William Morris design: useful and aesthetic

Their culture and ours

Exhibition What is luxury? Victoria and Albert Museum, until September 27 2015

What would you expect from an exhibition that asked the question, ‘Luxury - what is it?’

The Victoria and Albert is London’s museum of the decorative arts, founded out of the 1851 Great Exhibition, and featuring a permanent collection of work, from antique ceramics to eastern art and medieval sculpture. In recent years the V&A’s temporary shows have had an emphasis on fashion and pop, like the recent one on the designer, Alexander McQueen, and the latest one on designer shoes. However, What is luxury? is neither about a particular object nor a creative individual.

This exhibition is curated under the authority of the Craft Council, which declares on its website that the show is concerned with “how luxury is made and understood in a physical, conceptual and cultural capacity”. In my nearest dictionary, luxury is defined as “indulgence in and enjoyment of rich, comfortable and sumptuous living” - a definition combining pleasure and wealth. The word comes from the Latin luxuria,a term appearing in the work of ancient Roman writers like Livy, Virgil and Horace to mean extravagance, profusion and excess. It was also used to mean ‘running riot’. None of these uses were complimentary. Some reviewers of the V&A show have answered the question by saying that these days ‘luxury’ is nearly meaningless. It merely signals a commodity that is pricey and with some kind of snobbish value. After all, the word is now used to shift shower gel and bags, as well as cars and hotels.

Admission to the show is free and the whole of it takes up only four rooms. So, with what materials, substantial and intellectual, does it attempt to provoke answers to its title question?

In room 1, the wall information refers to “exceptional objects” and states its aim as providing “challenges [to] preconceived notions of value”. The crafted works are ones that meet the traditional expectations of luxury. Among them is a church vestment (a chasuble), a military-looking tunic with gold thread, some decorative spoons and a howdah: that is, an elaborate seat for riding an elephant. Along with these exhibits there are words written across the glass cabinets, one to each piece. Words like “Opulence”, “Investment”, “Exclusively”, “Non-essential” and “Preciousness” - titles which will no doubt remind us of the days when luxury meant such unique and highly wrought pieces.

In the next room there is just one work, a contemporary sculpture which is a network of glass, rather like a chandelier, with receptacles containing water and jellyfish. The fish and the liquid bubbles though turn out also to be fabrications by the maker, Steffen Dam. This is, of course, art, rather than something which, though exclusive and opulent, is still used for a particular function, such as church ritual, a military rank or suggests making an activity more comfy, such as riding an elephant (the blurb admits that the seat was comfortable neither for the passengers nor the elephant).

There is then a room on ‘projections’ - musings on the extraordinary uses of certain materials, some of which might become luxurious one day. Other cabinets exhibit Australian Aborigine ornaments made of tiny gold ingots, alongside projected films about the mining of certain materials used in phones and laptops. One particular clip of an explosion reminded me of a remark once made by comic Lenny Henry about a Levis commercial: “They blow up Africa so you can have studs on your jeans.”

Then there are the speculations on whether some materials could become luxury in the future - like plastics, when the oil runs out, or the use of human hair to make ‘luxury’ wigs. In another corner is a ‘vending machine’ by Gabriel Garcia-Colombo, which contains not drink cans or sweets, but packets marked DNA. Clearly we will all have something valuable to sell in this future.

In the last room you can watch a longer film projected onto the wall, a stop-action animation, where a simple chair acquires out of thin air various layers of decoration, with added cloth and so on. This exhibit is called ‘The last man’, suggesting what someone might do if left alone after an apocalypse, making the ordinary into an opulent and precious object, presumably for the survivor’s own satisfaction not to sell.

Luxury and value

You cannot help feeling something is missing from all this, that the antiques and speculations are rather underwhelming. Not just because it is a small space, but because it does not get anywhere near the heart of luxury now.

After all, what notions does the show challenge? Its major idea seems to be that luxury is what special people do with special material. Gold is included, but here are materials which are now not at all scarce - plastic, hair - and could become rare and therefore used to make expensive products. Then a chair becomes special when it is decorated by hand: that is, by a special effort of labour. Luxury is just unique things hand-made by special people: a fitting promotion for an organisation called the Craft Council, but is that all there is to the subject?

There was a time in history when everything was hand-made and only those things that took longer to make were luxuries bought by the more moneyed classes. With the introduction of faster tools - technology - this world made way for massproduction of necessities and also of some things that had been considered luxuries.

