of the catwalk?

There was only one rehearsal the day before the show. But you work toward it for a number of months, and then there is no way back! The first time, Sarah started to cry because what she saw was so beautiful.

Voltage was also really special because it was the first time I collaborated on a collection with Philip Beesley. The collection before, Hybrid Holism, had been inspired by his work. When he saw it, he contacted me.

That is incredible synergy. It’s almost as though Hybrid Holism was your siren call.

Maybe unconsciously. I would have never expected to work with him. But there was such a match that we still work together today.

You regularly collaborate with architects and artists on your collections. This seems to enable you to experiment with ideas, materials and techniques that are relatively alien to most fashion practitioners. Your collaboration with Beesley seems to hold a particular significance. 

There are different types of collaboration. They are often very functional. Usually I collaborate with architects because I want to work on a certain file and they are specialists on it, so there is a really fixed goal. But with Philip, we didn’t have a specific purpose in mind. It was just that basic fact that we were really fascinated by each other and by each other’s work. There is so much to find in each other’s process that it’s much more like the foundation for a long-term collaboration.

So, you would describe your collaboration as quite experimental?

It’s very hands on. We can literally sit together with materials and if nothing comes out of it, it’s fine because we learn so much from working together. A lot of our experiments don’t end up in a collection or in a piece of art. Of course some of them do, but it’s really driven by excitement and curiosity. The material development is always continuing. Ideas might slowly evolve over time and mature until they come out again at another point. That’s why it is ongoing even if there isn’t a specific project.

The mesh structures on the Voltage dress seem to come directly out of the lexicon of Beesley’s own architectural practice, in which natural motifs and synthetic materials are used to build immersive environments that act like living, breathing things.

He creates a lot of leaf-like structures in his work. However, the shapes on the dress were specifically made for the collection. They are really inspired by the voltage aesthetic, or at least that is my interpretation of it. They are soft and very delicate but also have this spikey touch to them that adds an edginess.  They have been made to visualise this abstract idea of electricity, movement and energy. Of course, they also have a delicate touch and feathery feeling, so I really tried to find that balance.

Voltage Haute Couture, Iris van Herpen, 2013, Paris

That’s interesting to hear, because I’ve noticed that people tend to interpret them in a few different ways. One colleague exclaimed how the dress would not have been anything unfamiliar to an Edwardian lady – the polyester laser cut forms replace feather trim.  Your work seems to bring together almost opposing influences, from nature and science to traditional dressmaking and new technology.

I’m very inspired by nature – of course, because it is the creation all around us. At the same time, I am not very interested in using materials directly from nature. I am not a very exotic person and wouldn’t use feathers or precious stones. I like using them as an inspiration, but then recreating them myself. I think this piece is a good example of that. It has some sort of feathery touch in it, but I would never apply actual feathers onto a dress, because it would not be my own language.

I am also very inspired by technology – well, ‘inspired’ is a big word. It definitely is part of my work. It’s maybe not directly the inspiration but it is one of my tools. Like the various handcrafting techniques that I use – technology is equal to that. They are both part of the toolbox that I use to create the ideas and concepts. It’s not that one of them is more important – I think that they are very blended in my way of thinking.

Last year you came to London to launch an artwork produced in collaboration with Jólan van der Wiel. At the time, you expressed interest in continuing to produce artwork alongside your fashion practice. I’m curious to know how this has evolved. Do you see yourself as an artist, a fashion designer or a designer more generally? Do these distinctions hold any interest for you, or do you not frame your work in that way?

For me, it is not so important to give words to these things. However, it is also important to define the area in which you specifically work. I see myself as a fashion designer, but I also think that today you don’t only need to be creating clothes. I definitely create space for other disciplines. If I look at the people around me where I work, they are more and more defining their own areas. An architect is not always an architect anymore, and a designer is not always thinking about furniture.

Today, it is so easy to connect to others and this really helps to break open routines. I do like to focus myself toward fashion, because I feel that I still have a lot freedom within that little bubble. But I do need to break free at some points, to really open up the way that I go through my process. Because, for example, when I work with Philip or Jólan, they bring different skills and their process – in terms of timing and development – is so different to fashion. It really helps me to find more space in my own work.

In the exhibition, we have organised objects into small groupings in relation to a specific term. Your dress falls under ‘non-essential.’ For me, this term is a bit of an oxymoron, as there is something fundamentally human about wanting to push beyond what is merely essential for survival or general well-being. It seems like an essential quality of your work that it is risk-taking and pushes beyond expectation. Is this something that is a necessity or luxury for you?

