V&A takes on the car as a design object in new exhibition

Robert Bosh electronic control unit and wiper blade, 1926 (c) Bosch

The motor car has shaped our modern world and is about to define its future. In its 130 years, this object of desire and destruction has been critical in enforming our lives – from the design of our cities and our relation to the countryside, to how we work, live and communicate with one another. In its golden age, the motor car conjured up such strong visceral feelings, yet it remains a disturbing symbol of our current climate emergency.

This is the premise behind the V&A’s latest exhibition ‘Cars: accelerating the modern world‘. Together with the accompanying book, the show is a fascinating overview of the motor car’s complex past, and acts as a useful tool for navigating the second stage of the automobile. What’s apparent is that, just like the beginnings of the motor car revolution, the future clean, autonomous, shared drive will need greater cooperation and coordination with urban and country planning. It needs to be a global effort, and performed well and without profit at its very core, it can be an exciting future. Read my full story here.

Enter photographer Tim Walker’s fantastical world at the V&A

Image maker, explorer, wanderer, dreamer – Tim Walker’s photography is about elaborate staging and romantic motifs. He creates fairy-tale worlds, magical sets, then turns them on their heads. Spanning some 25 years, his is a fascinating body of work captured in an enchanting exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Tim Walker V&A (C) Design Talking
Tim Walker at the V&A (c) Design Talking

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things’ is as much about Walker’s work as his relation to the gallery hosting this exhibition – for he has formed an intimate conversation with the V&A. Walker once called the museum ‘a place for dreams’, noting that the eclectic collection here has long resonated with him. ‘The V&A is the most inspiring place in the world,’ says one of the most successful fashion photographers of his generation.

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things (c) V&A

For 25 years Walker has photographed models, celebrities and artists. His work appears in Vogue, W, i-D, AnOther and LOVE. He certainly has some favourite muses – Tilda Swinton features frequently and the photographs of the actress are some of his most powerful.

This is the largest-ever exhibition of Walker, though don’t expect a straightforward retrospective. There are plenty of his well-known photos here, but more exciting are the new works informed by the V&A’s collection. In preparation, Walker spent a year exploring the archives, rummaged through the maze of the V&A’s 145 galleries. He scaled the roof of the west London site, and the labyrinth of Victorian passages below in search of arts, ideas and objects to inspire a new body of work.

Tim Walker, 'Tilda Swinton', Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire, 2018 (c) Tim Walker Studio
Tim Walker, ‘Tilda Swinton’, Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire, 2018 (c) Tim Walker Studio

Amongst his finds are stained-glass windows, vivid Indian miniature paintings, jewelled snuffboxes, erotic illustrations, golden shoes, and a 65-metre-long photograph of the Bayeux Tapestry. This curious collection, also on display, have informed his narrative to form ten of the main installations in the exhibition.

Walker believes what happens in his artificial, staged worlds have to seem as real as possible for the photograph to be believable, and to resonate with us on a visceral level. His is, therefore, a very human brand of fantasy. Yet these are grand ideas and the complex production requires creative help. For the V&A, Walker worked with one of his frequent collaborators, the set designer Shona Heath, to form these ethereal settings.

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things (c) V&A

‘Each new shoot is a love letter to an object from the V&A collection, and an attempt to capture my encounter with the sublime,’ says Walker. ‘For me, beauty is everything. I’m interested in breaking down the boundaries that society has created, to enable more varied types of beauty and the wonderful diversity of humanity to be celebrated.’ Preparing for this exhibition, he admits, has pushed him into new territories. ‘It is very exciting, and I’m at a stage in my life where I feel brave enough to do that.’

Access to a decent smartphone and an Instagram account has made photographers out of many of us. And we need talents like Tim Walker to remind us all that great image-making isn’t a matter of a good lens and photoshop skills. Timeless photographs – from Man Ray to Lee Miller to Cecil Beaton (whose work inspired Walker) and Richard Avedon (for whom he was an assistant) are about constructing images, choreographing a stage, narrating a story. These are moving images captured in a still moment.

Ultimately, ‘Tim Walker: Wonderful Things’ is a meditation on the beauty of the imagination. And much like the V&A, each room unravels a new and wondrous world.

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things is on at the V&A from 21 September 2019 – 8 March 2020

V&A displays protest art by climate change activists Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is an exciting movement. This progressive collective, calling for urgent action on climate change through acts of non-violent civil disobedience and disruption, has grown into an international force. XR’s first public action was in October 2018, when it urged the UK government to declare an ecological emergency and commit to reducing emissions to net-zero by 2025. Now there are some 363 XR groups active in 59 countries – all with a unified message. XR makes a visual statement wherever they appear thanks to the Art Group, an XR coalition of graphic designers and artists responsible for formulating a visual language that is powerful and works on a global scale.

