What is luxury? A watch, a couture dress, a crown? Or is it having control over space, time, privacy? Is the notion of luxury changing over time?
A new exhibition, opening on April 25, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London together with the Crafts Council, asks these very questions. (In fact, it’s called What Is Luxury?) The works showcased help illuminate the way we use and perceive luxury today, and how that might change in the future.
“We realized when we started researching the project that on the one hand, everyone has a relationship to luxury and its own definition of it,” says Leanne Wierzba, V&A/Winchester School of Art research fellow and co-curator of the show. “On the other hand we have this industry that is framing it in one very specific way, which we thought was quite limited. And so how do you create a bridge between this idea of luxury as a designed object, and luxury as something that we all have a relationship to, that is about our personal experience, memories, and emotions?”
The exhibition begins by looking at the craftsmanship that goes into the making of an object. Visitors will see a Hermès Talaris saddle, handmade from beginning to end by the same person, in a company tradition that extends back more than 150 years. Except this modern version incorporates a carbon-fiber tree that makes it lighter and more durable than previous saddles. The point is to show the investment of time and the high quality of technology and the handmade.
But not everything is as durable and useful as a saddle. Nearby visitors will encounter an artwork called Time Elapsed, by Canadian designer Philippe Malouin. It’s a large timepiece (inspired by an hourglass), that Malouin created for the Austrian glassware company Lobmeyr in 2011. A gilded faucet dangles over the floor, rotating in a circle and releasing sand. The resulting spirographic pattern that builds up on the floor acts as a record of passing time—and a commentary on the hours it takes to create a luxury object. “We were trying to convey the message of what the house of Lobmeyr is about, explain the very concept of luxury,” Malouin says in a phone interview. “A lot of man-hours go into the production of perfectly handblown, handmade glass. And the best way we found for people to quantify time was something as simple as an hourglass.”
The exhibition also explores personal time as luxury. “Increasingly, the more people we ask about their idea of luxury, the more they come back with: ‘Luxury is time,’” Wierzba says. “Time for yourself, time to spend with your loved ones, time for your thoughts, time for research, time to do what you want.” The thinking piece Time for Yourself, by Polish artist and designer Marcin Rusak, is a toolkit that includes a compass that sends you in the wrong direction, a watch without a dial, and a blanket to keep you warm on your journey. The idea behind it is that today it’s so hard to get lost, because we always have a GPS or a smartphone—that luxury could be to have a moment to ourselves to get lost, Wierzba explains.
The exhibition continues with a contemplation of the future. It questions, for instance, elements in our lives that we take for granted but that someday might no longer be a guarantee.
The DNA Vending Machine, a project by Gabriel Barcia-Colombo that replaces the snacks and drinks of an automated food dispenser with identical packages of DNA samples, explores the concerns over the loss of privacy, and private data becoming accessible to everyone, and suggests that having control over it might become a luxury one day. “Currently there is a lot of research taking place around fundamental principals of biology, bioengineering, and of course a lot of this is being done by private corporations and companies that have an interest in research and in furthering knowledge, but also in securing their own economic well-being via the packaging and selling of their research,” Wierzba says. “And so, what are the limits?”
Also explored in the exhibition: which resources are used to create luxury and how that might change in the future. Plastic, for instance, used to be valuable when it was developed in the early 20th century—until it became omnipresent. But what if, thanks to the exhaustion of natural resources, including petroleum, in the year 2051 it became a rare material and could no longer be mass-manufactured? Plastic would become precious again. It’s the argument that Chinese artist Gangjian Cui makes with The Rise of the Plasticsmith, a set of fragile furniture made out of plastic.
Through another project commissioned for the exhibition, the consequences of consumerism are brought into light. A group called Unknown Fields Division went to Inner Mongolia in China and visited an extraction site of rare earth minerals, which are used in technologies including mobile phones but also electric cars, and found a huge toxic lake, the result of the refining process. They collected some of the mud from the banks of the lake and had it made into three vessels, representing the waste material that’s created in the production of technology. The vessels are on display at the V&A.
“The group talks about how mobile phones are now almost an extension of our brain and arm, but in a way they’re a luxury that we’re affording on the backs of other people’s sufferings and the ecological destruction of a place in the world,” Wierzba says. “And the crazy thing is that when you use a green technology you think you’re doing something good, but that also has ramifications. It’s not all doom and gloom, but it’s just trying to bring awareness to the broader networks in which anything is produced, even a luxury good.”
On the ecological arc, a set of combs and small boxes on display provides a pointed example of how we could make our everyday items out of more thoughtful materials. Studio Swine, an avant-garde design duo, made the devices out of human hair and bio resin—a surprisingly sturdy combination. At first glance the combs look like they’re made of rare woods, horns, or turtle shells. But as you get closer you can see the strands of hair. “They look like they’re kind of being combed,” Wierzba says. “It’s interesting. A lot of people are creeped out by it, but then you ask them if they’ve ever used hair extensions, and of course they would want the natural ones, not the synthetic.”
“It’s funny how we place values around certain materials and certain contexts. And that’s exactly what we wanted to try to tease out with this section,” says Wierzba. “With the DNA Vending Machine, the plastic, the rare earth minerals, we’re not saying that this is the future of luxury, but we’re using this project to challenge people to think about the fact that luxury is changing.”
The exhibition closes with the question What is your luxury? and invites the visitor to reflect upon it through the screening of an animation film that depicts a character trying to make his ideal seat but never really getting to it. “With luxury you think, This is my luxury, this is what I really need,” Wierzba says. “And then if you have it, you’re like, That’s great, but I may also need this or that, or it could be a little different.” We will probably never really get to our luxury, our ideal, and so the curators’ hope is that visitors will leave the show thinking about how they might reframe the way they value the things they have.
The V&A and Crafts Council’s exhibition What Is Luxury? is sponsored by Northacre and is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum from April 25 through Sept. 27, 2015. Information: vam.ac.uk/whatisluxury.