Well, that’s an interesting conversation, because what is essential and what isn’t? I think it’s so personal. For one person what is essential could be totally nonsense for another. For me, my work and fashion in general is essential. I like playing with it because that’s where the border between fashion and art is shifting. In its essence, fashion is a product and it’s functional, but it has also been interpreted so widely that it can go in any direction. I think that freedom is important to take. In my own work, I often will start a dress without a clear idea of the end result and purpose in mind. It’s not really about that; it’s about the process of getting there.

When I present my collection, it’s for people. But the process of getting there is a very personal one, and at that stage its only purpose is me and the people around me. So that’s a really strange shift, between what’s non-essential for others and very essential for myself to the other way around, where it becomes nonsense for myself, which I like. I think that’s a beautiful thing about fashion as well, that it creates its own life after I have made it – which is really important for me, because I don’t like to be attached to materiality too much.

What is Luxury? exhibition, V&A

Would you say that it is the process of creating something that motivates you to produce new work?

It’s very dualistic in that sense. I think the reason I started in fashion and making things was really because I am very inspired by materials – experimenting with them and creating the metamorphosis in my own hands. For me, it is about the process and that magical moment of transforming something into something else, and the devotion of time in that. But at the same time, I’m not attached to materiality in the later stages. When something is finished, I can really enjoy seeing it or using it, but I’m not really attached. Maybe I’m just mostly fascinated about things that are transforming. So, materials that have the potential of something else.

Leanne Wierzba is curator at the V&A and editor of Under the Influence magazine


Monkey Business - Leanne Wierzba
21 July 2015

While luxury is often marketed and understood in the media through objects – produced by designers and brands notable for their heritage, prestige and sophistication – selecting objects that enabled us to interrogate the concept of luxury in an exhibition format became one of our greatest challenges. On the one hand, there are so many extraordinary examples of objects from within the museum’s own collections which have a deep resonance with contemporary understandings of luxury – far too many to be contained within one exhibition. Another challenge is that objects are not inherently luxurious, and are only ascribed with luxury in relation to their use, interpretation and perceived value within a social context. Furthermore, in any given context, the meaning and value of an object can be multivalent and ultimately ambiguous. What is it about an object that makes it luxurious? In ascribing luxury to an object, what definitions and values are being prioritised, and by whom?

Monkey Business by Studio Job is the type of object that raises exactly these sorts of questions. Described as a ‘shimmering sculpture’ by the designers, it is a large gilded bronze trunk, LED-lit from within, adorned with a monkey. The monkey is encrusted in Swarovski crystals and wearing a small red hat with a golden tassel, in the style of a fez. He is straddling the top of the trunk, his fingers clasped around its lid, with an expression of surprise painted across his face. One wonders what the monkey is up to: is he shielding or is he stealing the treasures concealed within? The position of his fingers prevents the trunk from closing, subverting its essential function of protecting its contents. The name Monkey Business, with its references to illicit and illegal behaviour, further arouses suspicion about the monkey engaging in a surreptitious act.

The monkey is a longstanding motif within European art and design since at least the 17th century. ‘Singerie’ emerged as a genre of satirical painting, in which monkeys were depicted ‘aping’ human behaviour. The Flemish painter David Teniers the Younger was particularly active in the genre, completing hundreds of paintings of monkeys at ale-houses, smoking parties, concerts and barbershops. The monkeys are often dressed in fashionable attire, as the paintings aimed to parody the most elegant and powerful in society. Singerie was marked by a distinctly anti-establishment tone, with the monkey representing the persistence of mankind’s more duplicitousness and base instincts – particularly at the higher end of the social order. Singerie motifs became popular across the decorative arts, featuring extensively as part of the 18th century French Rococo interior.

‘Monkey Business,’ Studio Job, 2013 (c) Studio Job

The organ grinder’s monkey emerged in the early 1900s and again captured the popular imagination. Organ grinders were novelty street performers who travelled throughout the working class neighbourhoods of New York and Europe, ‘grinding out’ popular tunes from the day for spare change. They were often accompanied by a small monkey who was used to draw in crowds and collect money from a tin cup. The organ grinders were almost universally regarded with wariness and disdain, the horribly atonal noise they generated viewed as an annoyance and their work as a thinly veiled pretext for extorting money from passersby. The monkeys often appeared as an extension of their shadiness and cunning. Typically dressed in a coloured vest and small hat resembling a fez, the monkey also embodied many occidental fears and suspicions regarding the ‘oriental’ other.

