Opinion

Unexpected Pleasures

London

9 December 2012

"We don’t usually start exhibitions with conversations about the content," said Deyan Sudjic, the director of London's Design Museum. "But then the Design Museum hasn’t actually done an exhibition about jewellery in the past."

Unexpected Pleasures is an unusual choice for a Design Museum exhibition. It focuses on contemporary jewellery - a movement that began in the late 1970s and which shifted its industry away from precious materials and towards defining value terms of emotional attachment rather than financial value.

Some names in the exhibition will be familiar to a design audience - Gijs Bakker, Ted Noten and Ron Arad are represented - but the majority will not. In fact, looming over the entire exhibition is the question of whether jewellery is actually design; or, at least whether jewellery is design in the sense that the Design Museum understands the concept.

Which is perhaps why the museum opened the exhibition with a debate as to whether it should have existed in the first place.

"I wouldn’t call what’s downstairs design, but it’s telling us something about design," said Sudjic, speaking about Unexpected Pleasures in a meeting room above the exhibition. Sudjic was joined by exhibition curator Susan Cohn, ex-Design Museum director Stephen Bayley, V&A curator Glenn Adamson and jewellery designer Solange Azagury-Partridge. "Both jewellery and design have their starting point in function of a kind," said Sudjic. "But quickly that function might become emotion."

Sudjic's caveat of "of a kind" is apt. Much of the jewellery on display lacks function in any conventional sense of the word. Cohn argues that everything in the exhibition is wearable, but pieces such as Ruudt Peters' Lingam 14 (2008), a necklace made from black dildos and butt plugs, stretch her point. Similarly, works like Caroline Broadhead's rigid, head-enveloping Veil (1983) seem closer to sculpture than they do to traditional design.

Bayley, assuming the role of a traditionalist opponent to the exhibition in the debate, put the point simply. "Historically, the idea of design and what made it different from craft or art was that the object itself might have very little intrinsic value because it was mass produced and that gave a corresponding greater value to the idea that created it," he said. "The pattern of thought I have sees jewellery as being the other way round."

Bayley's viewpoint is, he admits, a 20th century one, but it is nonetheless intriguing to reflect upon. In simplistic terms, jewellery and design are radically different beasts, each sat on opposing sides of the divide between form and function. Visitors to the exhibition should (and will) question what one-off, highly elaborate pieces of jewellery tell us about design, but while the works on display may be far removed from the accessible, easily manufacturable ideals of the industrial revolution, so too is much contemporary design.

Zaha Hadid's 2005, £120,000 Aqua Table for Established & Sons is a pertinent example. Prohibitively expensive, highly glossed and possessed with a bizarrely undulating top, the Aqua Table is no more functional than Peters' chain of sex toys. Design, whether for the good or the bad, has found room the non-functional, and as a discipline it includes pieces whose existence is solely justified by their beauty, or by the emotional connection that their owners feel towards them.

"In the last 20 years so much has changed in industrial design," said Gijs Bakker, the co-founder of Droog Design and a guest at the debate. "The field has become so broad. Just imagine how immensely important Memphis was - which was denied by many people in the design world - because it gave a completely different view of aesthetics in design. What we later did with Droog was opening up the possibility of materials and the expression of materials coming close to craft."

But whether this opening up of design design has brought it into line with jewellery is debatable. "Design began life with the industrial revolution as a means to give objects an identity or to seduce the customer," said Sudjic. "It has since become a way of asking questions and jewellery does that too." But what does a piece such as David Bielander's Scampi (2007), a ring of silver and elastic prawns, question? Design may have opened itself up to pieces whose primary purpose is conceptual or provocative - who would really use one of Gaetano Pesce's tables modelled after waterways as a workspace or dining table? - but whether it has embraced whimsy and frivolity to quite the same extent as jewellery is doubtful.

But the work on display in Unexpected Pleasures may be a barometer as to where design is heading. "In art schools right now you have an incredible sense of permission," said Adamson. "They make a video one day, a pot the next and a necklace the day after. There’s a real impatience with set category. Jewellers for decades tried to undermine any sense of certainty about what it is that they’re up to, constantly challenging the basis of their own mediums and formats. But that now seems the standard state of affairs in the art and design worlds."

Asked what his directorship of the Design Museum aimed towards, Sudjic replied, "I don’t want to set trends. I quite like entertaining the audience." But "entertaining the audience" sells Unexpected Pleasures short. As an exhibition, it leads the Design Museum towards questioning what it is that it should be doing; what, in essence, its subject matter actually is. And for that it should be applauded.