There’s an inherent extravagance and materialism in many facets of the design world, where brands charging $25,000 for a television, or $800 for a knit pillow, or $3,000 for a surfboard often go unquestioned. Caring about high design implies a certain level of privilege, and designers often indulge in what seems like luxury for its own sake. But how often do design snobs question why they care about so-called luxury, or whether their beloved products are really worth so much? (Couldn’t you get basically the same pillow for $10 at Ikea?)
London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, itself a mecca of luxury design items, gets self-reflective in its new exhibit, called What is Luxury? Using more than 100 objects–from diamonds made from roadkill to vases made from toxic waste leftover from smartphone production–the exhibit explores why certain designs are considered luxurious and contemplates the future of luxury.
The show answers its own complex question with the designs on view and the headings that title its various sections, including Pleasure, Passion, Expertise, Investment, Precision. There are a few things these wildly different luxury objects have in common: they’re made from rare, exquisite materials (like the Golden Fleece hat, by Giovanni Corvaja, made over the course of a 2,500 hours from 100 miles of gold thread); they require staggering amounts of time, skill, and talent to produce (the Bubble Bath necklace by Nora Fok, made from more than 1000 hand-knitted nylon bubbles; a chandelier by Studio Drift featuring real dandelion seeds applied by hand to LED lights); and they afford their owners some level of comfort or aesthetic pleasure that a simple Ikea pillow supposedly can’t.
Conceptual designs included in the show contemplate how commodities that we take for granted now could become luxuries in the not-so-distant future. The DNA Vending Machine, by American artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, contains pre-packaged DNA samples, suggesting that with our increasing access to biotechnology, ownership of one’s own DNA might be a luxury someday. In an installation called The Boltham Legacy, artist Henrik Nieratschker tells the fictional story of a billionaire who sends altered bacteria into space in an attempt to find precious metals on distant planets, a comment on the luxury of exclusive access to resources.
But as “Time for Yourself,” a conceptual toolkit by Martin Rusak, suggests, no matter how glitzy, these material status symbols can’t beat the ultimate luxury of free time. This toolkit, featuring a watch with no dial and a compass which spins to random coordinates, teases the prospect of dropping off the 21st-century grid. It’s probably more fun than owning a weird golden hat.