While organ grinding has long ceased to be a common profession, the organ grinder monkey continues as a recurrent figure in popular culture. It was immortalised as Charley Chimp, a mechanical cymbal-banging toy manufactured from the 1950s to 1970s, and was also the inspiration for the character of Apu in Disney’s Aladdin – a comically volatile monkey thief who becomes the protagonist’s sidekick. While he is depicted as a loyal companion to Aladdin, he nevertheless remains an adept pickpocket with an unconquerable penchant for precious jewels.

By virtue of its visual references, Studio Job’s showy monkey can also be understood as an extension of these historic depictions, embodying the physical characteristics and guile of the organ grinder monkey and perhaps also mirroring our own base desires. Additionally, the object as a whole can be read as a postmodern expression of the history of empire. The fez, for example, originates from Morocco but became a symbol of the Ottoman Empire in 1832 under Mahmud II, to be worn by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as a gesture of unity. In 1925, a Hat Law was passed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to outlaw the wearing of the fez in modern Turkey, decrying it as a symbol of Ottoman decadence. On the other hand, the monkey whose ‘Turkishness’ it might be deemed to imply is in fact modelled after the capuchin monkey, which originates from Central and South America. They were given their name by the Spanish conquistadors after the Order of Capuchin Friars on account of their dark ‘cloaked’ bodies and pale faces. The trunk’s blue and white ceramic handles reference traditional Delftware, introduced in the Netherlands as a substitute for more expensive imported Chinese porcelain in the 17th century. The raised pattern which adorns the trunk’s gilded surface derives from Studio Job’s own lexicon and is an assembly of recognisable icons including cow skulls, dollar signs and wine goblets.

With its assemblage of symbols and signalling, Monkey Business remains open to multiple interpretations. It playfully resists easy classification, relating to style and function, instead raising a number of questions about its intended audience and meaning. What does the use of extravagant materials communicate about the object’s value? Is its opulence to be taken at face value, or as a subversive commentary on ideas of conspicuousness and taste? What are the motivations of the designer to create such an object? Who is this object for?

These are among the questions that we will be asking during an evening event at the museum. On Friday 17 July, we will be joined by Job Smeets of Studio Job and Jan Boelen, Director of Z33 and Head of the Social Design Programme at Design Academy Eindhoven, to discuss his design practice and its relationship to definitions of 21st century luxury.

Leanne Wierzba is curator at the V&A and editor of Under the Influence magazine


Funeral of a Swallow: Attaché Case by Studio Ruuger - Leanne Wierzba
4 June 2015

‘Exclusivity’ is one of twenty-one terms employed throughout What is Luxury? These terms, non-hierarchical and far from providing a comprehensive set of definitions, serve as an entry-point into the complex subject of the exhibition and a tool for interpreting objects which could be described as luxury as a result of the context of their production. In the first section of the exhibition, ‘Creating Luxury,’ this is presented in terms of investment in time –in research as well as making- and application of exemplary skill. Objects which pay homage to traditional design archetypes and techniques as well as objects embodying extraordinary levels of innovation and risk-taking have been included. Within this section, objects have been organised under the terms in a series of juxtapositions in order to extend definitions and expand on contemporary understanding.

Exclusivity is not just about the status conferred on (or withheld from) individuals in relation their social standing and economic status. Exclusivity also results from the cultivation of specialist knowledge and niche interests. It can engender feelings of belonging to a larger group but is often something very personal and specific to the individual. Exclusivity can be understood in relation to the process of connoisseurship, cultivated in the making and development of unique objects as well as in their selection. We have chosen an attaché case by Studio Ruuger as one of the objects to represent this term.

Studio Ruuger is run by Oliver Ruuger and Volker Koch in De Beauvior Town, a small pocket of trendy East London where many artisanal businesses still run from small workshops amidst rapid large-scale development and gentrification of the surrounding area. Their small studio has been operating there for just over a year, though Ruuger and Koch have been working together on the label since shortly after graduating from the MA Fashion Artefact programme at London College of Fashion in 2011. Ruuger’s graduation collection featured conventional men’s accessories, such as umbrellas and briefcases, though with a subversive twist: long leather-clad quills and brass studs envelop the exterior of a briefcase, bringing the question of its functionality into sharp relief; a stunning umbrella, of which Ruuger has developed each of the components himself, has an elaborately twisted handle adorned with a thick lock of horse hair. The collection garnered considerable critical attention and was awarded ‘Accessories Collection of the Year’ at ITS (International Talent Support) 10 and selected as one of Selfridge’s ‘Bright Young Things’ in 2012.