Now, the V&A in London has acquired a series of XR protest artwork to explore how design, strong graphics and illustration, as well as the use of colour have contributed to the success of this explosive movement. On display in the Rapid Response Collecting gallery, are a collection of symbols and flags including the brilliant ‘extinction symbol’. Originally created in 2011 by the street artist ESP, it has since been adopted by XR featuring a circle to represent earth and a stylised hourglass to signify the end of time. 

The strong graphic impact of the extinction symbol, alongside a clear set of design principles, have ensured that their acts of rebellion are immediately recognisable,’ says Corinna Gardner, senior curator of design and digital at the V&A, who feels design has been a critical component of the group’s success. ‘Punchy colours, woodblock prints, and carefully worded slogans available for download empower members of the public to produce their own creative responses that collectively amplify the XR’s call to action.’

XR’s graphics are characterised by four core design elements: the use of the extinction symbol, the XR logotype, and a colour-palette of 12 playful tones including ‘lemon’ yellow and ‘angry’ pink – influenced by pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi – and the fonts ‘FUCXED’. Theirs has been about balancing joy and anger and with a bold, tongue-in-cheek approach, juxtaposing imagery of the natural world with skulls and bones. Gardner says XR’s design approach stands in relation to earlier protest movements, namely the Suffragettes who encouraged the wearing of purple, green and white to visually communicate their cause.

The V&A’s Rapid Response Collecting programme enables the acquisition and immediate display of design objects that address questions of social, political, technological and economic change. Since 2014, the collection has grown to over thirty objects that chart the impact of contemporary design on the world today.

These latest objects are fascinating in that they collectively reveal how XR has harnessed the power of open-source design to develop a coherent and impactful visual identity. The rebellion to save this planet is a global protest and XR have shown that design can play a crucial role in amplifying the message. The group’s urgent visuals articulate hope, simultaneously outlining the grave consequences of climate change.

All images (c) Chris J Ratcliffe Getty Images for the V&A

Exhibition – Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

Opera requires gauze to be wrapped around the imagination. It is hoped that the power of music and that most versatile of all instruments, the human voice, helped along by the magic of lighting and design could help penetrate that gauze. So, it was with some trepidation that I went along to the preview of ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. How do they convey that artful magic, which depends on so many improbables to work, and in a museum setting? The V&A has done just that and more.

Created in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, this is a vivid and immersive journey through 400 years of European operatic history, focusing on its key moments from its roots in Renaissance Italy. Senior curator Kate Bailey has combined décor, costumes, artefacts, paintings, drawings, videos and above all cleverly-chosen excerpts from seven operas symbolising each epoch which appear in our earphones seemingly from the ether as the visitor walks through the years, to evoke the magic that is opera. The synchronisation of sound and our movement through the galleries is truly astounding.

We begin in Venice, the birthplace of opera with Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. The date, 1642. One of the first pieces that can be called an opera with the angelic voices of Catherine Bott and Ann Sofie von Otter, literally floating between the two earphones. You have to read the clearly presented synopsis on the wall to remember that they are singing of the murderous emperor Nero. A painting by Bernardo Strozzi of singer and composer Barbara Strozzi as a courtesan hints at the parallel world of sex and music, a theme reiterated throughout the exhibition.

London 1711 follows, with Handel’s Ronaldo dedicated to the art loving queen Ann. Unlucky with children – she lost all seventeen. With the beautiful countertenor voice of David Daniels flowing into our ears, we are led to the tiny picture of Farinelli, castrated before puberty to maintain his fresh boyish voice, on a brooch ready to adorn the chest of some society lady. We learn that, apparently, castrati were popular with women.

We jump to Mozart’s Vienna of 1786 on the eve of the French Revolution. With the Marriage of Figaro, Mozart was thumping his large nose, as pictured by Ernest Thelott, at the aristocracy. Lorenzo Di Ponte’s libretto, based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ play, shows servants Figaro and Suzanna outmanoeuvring the randy Count. Possibly the most perfect of operas is being sung on the wall as I look over the sumptuous costumes worn by Susanna and the Countess and wonder how on earth they could sing with all that weight on their chest.

Rebellion reappears in Milan half a century later with Verdi’s Nabucco, premiered in 1842. The chorus of the Hebrew slaves became the unofficial national anthem of the Risorgimento which led to the unification of Italy. The powerful angelic voice of Maria Callas, while I walk beneath photographs of the ceilings of many opera houses in Italy, points to the centrality of opera in popular culture there.

Wagner’s Tannhaüser of 1861 was being feted, and reviled, in the Paris of the Second Empire where, in the name of cleaning up the slums, Baron Haussmann had razed the rebellious quarters of the city to the ground, building wide boulevards which made the movements of the troops much easier. Sadly for the emperor, ten years later Paris revolted again. Multiple videos show four interpretations of the erotic ballet scene an der Venusberg, brilliantly synchronised as if they all followed the same tempo.

