What is Luxury? The V&A Explores…

By Regina Connell.

Given the interest in what we’ve been calling alternative luxury, I was delighted when I heard a few months ago that London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was going to be doing an exhibit on the much-maligned “L” word.

Dominic Wilcox Skipping Stones

Dominic Wilcox Skipping Stones

Would it be any good? One could very easily see it going very bad, very quickly: it could be a rather tiresome, self-serving parade of baubles sponsored by the bauble maker; or something more traditionally arty but prominently sponsored by a luxury goods firm.

What is Luxury, it turns out, is exactly the kind of thoughtful exploration the world needs. Running from April 25 to September 27, 2015, it seeks to illuminate what luxury is now, and what it can be in the future.

The exhibit has plenty of luxury on view—thankfully not the bling, mass luxe that gives luxury such a bad name, but the kind of virtuoso, artisanally-driven luxury that can take your breath away, both traditional and non-traditional.

Crown Portugal, About 1760

Crown, Portugal, circa 1760

Representing the traditional is a crown from Portugal, or more recently, an Hermes saddle that takes a minimum of 40 hours to make, or perhaps a George Daniels mechanical Space Traveller’s Watch. Then there’s the Golden Fleece hat (painstakingly crafted—over 10 years and 2,500 hours—out of thread made of gold), and even an Iris van Herpen laser-cut haute couture gown.

Golden Fleece Headpiece by Giovanni Corvaja

Golden Fleece Headpiece by Giovanni Corvaja

On the rather less traditional side of the equation are things more conceptual, such as the Fragile Future Concrete Chandelier, for which dandelion seed heads were harvested before opening into “clocks” and individually applied to LED lights.

But these are just the objects (of which there are 100). It’s the ideas behind the exhibit that are the most powerful aspect.

Most fundamentally, there is the theme of time: time taken to make the item, and time as the ultimate luxury that money ultimately cannot buy.

There’s also the exploration of the notion of scarcity: always an aspect of luxury (mostly due to expense), it’s made more explicit through pieces such as those of Chinese designer Gangjian Cui. Given the task of describing luxury in 2052, when our unbridled petroleum consumption has transformed plastic into a rare, precious material, Cui created plastic furniture that resembles spun sugar.

Add to that, ideas of privacy/identity as an aspect of luxury (Gabriel Barcia-Colombo’s DNA vending machine, and you start to get a glimpse of what luxury really is.

Luxury, like art, is a great deal about life, mortality, and more importantly, immortality.

On the part of the artisan—like an artist —it’s about creating something created, not just with consummate skill, but with passion, caring, and obsession that will last and be used and loved for generations, or even centuries.

But unlike art, luxury (or applied art, which it can be, at its highest level) is a two-way street.  On the part of the consumer-patron—that’s what we are, if we are not doing the making ourselves—it’s about facilitating that creation and through that, establishing our identities, extending our lives accordingly: it’s about enduring.

But far more so than art, luxury is personal: it’s more about us, the patron-consumers, than the artist. Luxury takes on our identities, our dreams, our projections, our basic desire—not just those of the artist/artisan— for the transcendent

And in so doing, it’s one of the most powerful expressions of our culture, of who we are, of our imprint on this time. And while luxury is generally considered unnecessary, it can be one of the most profound expressions of who we are. And that, actually, is not just necessary, but essential.

Go explore the essential in London this summer.

Details
What is Luxury?
April 25, 2015–September 27, 2015

Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road
London SW7 2RL
United Kingdom

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