Leather splitting and skiving machinery at Studio Ruuger

Since its launch, Studio Ruuger has continued to specialise in men’s accessories, focusing primarily on limited edition and bespoke umbrellas and cases. One such attaché case was featured in the Crafts Council’s touring exhibition Added Value? (2012). This case brings together traditional leatherworking techniques with present-day technologies, such as additive manufacturing (or 3D printing), laser engraving and computer-automated design. Entitled Night at the House of Epicurus, its elaborate pictorial surfaces depict scenes of moral and spiritual folly taking place over the course of an evening of revelry and excess. The story and graphics were developed collaboratively with writer Mihkel Kaevats and illustrator Stuart Patience with the intention of reimagining the men’s case as a highly decorative and expressive object: ‘traditionally sombre and black, the attaché case is the quintessential British accessory; the nondescript, carefully-locked companion to a businessman’s dark suit and dark thoughts. This project imagines what might truly be inside such a man’s mind.’

Funeral of a Swallow, on display in What is Luxury?, again takes the classic attaché case design as a starting point, this time embellishing its surfaces with a baroque motifs inspired by 16th and 17th century Flemish flower garland paintings. These genre paintings were connected to the visual imagery of the Counter-Reformation movement and depicted devotional figures such as the Virgin Mary with child surrounded by flowers. Ruuger replaces the central figure with the humble swallow to convey the fragility of ordinary life: ‘what initially appears as a romantic arrangement of flora, on closer inspection turns into a death scene: the flowers appear torn, broken and carelessly scattered, as a small bird lies amongst them with a broken wing, in a slew of lost feathers.’

In the spirit of still life painting, Ruuger created a large Perspex flower press in his studio, where he was able to observe and capture the flowers at various stages of decomposition. From these studies, the flower and swallow pattern was digitally rendered. It contains 1046 separate pieces of goat leather in 12 graduated shades of colour, which were developed in collaboration with French tannery Alran S.A.S. Each piece was individually cut and painstakingly inlayed in a process that took the studio over 300 hours to complete, resulting in a single smooth surface which was carefully stretched onto the 3D printed base. The base was designed using Rhino software with integrated brass locks and hinges.

Funeral of a Swallow is exemplary of how innovative uses of newly accessible technologies can enable small design studios to continue to invest in high level craft production for a niche audience and collector. 3D printing the base structure of the case enables the studio to work on a limited edition and commission basis, as they can be printed on demand, enabling the studio to avoid the high minimums set by most types of manufactures. The base has been rendered in-house, which enables the designers to be meticulously exacting about each detail to the last millimetre. No drilling, soldering, filing or filling is required; the leather to be stretched seamlessly across the surface. This enables the studio to focus on developing and perfecting techniques of leather finishing, mostly completed by hand and with the assistance of machinery dating back to the mid-20th century.

Leanne Wierzba is curator at the V&A and editor of Under the Influence magazine


A Matter of Luxury – Annie Warburton
19 March 2015

Affluenza. Stuffocation. There’s no shortage of punning neologisms when it comes to our uneasy relationship with having too many things. The unease mounts when we enter the territory of quantity and quality, excess and taste: the land of luxury. Whether positioned as luxury’s redeemer or pitted against it, craft is seized upon as an antidote to our disquiet: craft, beautiful and useful, standing in the face of all this useless beauty. With luxury a hot topic, and its dynamic relationship to craft the subject of fierce debate, it is a timely subject for the third triennial exhibition from the Crafts Council and the V&A, opening in April 2015.

It’s a question – What Is Luxury? – that forms the title and central concern of our exhibition. A question, Professor Giorgio Riello, who has recently co-authored a book on the history of luxury, tells me is the opener to any conversation when people learn about his job.  Like ‘luxury’, ‘craft’ is a contested term. And, just as everyone enquires of Professor Riello, ‘what is luxury?’, at the Crafts Council we’re ever being asked, ‘what is craft?’  Springing from these two questions, our new show with the V&A considers the complex dynamics between craft, making, materials and luxury.

