Words Enya Moore
By way of introducing Unexpected Pleasures, curator Dr Susan Cohn describes the relationship between contemporary jewellery and design as akin to the rapport between two strangers at a party: They spot each other across the room, think they know each other but are unsure. They end up talking find they get along.
This slightly awkward relationship is an apt description of where contemporary jewellery has previously sat within the design world.
Unexpected Pleasures marks the first foray of contemporary jewellery into the Design Museum. The exhibition, containing an impressive 186 pieces, is split into a variety of themed displays. The ‘categories’ that Cohn has created are welcome additions to the customary labelling jewellery or craft receives. Instead of focusing entirely on the skills, materials and processes used by the jeweller, the message being portrayed is treated with equal importance, if not more.
Physical Matters examines the use of different materials to enhance a given idea, whereas Handmade highlights the making skills of jewellers. Nel Linssen’s trademark paper jewellery illustrates this to great effect; Linssen stacks paper discs to create thick, textured coils to wear around the neck or arm. And Finish Me Off takes digital technologies as its focus, highlighting that within jewellery making digital manufacture has been used for quite some time.
Dividing the jewellery into these categories succeeds in highlighting diverse techniques, ideas and processes, but it also loads the visitor with somewhat dense information, requiring a deliberately paced trip around the gallery.
Statement pieces are dotted around in solitary cabinets under the heading Worn Out. These showcase notable designs as precious artefacts, such as Droog co-founder Gijs Bakker’s Dew Drop (see p.42 for more on Droog), a photograph of a rose encased in PVC to be worn around the neck, and Paul Derrez’s Pleated Collar of plastic and steel. Another well represented Dutch designer is Ted Noten, whose Tiara for Maxima is, as usual with his work, loaded with humour.
For the opening, a panel discussion, chaired by Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic with a luminaries including Cohn, design critic Stephen Bayley, the V&A’s Glenn Adamson, and jeweller Solange Azagury-Partridge, sadly fell back on tired deliberations that cloud craft-related disciplines. The customary barriers between design, art and craft were thrown in with some archaic statements about what design is or should be; however, as pointed out by Bakker, this conversation is over.
Contemporary jewellery traverses boundaries of fine art, design and craft, and has done so for years. In regards to the exhibition’s validity at the Design Museum, Adamson made the valid remark that museums and galleries are starting to behave as the art students of today who, ‘make a video one day, a pot the next and a necklace the day after that’, realising that there is no longer a need to be rigid within disciplines.
One would hope that this flexibility in the arts will lead to a wider appreciation and acknowledgement for areas such as contemporary jewellery.