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What is Luxury?

28 April 2015 Laura Stevens

What is Luxury? is the V&A exploring and expanding ideas of luxury by showcasing beautiful, precious and ostentatious objects from across the world. Including a diamond made from roadkill and a golden crown for ecclesiastical use these items challenge the concept of luxury in the 21st century.

The definition of luxury is ambiguous. Throughout time and across the globe, the meaning of this word has morphed dependent on the context. What has remained consistent though, is a luxurious item is one that is exclusive and unavailable.  

The title of the V&A’s latest exhibition, What is Luxury? suggests that this elusive question will be answered. However, the query posited in the title remains firmly unanswered. Instead the V&A fully exploits the subjective nature of “luxury” with exhibits exploring the physical, conceptual and cultural capacity of luxury.

Jana Scholze, co-curator of the exhibition said on the display: “It challenges common interpretations of luxury, invites close examination of luxury production and extends ideas of what luxury can be.”

Scholze’s vision is enacted in the gallery with exceptional examples of contemporary design and craftsmanship paired with conceptual projects of luxury. The exhibits are divided by words with connotations of luxury: precision, exclusivity, pleasure and so on. This gives the opportunity to juxtapose the ornate and the ordinary made exquisite – an ostentatious elephant seat is paired with a minimalist designer tea set.

Perhaps the object that best exemplifies the investment of time and application of skill in craftsmanship is the golden hat created by Italian metallurgist-artist Giovanni Corvaja. Inspired by the mythic tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Corvaja spent a decade perfecting the process of making gold into thread, and then a further 2,500 hours making a golden hat.

With all these years adding up, this rather helpfully leads on to the abstract idea of time as luxury. In a world where technology invades all our waking hours, if we allow it to, creating more time and space seems the current definition of luxury.

A rather expensive alternative to turning off your phone would be the remarkable Time for Yourself, a playful toolkit for misdirection that contains a watch with no dial and a compass that spins to random co-ordinates. Another object edging the definition towards the luxurious being stunningly crafted pointless objects are Dominic Wilcox’s gold leaf skimming stones.

Wilcox described how his work elevates the prosaic to the extraordinary with an ordinary skimming stone being coated in gold leaf and then lovingly held in a leather pouch ready to be thrown at the perfect lake. On questioning, he knows no one who has actually completed the journey and skimmed to the watery depths his golden prize.

Rory Greenlees, executive director of the Crafts Council said: “Over 100 remarkable objects look beyond the widely understood perceptions of luxury involving skill, time and rarity to question what luxury means in the 21st century and in the future.”

The future speculated by the V&A is a material focused vision with the current emphasis on dwindling resources. A fascinating take on this is Hair Highway by Studio Swine based on the undeniable conclusion that human hair is one of the resources that quite literally grows with the human population. Crafted from this concept is a highly decorative vanity table and hairbrush set, in the most meta manner, constructed from human hair and resin.

What is Luxury? presents the ingenuity, skill and beauty that mankind can create in the name of luxurious items. The astounding objects on display do not answer the question of “What is Luxury?” but instead passes the onus to the viewer and leaves it up to their interpretation.

With Scholze declaring that “essentially, the question of luxury is a personal one”, the exhibition can be interpreted as a self indulgent Emperor’s new clothes, a celebration of craftsmanship or a space to speculate on this evasive concept.

And in a fitting irony, this display of priceless objects depicting exclusive items is free to visit.

What is Luxury? is on at the V&A 25 April to 27 September. For more information click here.

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