Exquisite, finely crafted materials resonate with the indulgent pleasures of the senses at the root of the original meaning of ‘luxury’. Luxury brands have seized on this relationship with the handmade, drawing on qualities of provenance, authenticity and skill to promote global big business – luxury is driving ‘a European industrial renaissance’, according to the European Union – and there seems to be no end of spare-yet-lush craft-influenced publications reminding us, as Le Corbusier put it, that ‘the luxury object is well-made, neat and clean, pure and healthy, and its bareness reveals the quality of its manufacture’.

At first the craft world cautiously embraced this trend, riding on the coattails of luxury swiftly away from a long outdated image of the homespun. Now it’s understood the relationship is more complex. For, whilst some brands’ links with craft go back to their origins – Fendi, for instance, played knowingly with the concepts in Craft Punk, at Design Miami 2009 – for others the connection is tenuous: there’s quite some distance between idea and the reality.

As much as in some quarters craft is a prop to luxury, in others it is set in opposition to the excesses of global consumer capitalism. Take Jeremy Deller’s iconic image for the Venice Biennale 2013 of William Morris rising like Poseidon to hurl Roman Abramovich’s luxury yacht out of the Venice lagoon. The work’s title, We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold might be the logical outcome of Frank Lloyd Wright’s assertion, ‘give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities.’

It is in the context of these cultural trends, and against a backdrop of soaring global economic inequality, revealed in Thomas Piketty’s Capital last year and rendered, by luxury consumption, all too visible in cities such as London, that this Crafts Council and V&A collaboration interrogates and reveals hidden matters of taste, status and values.

To describe the show in easy journalese as ‘bling-tastic’ as Time Out did (September 2014) whilst listing it as one of the top arts events of the season, is to miss the point. Yes, it features some spectacular objects, finely worked in precious materials. Yet, what curators Jana Scholze and Leanne Wierzba have put together is far more thoughtful, nuanced and provocative than simply a dazzling display of material and skill.  Deliberately avoiding any definitive answer to ‘what is luxury?’ the show reflects on the question through a selection of fascinating, at times surprising,works.

Bubble Bath, Nora Fok, 2001. Photo: Heini Schneebeli

Nora Fok’s Bubble Bath from the Crafts Council Collection, for example, is a spectacular necklace that reveals how skillful brilliance can elevate modest materials into a luxury piece: Fok’s work is intricately hand knitted from humble nylon thread.  Simultaneously, it plays visually on the experience of luxury: the wearer appears to be floating in an indulgent bath filled with bubbles, the kind of mundane luxury that in the West we often take for granted.

Fok’s is one of several seemingly playful works asking serious questions on value and values.  With his Roadkill Diamond, Gunpowder Diamond, and Superman 3 DiamondShane Mecklenburger prompts a reevaluation of the relationships between authenticity, preciousness, rarity and systems of value. Gabriel Barcia-Colombo’s DNA Vending Machine causes us to consider the nature of precious materials if the very stuff of life is commodified, whilst Dominic Wilcox’s witty, gilded Luxury Skimming Stone is a reminder that luxury is a product of what we choose to value, to make precious.

Luxury skimming stone with belt pouch, Dominic Wilcox, 2009. Courtesy of Dominic Wilcox

Luxury, as these works show, is socially constructed.  Before you dismiss that as a banal truism, consider the surprising degree to which quality is a measurable, tangible function of price.  A fascinating study by researchers Stanford GSB and the California Institute of Technology demonstrated that price affects real experience of quality, not just perceived quality.  In the study, participants were told they were tasting two different wines, one costing $5, the other $45.  In fact, they were both the same wine.  Yet, functional magnetic resonance imaging showed that the part of the brain that experiences pleasure became more active when the drinker thought he or she was enjoying the pricier vintage.   The study is unnerving in its revelation that what’s dear in monetary terms, and so is perceived more rare and precious, is measurably dear to us in terms of pleasure.  By the same token, if we know the many hours of skilled craft that have gone in to making an object or garment, might that too enhance our pleasure?

