In the first of his monthly columns for Dezeen, V&A senior curator Kieran Long argues that today’s obsession with authorship and celebrity “leads to serious imbalances in the way we see design in the world” and calls for an overhaul of the way design is curated in the twenty-first century.
Long, who was an architecture journalist before being appointed to curate design, architecture and digital at the V&A last year, points out that museums like the V&A focus on handmade, one-off objects at the expense of the mass-produced, anonymous objects that predominate in the real world. “The museum is more or less silent on the era of extraordinary Chinese manufacturing we are living through,” he says.
Below he sets out “95 Theses” for contemporary curation, including provocative statements such as “Ugly and sinister objects demand the museum’s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do” and “Museum curators have as much in common with investigative journalists as they do with university academics”.
Every morning, on the way to my office, I pass a sign that reads: “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” At the Victoria & Albert Museum, the building is always telling you to do something. The didactic, Victorian and Edwardian decoration asks you to pay attention to nature, to design and manufacture, to the provenance of objects, even where your food comes from. But this particular sign is deeply serious in its upper-case, gilded typeface. It can be seen only by V&A staff, and most often by the people who empty the bins in the service road at the back of the museum.
As a motivational slogan, it’s espresso-strength, but it also betrays an emphasis at the V&A on the handmade, the artisanal and the one-off that design institutions, the media and designers themselves share. An object that an artist’s or craftsperson’s hand has touched has far more chance of making it into the V&A’s collection than something mass-produced or anonymous.
In our China gallery, for very good institutional reasons, there are no contemporary, mass-produced objects. The twenty-first century is represented by artisanal glass and works of conceptual furniture design: the museum is more or less silent on the era of extraordinary Chinese manufacturing we are living through. Dezeen has a similar emphasis: while the site is catholic in its tastes, the anonymous, the mass-produced and the semi-designed are suppressed in favour of the work of a fairly coherent group of designers.
There are all sorts of pretty reasonable explanations for this. The most banal is, of course, that star designers are click bait: celebrity matters, especially in the media. On the other hand, some might argue that designers’ work is simply better than the anonymous manufactured stuff that surrounds us. It’s easier to love the milled aluminium monocoque of Jonathan Ive’s Macbook than the awkward black plastic housing of a traffic light.
The emphasis on the authored leads to serious imbalances in the way we see design in the world. In future months, I will use this column to try to broaden the conversation about what design is, to try to move beyond a myopic interest in what designers and architects do, toward understanding what their work tells us about the world we live in. The others writing here (Sam, Alexandra, Justin and Dan) are all much better at this than me: I’m looking forward to reading their work. read more