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‘What is luxury?’ exhibition at the V&A

“Luxury has the potential to unlock dreams of being somewhere else or someone else. It exists at the boundaries of daily routines and systems but relies on notions of breaking out.”

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‘What is luxury?’ is the question currently being explored in the V&A’s central exhibition space. To some, it is their lifestyle, and to others it is a mere myth; a distant shimmering mirage dancing out of reach in an untouchable universe. However, at the V&A the definition of ‘luxury’ does not come exquisitely packaged in a Prada bag on the arm of a supermodel being chauffeured in a town car down 5th Avenue. The word is explored in a more obscure, less obvious sense. ‘What is luxury?’ interrogates how luxury is made and understood, and encourages thinking and debate about current and future beliefs, interpretations and meanings.

 Luxury has a long history of controversy. More recently, the increase in prominence and growth of luxury brands against the backdrop of social inequality has raised new questions about what the term means to people today. Changes in culture and communication have also stimulated interest in less tangible forms of luxury, such as the desire for space and time.

The definition of luxury is not solely concerned with the value of the item, but with the intricate and skilful techniques that go into its craftsmanship and the extensive training required behind these practices. The exhibition highlights this particular facet with Nora Fok’s Bubble bath necklace. Whilst it is crafted from humble materials of toy marbles and nylon filament; luxury is found in the exquisitely delicate micro-knitted covering of each individual marble, to produce an effect which is other-worldly, like the bubbles that might collect around an underwater wreck.

The acquisition of luxury objects has always fulfilled aspirations. However, the nature of these acquisitions evolves with the times as the world becomes increasingly busy and intrusive. People crave privacy, special moments and unique experiences. Contemporary designers recognise these desires and engage with how the availability of time and space, and quality of time spent, can be seen as luxuries in their own right. One exhibit in the show hints at intangibles such as these: to help redress the balance in an often over-organised world, Marcin Rusak has produced a kit that will help rediscover spontaneity. It includes a dial-less watch that heats up with the sun, a compass for discovering random places and a blanket to keep warm on the journey. When everyone has Sat-nav, there’s a real luxury in getting lost. Pre-industrial societies wanted to keep warm, eat well and show off; so fur-lined robes, spices and gold plate were among obvious luxuries. Our 21st-century priorities are different. The meanest of houses have central heating, we eat too much and the most sophisticated consumers are moving beyond ostentatious displays of wealth.

Select exhibits showcase a typical exemplary of luxury that you’d expect.  A chasuble from Venice demonstrates the consummate skill of 17th-century needle workers, who could turn simple linen thread into a ravishing lace filigree of scrolling flowers. A silver-covered howdah from India of about 1840 is the only piece in the show to interpret luxury as pure swank alongside a jewel-encrusted gold crown from 18th-century Portugal— the undisputed pinnacle of luxury accessorising.

The second-half of the show focuses on another aspect entirely, aiming to spark thinking and debate about the future of luxury and how its definition may change. The audience is invited to imagine that by 2052, when as a result of depleted petroleum reserves, plastic has become a scarce and covetable material. Plastic furniture becomes the vehicle for communicating how our vast appetites for luxury items crafted from rare materials are inflicting irreparable damage on our planet. Another thought-provoking installation explores our increasing loss of control over biological data and privacy. It proposes a dystopian future of genetic engineering where DNA samples, each packaged with a picture of the donor, can be offered in a vending machine. It not only addresses current concerns about sharing, accessing and trading personal data, but also speculates on future desires to have access to other people’s health and aspects of their identity.

Is this the future of luxury?

The exhibition is open from 25 April – 27 September 2015 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

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