I write this as Apple recently launched its smartwatch collection, a contemporary tech luxury. Time and luxury have always been intertwined, and time is another major theme in the show. Contrasting with a meticulously made George Daniels timepiece, Marcin Rusak and Iona Inglesby’s Time to Yourself tool kit prompts us to cherish the luxury of time free of the chronometer’s rule.  Other works remind us that investing in the 10,000 hours necessary to master a skill is itself a luxury. Time Elapsed, a spirograph designed by Philippe Malouin for glassware company Lobmeyr draw patterns of sand in a commentary on the time-intensive process of making fine crystal. Giovanni Corvaja’s Golden Fleece Headpiece, inspired by the mythic object of Jason and his Argonauts’ quest, is made from pure gold wires spun finer than silk. It took 2,500 hours to make, building on Corvaja’s previous ten years of research.

Time For Yourself, Marcin Rusak, concept in collaboration with Iona Inglesby, 2013. Courtesy of Marcin Rusak

Displaying historical and contemporary works from the Crafts Council and V&A collections, alongside speculative design projects that explore possible futures for luxury, the show invites visitors to consider the role of skilled craftsmanship in creating and transmitting value and, ultimately, to determine for themselves what is luxury.

There is perhaps no more fitting venue for an exhibition that interrogates the notion of luxury in the context of craft than the V&A.  Not only because of the museum’s status as a globally pre-eminent museum of art and design situated in one of the most opulently wealthy districts of one of the world’s richest cities.  Not only because What is Luxury? shows alongside Savage Beauty celebrating the work of Alexander McQueen, a brilliant designer whose roots, famously, were in an Savile Row apprenticeship in the craft of tailoring.  But also, and most satisfyingly, because as a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Sir Christopher Frayling, author of On Craftsmanship and former Rector of the Royal College of Art, many of whose graduates feature in our show, chose for his island luxury the V&A itself.

Annie Warburton is Creative Programmes Director at the Crafts Council


Installation Mode! - Samantha King
11 March 2015

Final preparations for the upcoming exhibition What is Luxury? are in full swing now as we rapidly approach the start of the exhibition build. Here’s a sneak peek behind the scenes at some of the activities the team has been involved in over the past couple of months.

Title signage is the first thing a visitor sees upon entering an exhibition, and therefore it has to immediately convey the exhibition’s identity. Exhibition designers work hard to ensure that their concept will be executed accurately – developing and testing the title signage for What is Luxury? was particularly crucial due to its kinetic quality. Here designers Clara Sancho and David Jode review drawings, maquettes and prototypes that have been created to test the balance and movement of the signage.

Exhibition designers reviewing graphics samples and drawings © Sam King

Condition Checking and Display Requirements
Most loans arrive at the museum a month in advance of installation, however certain objects require an earlier arrival for conservation and mounting assessments. Here conservator Louise Egan condition checks the Talaris saddle, crafted by Hermès, upon its delivery to the museum. The saddle has been a regular subject at installation meetings to determine the most effective mounting method within the case so that visitors are able to view the unique ‘tree’ core structure, engineered from carbon fibre, thermoplastic and titanium. A sketch below by 3D designer David Jode demonstrates this research process.

Conservator Louise Egan condition checks Hermès saddle © Sam King

Sketch of mounting proposal for Hermès saddle © David Jode

Exhibition Design
Wall colours can dramatically transform the mood and style of an exhibition. Colours are reviewed throughout the design development process, taking into account the exterior gallery, interior build, showcase design, graphics, lighting, and objects to be presented. A colour scheme must be selected in advance of the build, requiring the designer to make an important decision based on a palette of small samples. Here, the Luxury team escorted the colour sample board to view it in the Porter Gallery where Disobedient Objects was still on view and the lighting environment would more closely resemble the conditions of the exhibition.

Transporting a paint sample board through the museum… © Clara Sancho     

Object Display
For Philippe Malouin’s spirographic sand installation Time Elapsed, the Luxury team has spent many months planning various aspects of its installation here at the V&A. One consideration was the type of sand that would be used – taking into account the selected fabric for the plinth, humidity in the gallery, and how the sand will dispense through the work. After various investigations, the artists selected two types of sand (actually soda-lime glass beads) that will be tested during object installation in the Porter Gallery. A picture of the testing in progress below!

Sand sample test one… © Sam King     

Framing and Mounting
Many months of planning go into the seamless and often near-invisible mounts that ensure objects look their best when on exhibition. In this instance, the Technical Services department needed to create frames to display a series of unique spoons created by artist Simone ten Hompel. Below is an in-progress shot of the newly constructed frames made by mountmaker John Dowling, with the team testing layout before the frames were welded together and spray painted.