In Wages, prices and profit (1865) Marx defined exchange value as arising from the time it took to hand-make such products: this was the bottom-line ‘natural price’. The extent of demand for it could later be the excuse for adding more to this price. Gold and silver, of course, took more time and effort to find and attain, so they cost more than other commodities.

Factory capitalism emerged in embryo when workshops replaced home working and when makers were no longer paid for individual products, but for their time, during which they could produce more items than their daily wage paid them for, and this began in Europe with hand craft. In the late Middle Ages the craft weavers of Flanders borrowed a speedier hand loom from Islamic Spain and east Africa. Daily production increased and outstripped the products of home weavers. The Black Death, ie, bubonic plague, had already decreased the population and landowner nobles were turning their fields over from agricultural labour to pasture for sheep. The weavers, following the capitalist imperative to expand, called on this greater supply of wool. Merchant towns like Venice grew rich on trading wool cloth for luxury goods in the east, and production of cloth and sheep farming expanded together. However, this did not mean that luxury objects, which were made more slowly, vanished; the merchants, who bought the wool and organised the workshops, had new wealth to spend.

In the 1890s American theorist Thorstein Veblen wrote about the symbolic use of such luxury products. He referred mockingly to the “leisure class” in his 1899 The theory of the leisure class, by which he meant the US bourgeoisie that increased after the Civil War, making fortunes out of railways, oilfields and eventually cars. With their profits they built mansions and bought European art. The main aim of this, Veblen argued, was not just comfort or enjoyment, but to assert their status as newcomers to the world’s wealthy elite - a message directed not only at the old elites, but everyone else too. Veblen called this the buying of glory: conspicuous consumption, a term later used more widely during the post-1945 boom to refer to the spending of suburbanites, especially on cars and other consumer goods, to impress the neighbours.

However, the contrast between the very expensive object and the high street variety is less absolute than it was. Linda Grant in The thoughtful dresser (2009) describes how in recent years exclusive handbags like Chanel, Hermes and Vuitton began to be bought by the middle class. Not only in western capitals, but also in Hong Kong and among elites in developing countries. There was an inherent appeal: the bags were useful, roomy for all one’s things, but, of course, they were not as pricey as the clothes from the same brands, while still having the exclusive logo - status on the cheap.

“Yet,” Grant remarks, “the more luxury became available to the mass market, the more luxury became devalued.” People bought expensive logos regularly, often going into credit card debt. The rationale that saw such things as an investment, something that endured, began to sound feeble. Grant adds: “It was like investing in gold during a period of high inflation.” The point was not laying up treasure for the future, but simply the evidence of big spending in the present.

The luxury tag became a near-meaningless category for the purposes of class differentiation, except by a very high price or in reference to in-group rituals - putting your name down to buy fashion items or accessing the stuff through someone you knew.

For the super-rich it is this distinction of accessibility/inaccessibility, not just the price, that may be part of the buzz. As one London supplier put it, “billionaires want what no-one else can have”, even to the point of only being seen by a few in having it. At many auctions the high bidders are anonymous. At other businesses, English aristocrats, as well as rich Russians, Chinese and Saudis, are pampered in private, preferably by someone with an English accent, who need not be particularly posh, but who possesses a skill at service that implies “supplying the best to the best” (quote from the Channel 4 documentary, The world’s most expensive food).

For everyone

But where is this confusing, but still divided, situation at the V&A? The Craft Council show presents us with two ‘contexts’: luxuries of the past, like the howdah, and possible rare materials of a future. Small though the space is, I am sure most visitors might have expected a few of the kind of objects they are most familiar with - whether high-street indulgences or the marks of the rich and famous. Added to which, we could explore ideas and challenge misconceptions about today’s more common luxury products. Say, comparisons between a famous brand product and the low-priced version, or even counterfeit replicas. This would be an admission, of course, that class distinctions have not totally disappeared, despite the products looking similar.

The exhibition seems to invite a notion that luxury involves everybody now - from Aborigines with their gold ingots to those who might sell their hair or DNA. These days we all decorate our chairs: that is, our living spaces. But does it prove we have all got it made? And is buying high street items marked ‘luxury’ a question of comfort and pleasure? The ‘luxury car’ for hire does indeed have more distinctive features, while a ‘luxury leather jacket’ is more close fitting than the chain store one and more likely to be seen at a celebrity party. Yet what indeed is luxurious about John Frieda’s “luxurious volume shower treatment” for hair - a gel you simply slap on and later rinse off? Is that a pleasurable experience in itself - more enjoyable than, say, eating a cold orange on a hot day or taking a long bath, which leaves your hair just as clean?

