If you’re holed up in London on a weekend and keen to do more than tick the box on the city’s attractions, a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Design Museum both offer a journey into the world of style and design through the ages.
The V&A - art and design throughout history
Inside the Victoria and Albert (nicknamed the V&A), you’ll find the world’s greatest collection of art and design with over 2.3 million pieces dating back through the ages.
The V&A’s galleries are more like an emporium of eccentricity, housing, among other things: sculptures, art work, silverware … even a collection of Leonardo da Vinci's thoughts and ideas. The Great Bed of Ware is rumored to be wide enough to accommodate at least four couples. An Evening in Venice features "The Masquerade" which is interactive, fun, and charming. One is asked to place one's feet on a specially marked area, triggering an invitation to attend a Venice Ball.
A permanent Fashion Gallery details the history of the industry from 1850 to 1870. Fans, coats, purses, gowns and jewelry demonstrate the evolution of fashion and once commonly held views, some of which are still current – like the French being arbiters of good taste. Male wardrobes, too, were evaluated as appropriate or inappropriate.
Rotating exhibitions range from Maggie Thatcher’s wardrobe to the current Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (until March 12). Displays focus on both the practical and erotic, charting changing attitudes toward morality, gender, and sex. After all, underwear indicates one's sense of modesty – or lack thereof, and is often used to remold the body to change the perception of one's shape.
The exhibition details the original purpose of knickers and briefs: to conceal or reveal female and male bodies. Men’s briefs were intended to lift and enhance the ‘family jewels.’ Undershirts shaped men's biceps and pectoral muscles to make them appear larger. For women, some were designed to hold in curves while others were meant to accentuate. The word ‘lingerie’ originally referred to a French fabric worn by both sexes.
The exhibit continues upstairs where one can see examples from different designers, including La Perla and doesn’t shy away from the avant-garde, or what’s best described as experimental. Those prone to blushing will need to look away from the House of Harlot display, a collection of, shall we say, special pieces, made from latex and rubber.
If it all starts to get a bit too hot, head down to the gift shop, a destination all its own, packed with gemstones and other jewelry, and a diverse range of curated goods. Between the cafe and museum’s treasures, one will spend most of the day in wonder.
Swanky digs - London’s Design Museum
Relatively nearby in one of the capital’s swankier locales, the London’s Design Museum is situated in Kensington. Since its opening in 1989, in a former banana-ripening warehouse south of the river it had suffered from its location despite Sir Terence Conran’s magic touch but its new location adjoining Holland Park - a green gem with wild peacocks – has seen visitor numbers spike appreciably.
In addition to its contents, the museum is a great new modernist building, re-created by John Pawson, architectural designer. When designed, Pawson wanted to highlight the building's original and iconic hyperbolic, parabolic roof and accomplished this with a dramatic atrium that highlights the structure. Pawson uses a dramatic atrium to highlight the building’s original hyperbolic, parabolic roof. Concrete and light wood work together to create a fantastic structural shape.
The museum hosts a range of exhibits - free and ticketed, including the works of design doyens like Thomas Heatherwick, Dame Zaha Hadid, Dieter Rams, Ettore Sottsass, Sir Paul Smith, Christian Louboutin and Sir Kenneth Grange.
A Maker User gallery displays almost 1,000 items of the 20th and 21st century from the point of view of the designer, manufacturer and user. The exhibition demonstrates how designers go beyond the beauty of an object to increase its utility. The process, from form to function are traced and detailed, charting changing attitudes towards design from the middle of the 18th century to the early 1900s. Reactions from the public and critics are documented, revealing a popular view from the late 1700s that ornamentation was too decadent, to the popularity of Art Deco and later, the creation of 3D printed designs. Everyday items like post-its, clocks, screws, and even changing paint colors illustrate how images have replaced words, breaking down their meaning to its absolute essence.
Take signs on restrooms showing a figure of woman or a man instead of the words. We are all users of designed products and systems and therefore influence the design of a product by choosing one over the other be it tea pots or cars. In this way, the consumer leads design based on necessity and practical application. These products define who we are or who we hope to be - old fashioned or hip, strong or soft, edgy or pragmatic.
Fear and Love features eleven installations by some of the most innovative and thought-provoking designers and architects working today. It addresses basic needs of people from all over the world such as shelter and food, exploring a spectrum of issues that define our time from sexuality to sentient robots. This multidisciplinary and global exhibition encourages goals of a more sustainable future and confronts essential fears like death.
The Beazley Designs of the Year display 70 nominations that have won awards for the last 12 months across six categories: architecture, digital, fashion, graphics, product and transport. A coffee cup designed for astronauts in space, and a sexual health testing kit are among the most interesting, along with toys created to be more accessible to disabled users, and an award-winning secure passport.