In-progress frames for Simone ten Hompel spoons © Sam King
Samantha King is Exhibitions Manager at the V&A


A visit to Postcard Teas - Leanne Wierzba
12 January 2015

Early in December, Jana and I went on a curatorial research trip to Postcard Teas, on Dering Street in London’s Mayfair district. It was a cold, drizzly afternoon and the shop became the perfect oasis away from the noisy crowds and ceaseless hustle of nearby Oxford Street. It occupies a small space and has a rather special, unassuming quality, far removed from the overt commercialism of many of the neighbouring retailers, most of which are large global brands. We hear that the shop once a specialist emporium of textiles and jewellery, run by current proprietor Tim D’Offay, until nine years ago when it was relaunched as a tea and tea drinking accessories shop, reflecting Tim’s continuously evolving passion for tea.

Postcard Teas, London. Image courtesy of Postcard Teas

That day we had travelled to Postcard Teas to sample the 1660 LONDON Tea Cup Connoisseur Set, one of the sets of objects which will be on display in ‘What is Luxury?’ The connoisseur set is one of a small selection of tea drinking sets by the company, developed collaboratively by Tim, the shop’s Creative Director Lu Zhou, ceramicist Peter Ting, curator Brian Kennedy and a specialist porcelain manufacturer, each lending his or her own expertise to the equation. The name 1660 LONDON draws on the long British tradition of tea drinking and refers to a passage in Samuel Pepys’s diary, a notorious social and sartorial commentary on late-seventeenth century London life, when he refers to drinking tea for the very first time on 25 September, 1660. However, Tim and Peter discuss how, in spite of this long tradition, the culture of tea hasn’t really evolved very much in Britain. Compared to wine, where so much importance is placed on provenance and the characteristics of different types of regional grapes, very little attention is placed on the provenance and qualities of different teas. This is something that Tim, Peter and Lu hope to change.

1660 LONDON Tea Cup  Connoisseur Set. Image courtesy of Postcard Teas

The tasting set is comprised of three separate cups, each designed to enhance different taste and aroma characteristics of tea. Currently the tea cups are named ‘Black Tea’, ‘Green Tea’ and ‘Fragrance Tea’. However, we are told of a conversation which took place on the bus ride over, about how the cups might be renamed in order to be less prescriptive about which type of tea should be served from each cup. Instead, they could describe the taste qualities each shape enhances: textures, base notes and aromas. Ultimately, the purpose of the tasting set is to enhance the experience of pleasure for the individual tea drinker, subject to personal tastes and preferences.

The shapes are very specific and were developed through an intensive process of prototyping and testing. The fragrance cup was the most challenging to develop. Because of its curvilinear form, it had a tendency to collapse when it was being fired in the kiln. The first shape they tested only had a 5% success rate and had to be continuously modified until the right balance between form and structural strength was achieved.

Once we arrive and are seated along a long bench, the tea tasting begins in earnest with a rich, grassy Sencha tea from Japan. It is unlike any Sencha I have tasted before; while I tend to avoid them because of their bitterness and strength, this tea has a vibrant fruity quality which is very appealing. Lu tells us that it is important to know how to brew each type of tea, as overheating certain leaves will cause bitterness and destroy flavor.

Selection of specialist teas. Image courtesy of Postcard Teas

Lu also explains how important provenance is to Postcard Teas, and that they only work with growers with small farms, less than 15 acres, which are located at the site where the particular variety of tea leaf was originally cultivated. This involves a lot of hard work on their part, to source reputable producers in often very remote rural locations. They even carry some teas that are sourced from a single tree. Of course, these teas are particularly difficult to market and sell, but are nonetheless highly prized by connoisseurs. For Jana and I, who have been extensively researching the idea of luxury for many months, these single tree teas draw out a fundamental contradiction within the term: on the one hand, luxury is about exclusivity. One the other hand, for something to be valued as a luxury, it must be widely available enough for people to know about it and desire to obtain it. Single tree teas are so exclusive that they are not as financially valuable as more widely available specialist teas.

