Speculating the future of luxury

Pleasure, passion, innovation, exclusivity, expertise, extraordinary, investment, preciousness, opulence, non-essentials – these are some of the words that once defined luxury. Yet to understand the meaning of luxury in the future requires a further set of definitions.

In speculating luxury for future generations words like authenticity, legacy, access, resource, journey, skill, memory also come to the foreground.

This is the premise behind What is Luxury? – an intriguing exhibition that has just opened at the V&A museum in London. It does not attempt to offer a straightforward dialogue on the subject; there aren’t any cliché projections of luxury here either.

Instead, the objects on display are a seemingly disparate mix ranging from mechanical timepieces to an installation of dandelion seeds and laser-cut haute couture. Together they form a dialogue exploring and interrogating the true concept of luxury.

The term is saturated. Much like the words ‘design’ and ‘curate’, ‘luxury’ seems to have been overused, at risk of loosing its, ironically enough, value.

In the dark halls of the exhibition space we are asked to take a different view of words associated with luxury. For instance what does preciousness mean in a future with diminishing natural resources? Will privacy be an ultimate component of luxury for the next generation?

What is Luxury? provokes us to speculate through fictional scenarios that consider such issues like privacy, resources, access.

A DNA vending machine by American artist Gabriele Barcia-Colombo, for instance, invites visitors to consider our increasing access to biotechnology, and how privacy and ownership of our very own DNA may become a luxury in the future.

Elsewhere, Unknown Fields Division has created a set of three ceramic vessels from toxic mud. Each is sized according to the amount of waste created in the production of three tech items: a smartphone, laptop and the cell of a smart car battery.

This forms the basis of a video installation by Toby Smith that traces the object back to the mines of Inner Mongolia where the toxic waste is sourced. The film is reversed so the resource itself becomes the focus rather than the end object.

In another installation, glass specialist Steffen Dam uses real dandelion seed heads harvested before opening to make the enchanting Jellyfish Installation for the concept of extraordinary.

‘Luxury isn’t something new, it’s as old as civilization,’ notes co-curator Leanne Wierzba, ‘but we argue that it is a particularly prescient topic at the moment because it’s so much a part of the vocabulary of our time.’

Last week I watched as a Japanese artisan beat a copper ingot into a thick sheet by hand, adding colour through a reaction between tin plate and compounds taken from nature. It took months to create Kodoki, a delicate copper vase using this ancient tsuiki method.

This delicate object in a way represents what luxury will be to future generations. It will be about demonstrating skills that can’t be taught, crafts that have passed down generations, materials that are so rare, and the time spent in creating. Luxury has to become about creating the extraordinary.

Nargess Banks

What is Luxury? a V&A and Crafts Council Exhibition will run from 25 April to 27 September 2015.

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