Defining luxury at V&A, London

Design stirs debate in a new exhibition opening tomorrow at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “What is Luxury?” draws together more than 100 objects, both historical and contemporary, in a tightly edited show with broad ambitions: setting out to define the meaning of luxury while predicting its possible futures. At a time when the symbiosis of major museums with fashion and commerce has never been stronger (the V&A is concurrently showing the blockbuster exhibition “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”), it is apt — if a little surprising — that this temple of decorative art treasures should interrogate the very aesthetic on which it was founded back in 1852.

“Luxury has a historic and intrinsic link with craft,” explains co-curator Leanne Wierzba, who produced the display alongside the Craft Council to coincide with the first annual London Craft Week, which debuts next month. “But luxury has many other connotations, too — it’s a highly subjective term.” As if in proof, on view in a series of blackened rooms in the Porter Gallery are some pretty imaginative pairings that attempt to pin the concept down: a whizzy mechanical wristwatch from Swiss makers Vacheron Constantin and a 17th-century Venetian vestment in needlepoint lace; Nora Fok’s intricately woven “Bubble Bath” necklace and Max Lamb’s precariously bubble-embedded glass; and a laser-cut mesh couture dress by Iris van Herpen alongside a series of 100 spoons by the German artist Simone ten Hompel.

“We wanted to show that no matter how gorgeous an object may be, it always exists within a larger context of ecology, economy, politics and culture,” Wierzba says. Take Studio Swine’s “Hair Highway,” which sets human hair in natural resin, fashioning a dressing table, comb set and trinket boxes that look for all intents and purposes like wood. It’s all part of a commentary on the Chinese hair trade that highlights the material’s latent possibilities as a self-sustaining resource — one beautiful enough to put an end to the use of coral and tortoiseshell.

In the eyes of the design world, it seems, the future of luxury lies not in material goods, but in increasingly intangible qualities — like discovery and exploration. The designer Marcin Rusak’s “Time for Yourself” is the corporate high flyer’s tool pack for losing oneself — quite literally. It contains a dial-free watch, ever-spinning compass and inkless pen. “In this age of consumerism, our lives are increasingly occupied by technology; there’s no time to get lost,” says Wierzba of the piece, adding: “Luxury could become something that’s free, yet incredibly precious, like time itself.”

“What Is Luxury?” is on view through Sept. 27 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London.

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