Tasting Master Xus Golden Buddha at Postcard Teas

Jana and I are both amazed when we discover how different the Sencha tastes from each of the cups. It is not surprising that I am particularly enamoured by the Green Tea cup, as its shape is designed to highlight the teas sophisticated textures and umami flavours. Equally, when we taste Master Xu’s Gold Buddha, I find that the Black Tea cup draws out its smokiness and minerality, while the Fragrance Tea cup enhances its earthy aromas. Gold Buddha gets its name from its region of origin, on the White Cliff in Wuyishan, China, where locals used to travel in the morning to pray and wash their clothes. Tim kindly points the region out for us on his raised relief map of Asia.

Tim D'Offay identifying regional tea producers during tea tasting visit at Postcard Teas

We leave the tea tasting feeling very inspired by the experience, as well as the incredible stories shared by Tim, Peter and Lu about their very passionate and intensive journey into tea. I particularly enjoy a story that Lu shares about one of her most special tea tasting experiences. She had travelled to the Wuyi region of China to purchase Lapsang Souchong from their supplier. At the end of the day, she was invited to have dinner up the hill, close to the picturesque mountain cliffs that characterise the region. While the finest tea is sold abroad at high prices, locals keep the clippings for their own use. However, brewed in the fresh spring water from the mountains, Lu claims that this was the most beautiful cup of Lapsang Souchong that she has ever tasted. Her story reveals so much about luxury. While money can provide access to objects and experiences and is a way of ascribing value, ultimately the most valuable luxuries are created in relation to a specific context and one’s own personal experience.


What is Luxury? - Jana Scholze
9 December 2014

‘What is Luxury?’ is the final exhibition in a triennial series organised in collaboration with the Crafts Council. It follows from the successful ‘Power of Making’ in 2011.

Time For Yourself, Marcin Rusak (concept Marcin Rusak in collaboration with Iona Inglesby), 2013, © Marcin Rusak

This exhibition is not focused on luxury consumption. Given that the V&A is located in one of the most consolidated areas of luxury consumption from food to property, we curators felt that adding to that would contribute little to the current luxury debate. Instead we decided that inquiry seems rather valuable in reflecting on motifs and motivations of present luxury production to highlight the investment on side of the maker and enable speculations about possible futures. Such speculations reflect on our current relationship to luxury, and have the power to direct our thinking, provoke consequential developments and suggest alternatives. Our curatorial approach is based on an understanding that meanings of luxury change according to social, cultural and economic contexts.

We have taken the question in the title seriously, but instead of attempting to provide a definition of luxury, we will offer a terminology as structuring principle. By doing so, we hope to highlight and question aspects and interpretations of luxury.

Chasuble, 1670-95, V&A Museum no. 743-1870

The exhibition will be divided into four consecutive sections: Creating Luxury, A Space for Time, A Future for Luxury, and What is Your Luxury? It will start with the premise that luxury production implies and represents an investment in time and the application of skills. We have selected a variety of objects which we will display in paired juxtapositions. Each of these will be dedicated to a specific term, such as precision, passion and exclusivity. Many of the objects will be expected examples in the context of luxury, such as a mechanical watch and example of fine lace embroidery, and equally many of the terms will resonate with popular discourse. However, the organisation of the objects into less expected pairings in relation to the terminology will be used to challenge established categories and conventional interpretations.

This will be followed by a small section where we will address luxury’s fundamental relationship to space and time. In addition to time understood as the investment in making objects, it becomes a quality and thing in itself as luxury is increasingly defined by experiences of time spent and its availability. With experiences, locations also come into focus. By drawing attention to the importance of time and place, we will question routines and systems of the everyday, and their flexibility to allow for a desire of the extraordinary and non-essential.

The Rise of the Plasticsmith, Gangjian Cui, 2014, © Gangjian Cui

A Future for Luxury will focus on the important relationship between luxury and value. Speculations about the future provide insight into how luxury is not a stable category, but has a number of meanings which are constantly changing and responding to new social, economic and ecological paradigms. For instance, in a post-industrial future where the world’s supply of petrochemicals has been exhausted, could plastic become a highly valuable material and what skills would we need to work with it? With a focus on materials, the chosen art and design objects will provoke connections of luxury to issues like access, privacy and memory.

The final section asks the concrete question: What is Your Luxury? One single project will highlight the importance of individual freedom, aspiration and dream for any decision about luxury.

Our following blog entries will introduce a selection of objects and projects of the exhibition, expanding upon the interpretation provided within the exhibition, as well as an insight into curatorial decisions and discussions with designers, makers, artists and the whole exhibition team.

Jana Scholze is Curator of Contemporary Furniture at the V&A