Metropolis by Lubna Chowdhary


18 September 2017

A ukulele, a toy computer, an office chair, a paintbrush and a telephone are among the hundreds of objects that have been sculpted in miniature and carefully placed in a long strip on the parquet floor in gallery 137 at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). The strip is flanked by cabinets jam-packed with historic ceramics.

The display is entitled Metropolis and can be found in one of the V&A’s ceramics galleries as part of London Design Festival. “It is supposed to be a museum of the man-made,” says Lubna Chowdhary, who is currently a ceramics resident at the museum. “What I’ve tried to do with it is give a sense of human production over time, so it includes iconic design objects and everyday objects.”

A number of the miniature objects can arguably be described as design icons. They include a Coca-Cola bottle, a Zippo cigarette lighter and a Bic razor with a white handle and a little orange hood, each intricately made in clay, painted and glazed to reveal their bright colours. The installation also depicts objects from the past, such as an antiquated pressure cooker, an old vacuum cleaner and a visibly out of vogue pram. Chowdhury is fascinated by the way in which objects inform our understanding of history.

Finally, Metropolis features colourful, playful objects that do not seem recognisable as being from our world. Chowdhary tells me that the these are meant to represent objects from a fictitious future. They were inspired Archigram's concept for the Plug-In City (1964), which saw architect Peter Cook propose a flexible megastructure in which individual parts could move around like pods and lock into one another. The title of Chowdhary's installation also invokes Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis about a dystopian city, a reference that acts as a sombre counter-balance to the techno-utopianism of Cook's imagined urban future.

Chowdhary has been working on the installation in bursts since the late 1990s. It stands as an archive or memory bank of objects through modern history, but also reflects her own living memory as a designer-maker. Chowdhary's current residency has allowed her to add a new chapter to this vast work, in the form of a batch of red-brown pieces that are reminiscent of architectural fragments. She describes these as an attempt to fuse ornamental traditions with the converse modernist ideal as propagated by Adolf Loos (whose 1910 essay 'Ornament and Crime' famously discouraged the use of decoration and embellishment). The result is a set of objects which hybridise seemingly contradictory aesthetics.

The fact that the ceramics are hand crafted (including those that represent objects which in real-life would be industrially produced) enables each piece to be suffused with a personal interpretation. Some miniatures, Chowdhary explains, were made using a handmade cast modelled using the shape of an industrial object, which enables her to re-create the machine made by hand.

Chowdhury is also deeply informed by the work of the designer and educator (1923-1998) Victor Papanek, in particular his 1971 book Design for the Real World, which critiqued the design sector for being too commercially driven at the expense of the environment. “It talks about design and obsolescence,” Chowdhary explains, “and it raised a debate about the stuff that we create and leave behind, over production and overconsumption, and designing objects where there isn’t really a need, or re-designing them.”

The sheer quantity of sculptures amassed in Metropolis forces us to look at each object not just as an individual thing, but as part of a story about the material world.