A thought-provoking new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum poses the question “What Is Luxury?” and challenges our traditional notions and definitions of luxury. If you are expecting Louis Vuitton handbags, de Beers diamonds or Patek Philippe watches, you won’t find them here, for this exhibition explores the notion of luxury through objects defined as luxurious through the excellence of their design and craftsmanship, and the investment of time and application of skill involved in their process.
Exhibits include a laser-cut haute couture dress by fashion designer Iris van Herpen, a chandelier featuring dandelion clocks applied by hand to LED lights, and the showpiece of the exhibition, “Time Elapsed” by Philippe Malouin for glassware company Lobmeyr, a giant spirograph which rotates to draw patterns made of sand. All these objects offer comment on the time-intensive process of making.
In the first room of the exhibition, apparently disparate objects are juxtaposed and presented alongside the terminology associated with luxury — opulence, exclusivity, authenticity, non-essential — to highlight its many possible interpretations. Each object, from an intricately hand-worked ecclesiastical vestment to a Hermès Talaris saddle, reveals how a high level of expertise is refined and explored to create exquisitely finished objects, and demonstrates that luxury is not concerned with practical solutions but with the extraordinary and the exclusive. The notion of time, in the sense of time spent creating these extraordinary objects, and time itself, which has become a luxury in our ever-more frantic 21st-century urban lives, is also examined through a toolkit called “Time for Yourself” which includes a watch with no dial and a compass which spins to random coordinates. In another display, a handcrafted gold skimming stone invites one to take “time out” to pursue leisure, something else which can be defined as a “luxury” in our modern lives.
The second room speculates on the future of luxury by presenting objects that question the relationship between luxury, value and materials. Rapidly depleting natural resources such as oil may in the future become defined as “luxury” goods when these resources become exclusive and expensive; equally, with increasing access to biotechnology, privacy and access to our own DNA may one day become a luxury. Such questions are posed in finely wrought pieces of furniture made from plastic (a byproduct of oil) and a “DNA Vending Machine” by American artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo.
The final part of the exhibition asks “What is your luxury” and encourages visitors to consider what they regard as luxury and how it relates to their own lives — from those of us who crave designer handbags or simply more time to engage in leisure activities or spend quality time with our families.
This free exhibition cleverly questions the very notion of luxury today and challenges common interpretations. Through a collection of intriguing and exquisite objects, it invites the visitor to examine the precision, time and application of skills invested in them and demonstrates that the concept of luxury is, ultimately, a very personal one.