The idea that luxury is something in which everyone is involved, so that we all share in the special, is part of a particular ideology: that there is no more ‘leisure class’. All the ‘deserving’ people work these days, from cleaners to CEOs (while the ‘unemployed’ have been turned into our enemies) and we all indulge ourselves - it’s just that some of us have a bit more cash. A sign of the times is that some contemporary brands have shrunk their labels on products, as if to deny ostentation during the recession. Those in the know, however, can still recognise the goods, and who else is the purchaser supposed to care about?

At the high end, luxury isn’t what it used to be. As services decline in the ‘race to the bottom’ (less personal contact and more interface with the cheaper machines), even the super-rich seem to be less interested in pleasure. The more expensive items of lavish exchange value are ones where the use-value is almost zero - art by a famous name that could have been made by anyone except for the signature, and those houses in central London bought by billionaires as investments that are left empty and dark, unused and unenjoyed by anyone.

But where does this leave craft, the specially made unique objects of individual makers? Is craft luxury? If you go to the Craft Council website, you find the pages seem to promote both education and exhibitions. They proclaim an interest in building “more routes into craft careers”, from GCSE to higher education - which sounds diverse and open - while expressing their support for all makers, “from master goldsmiths to makers who build film sets and props, from the small batch production of designer makers to one-off ceramic masterpieces”. However, most of the visual material on site is devoted to something else - the products of those small-batch or one-off artist products, which I understand from a member reflects their interest in the ‘aspirational’ and celebrity.

The council’s annual exhibition, ‘Collect’, is held at the prestigious Saatchi Gallery, where it presents “world-class, museum-quality contemporary craft” - or at least big-name designers in the field, like the couture of Iris van Herpen or George Daniels’s “upmarket” clocks. This would seem to pose the council as the home of the exclusive (excluding the less well known or even hobbyist crafters), identifying craft with that London which is as Boris Johnson’s World City of luxury services, craft which is closer to art and antiques (ceramics, wood, glass) than the useful though still decorative arts - textiles, crochet, household tools.

If the V&A show focused on the present a little more, it might have compared expensive craft objects with the interestingly made yet inexpensive kind. There are plenty of these at craft fairs and online. The show could also have found ways to address issues of use and decoration. This is not to acclaim functional modernism as the only style, though that could be in the mix too, but to ask where in our world do you find really useful culture now, whether it be thought-provoking art (and not a remake) or something like the scarf of mine, by Crochet Da,that both looks good and keeps me warmer than the John Lewis kind.

So, finally, if craft is not always a luxury but is still special and unique, will it exist in a society of common ownership? In chapter 32 of Capital Vol 1, Marx defines the new relationship to property that could occur in a future communist society: “This [the new society] does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives them individual property based on … cooperation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.”

That Marxist of the later 19th century, William Morris, promoted the idea that a social revolution would mean the time when we would only have in our houses things that were “beautiful or useful”. He defined good work, good working, as an activity “with hope of rest, hope of pleasure in the work itself [and] a product worth having by one who is neither a fool nor an ascetic …” (Useful work versus useless toil 1884). Take away the proviso to make a profit - either through high-priced art or products that wear out too soon - and a handmade sector would be for the love of the thing, for the joy of making, as well as showing to other people. Currently, people design and make available their work not just in shops and galleries, but at fairs and through various craft associations, as well as websites. Such a network could be the basis, though only a starting point, for a local and international exchange of ideas.

Contrary to prejudice, William Morris did not reject industrial technology: he set it alongside hand craft. A thriving craft culture could very well feed into design for industrial production, emphasising the well-made and useful, combined with the decorative and pleasurable. Furthermore, individuals could be the source of solutions to some of the pressing problems of even a transitional socialist society, such as resource conservation, as well as help to provide what many people in other parts of the world now see as luxuries, like clean running water and other facilities.

Why shouldn’t the enjoyment of the unique and admirable object mean something more than following designer-label fashion or high-priced art? Why not a culture as rich and diverse as all the individual makers across the globe? Then the present careless culture of prestigious uselessness and throwaway commercialism would no longer beguile us; we could be both creative and practical in the same life.

Mike Belbin