What is luxury?
It is worth noting that although this exhibition is staged jointly with the Crafts Council, it is sponsored by Northacre, property developers and purveyors of top-end residences to the feelthy rich with such apartments as The Lancasters. They also have a house in Tregunter Road, which, they boasted, has “pioneering subterranean basement works, the first major underground structure of its kind for a residential property”. Well, that must has been fun for the neighbours.
So, what is luxury? Is it being confused with bling? There is a very thin gold line between the two and, in the world of oligarchs, plutocrats and magnates, the line is often crossed with ostentatious displays of consumption and an obsessive need to have the rarest, most expensive watch/car/yacht/house/van Gogh. At last year’s Masterpiece, there was an astonishing work of madness for sale for £350,000 through Adrian Sassoon by the Italian goldsmith Giovanni Corvaja, a Cossack-style hat, hand-crafted entirely from 160km of gold wire, which took over 2,500 hours to make, with each of the 5 million hand-hammered gold wires being drawn through a diamond. That’s bling gone bonkers. The piece is on loan from the gallery, so presumably it did not find a buyer, Russian or not. Three years ago at the V&A, there was a beautiful golden jacket on display, spun from spider’s silk, and one cannot get rarer, or more luxurious, than that, but sadly, that was not in this collection.
The first part of the (free) exhibition is devoted to objects that are both classy and well-crafted, at the centre of which is an elaborate spirograph designed by Philippe Malouin for the glassware company Lobmeyr, circling silently and leaving a dusting of fine sand which will build up as the exhibition continues over the next 5 months. Some of the objects here do not seem luxurious at all, just expensive, like a 1750 ecclesiastical crown from the Gilbert Collection, dripping with gold and jewels, or a Carol Christian Poell suit, nicely-cut, certainly, but hardly a luxury. George Daniels’ Space Travellers gold chronographs fetch over a million pounds, and during his lifetime, he created less than 100 pocket and wristwatches, each of which would typically involve 2,500 hours of work, the same as producing that gold hat. After he died, his collection of classic cars went to auction, with his pillar-box red, 4½-litre “Blower” Bentley (once owned by Tim Birkin) going for five times the cost of one of his timepieces.
Investment in time is not only producing an object, but also the time it takes to learn the skills to produce it, is one of the elements that we are told help to define luxury.
As one enters the second part, the curators have flagged up some useful descriptors, in case visitors get confused by exactly what is luxury? Passion, Exclusivity, Innovation, Extraordinary, Non-essential, Precision, Investment, Pleasure, Preciousness, Expertise and Opulence. There were further chapter headings like Skill, Memory, Authenticity, Resource, Legacy, Journey, and Privacy, each one illustrated with an object as diverse as a skimming stone wrapped in gold-leaf and kept in a leather pouch, “its ultimate purpose is to be thrown away in a special moment.” As if. Almost as pretentious as those ads for watches: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
Marcin Rusak’s offering looked as though it could have come straight out of Private Eye’s Christmas Gnome Mart. Called Time for Yourself, it comprises another watch, but this time with no face, a compass that doesn’t work and a pen with no ink, all wrapped in a cashmere blanket, in order to “get lost in pursuit of finding time to yourself.” In other words, it’s a very expensive, and non-essential, antidote to the electronic gadgetry with which we have surrounded ourselves.
There are some very beautiful objects on display, like Steffen Dam’s glass Jellyfish Installation, a 17th-century Venetian Chasuble made of linen needle lace mounted on silk, and Hair Highway, a dressing-table and various combs made out of human hair and resin, which evoke horn or tropical hardwoods. With more people and fewer natural resources, this hirsute version of the Silk Road could be the one to go down.
From the title, one could be forgiven for thinking that this exhibition would be like walking through the business lounge at Dubai airport, but it wisely steers clear of luxury brands, and follows a more esoteric route. But it still does not satisfactorily answer its own question.