The new bling
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My response to the Design Museum’s contemporary jewellery exhibition ‘Unexpected Pleasures‘ (runs until March 3): part review, part account of a design debate.
“All that glitters…”
A moment of journalistic honesty: most press views end with a handshake and a rush to the free bar. ‘Unexpected Pleasures’, an exhibition of contemporary jewellery at London’s Design Museum, was somewhat different. In place of the platitudes and hunt for the media pack was an exceptionally lively debate about the place of jewellery in a museum of ‘design’.
In the red corner was the exhibition’s guest curator and contemporary jeweller Dr Susan Cohn; in the blue corner was design critic Stephen Bayley, eager to play the role of pantomime contrarian. Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic found himself refereeing. “We don’t normally start exhibitions with conversations about the content, but the Design Museum hasn’t done an exhibition of jewellery before so it seemed a good idea to think about what jewellery means in the context of a museum of design,” he said by way of introduction. The combatants didn’t need a second invitation to engage.
The crux of the debate was whether jewellery might truly be considered ‘design’ and, as an extension, whether the Design Museum was the most appropriate choice to host such an exhibition.
Dr Cohn argued that the work on display, all contemporary (i.e. generally post-1980) pieces that were seen in some way to challenge the conventions of jewellery design (i.e. generally in eschewing precious materials), gained something from the museum context. “People walk into a design museum looking with a certain set of eyes,” she said. “As curator, I had a particular idea of what contemporary jewellery is and that has certainly shifted through this experience. It is the conversations that happen between the pieces, between the makers and between people who don’t know anything about contemporary jewellery that makes it alive.”
Stephen Bayley countered in no uncertain terms: “Personally I am disinclined to be enthusiastic about jewellery. Given my rather doctrinaire formalistic view of what I think design might be, I find jewellery slightly disturbing because it loses its value when it is mass produced. Design, as an idea, increases in value when it is mass produced.”
His remarks triggered a heated back-and-forth as the panel and an increasingly vocal audience responded to his staunchly modernist interpretation of design. If jewellery relied on individuality, could mass-produced jewellery have any real value? If not, how might it be considered design?
“This [the Design Museum] was conceived as a museum that would look at mass-produced industrial design. Does a piece of jewellery diminish if you reproduce it?” asked Bayley.
“No, a piece becomes valuable when someone loves it; it gains value because it means something to that person,” countered Dr Cohn. “I have a production range that I have been making for 30 years and people love the fact that other people have the same pieces. People have met each other through these pieces – it is about belonging.”
Deyan Sudjic, ever the diplomat, attempted to appease the factions. “I would not call what is in the exhibition design, but it is telling us something about design,” he concluded.
I reproduce the tenor of this debate here because it is significant that discussions about design and how design might be defined are still live and contentious. Thinking about mass production and its link to inherent value is particularly prescient considering the influence that the march of 3D printing is having on design and economies of scale. Can Stephen Bayley’s understanding of design as being about objects that gain value through mass production sit with a world in which additive manufacturing technology allows short-run, even one-off, consumer products to be commercially viable?
Interesting questions certainly. It is perhaps a shame therefore that the exhibition itself, although visually stimulating, was far from coherent. The promotional literature promised a display of “processes and experimentation that questioned the relevance of precious materials and shifted the role of preciousness from financial value to personal association.”
What is on offer is a somewhat diffuse collection of pieces attached variously to three themes ‘Worn Out’, ‘Linking Links’ and ‘A Fine Line’ that are not sufficiently delineated from each other so as to be meaningful. The jewellery on show is an intriguing mixture of the unusual, the uncomfortable, and what would appear to be the downright unwearable. I can see Stephen Bayley’s point: an oversized translucent collar, a bracelet made from model prawns, and the Sex Offender necklace (yes, really) have little in common with an Anglepoise lamp or a Dyson vacuum cleaner, both items that feature in the Design Museum’s permanent collection.
Perhaps, as the Museum prepares to bid farewell to its Bauhaus Shad Thames home (as it relocates in 2014 to the Commonwealth Institute building in South Kensington) with an exhibition of ‘Ordinary Things’, the idea of ‘Unexpected Pleasures’ is to test an outlandish antithesis to the modernist, formalist, industrial understanding of design on which the museum was founded.