A corridor lined with paintings by the German expressionist group Die Brücke (Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottlulf) lead us to the Dresden of 1905 with Richard Straus’s modernist opera Salome. The curators present this opera as on the road to the emancipation of women. There on a huge screen Nadja Michael’s Salome, covered in blood is passionately kissing the torso-deprived head of John the Baptist, singing, gyrating to Straus’s erotic music with clear oriental overtones. Sex and violence – another theme of the show. Woman as femme-fatal in a literal sense. Or rather in this case, a teenage crush gone awry. It is a relief to take my eye off the gory video and rest it on the designs for Salome by the likes of the American Lois Fuller, a pioneer of modern dance, the surrealist Salvador Dali and fashion designer Versace.

The next corridor pays homage to pioneering women through text and image – Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg who organised the first International Women’s day in 1911, and German artist Käthe Kollwitz who depicted the hardships of working class women. This leads to Leningrad of 1934 (the curators insist on calling the city St Petersburg) where we see Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, wildly acclaimed until Stalin saw it and walked out on the last act writing an anonymous article in Pravda calling it muddle instead of music.

A film showing the young Shostakovich playing on the piano is placed in a patio whose entrance is criss-crossed by red tape – symbolic with a picture of Stalin scowling down from above on all of us. Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya singing the aria lamenting her loveless, sex-less life brings tears to my eyes and, like the first room, I have difficulty leaving. This is an opera on sexual liberation far superior to Salome.

The final room reveals footage of some of the iconic twentieth-century operas, projected on its four walls simultaneously, giving a feeling of being immersed. They included George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht, and John Adam’s Death of Kinghoffer. The nun’s chorus scene from Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is interrupted with the guillotine cutting off their heads, one by one – maybe a bit too much decapitation in one show. And a favourite, Barbara Hannigan singing in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Opera alive and well. And singing.

Walking through this maze of wonder, I am made to feel alone with the music of the past and present, enveloped by the experience. This is the press preview, but what happens when the doors are opened to the public? Unless the numbers are limited it would be difficult to get close enough to read the clues so essential to the magical journey. And to feel totally engaged. To rip out the gauze. But I guess the V&A will not let this fantastic effort go to waste.

Mohsen Shahmanesh 

‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’, opened at the V&A yesterday as the first exhibition to use the new Sainsbury Gallery. It will be on show until 27 February 2018. Take a look at the events surrounding the exhibition here.


Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

Highlights of London Design Festival 2017

The creative industries are worth close to £90bn a year to the economy, offering some three million jobs here. It is a ‘serious, big, wealth-earning and reputation-enhancing’ sector, Sir John Sorrell told the Financial Times this weekend. These numbers came back to me as the London Design Festival (16-24 September) kicked off bringing colour and creativity to pockets of this dynamic city.

In its fifteenth year, LDF is expecting some 350,000 visitors. Sorrell founded the festival. He feels London’s advantage over copycat events has always been our rich creative education system which dates back 180 years when the state set up the Government School of Design in Somerset House to improve the quality of design. It is also thanks to an open city, an international city that embraces people of all colour, race and religion – something that became rather clear when, unlike most of the nation, the majority of Londoners found the concept of leaving Europe completely absurd.

Fifteen years on and LDF is bigger, bolder, braver and crucially more inclusive – representing voices from the international community and not only star designers which seemed to be the case in previous years. This year’s festival, which officially began on Saturday and will go on all week, feels more confident. LDF has grown to include Design Frontiers at Somerset House, Landmark projects around the city, Design Junction at King’s Cross and a whole host of pop-ups from Brixton to Clerkenwell and around the city.

Sir John Sorrell seems pleased with the event as he joins our group for a preview walk around the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is traditionally LDF’s main hub where exhibitors are asked to choose a room and create work that responds to the space and collection. For me the V&A exhibits are the most exciting part of LDF, for this unique place is a living museum, constantly evolving to be an expression of my city, its past, its now and its future – and it carries infinite personal memories.

The exhibits are a big mix tackling various themes from sustainability, ageing to materiality. They include Leaf, a bionic chandelier by the V&A’s emerging talent medallist Julian Melchiorri. Here his chandelier explores how biological micro-organisms and materials can convert waste and pollution into valuable resources. Then Scooter for Life by transport designer Paul Priestman addresses ageing and mobility. Whilst Czech glassmaker Petr Stanicky works with the possibilities of materials with two installations – a mesmerising site-specific work offering pixelated vistas of the surrounding V&A in the delicate September light, and a geometric thick glass structure that plays with our sense of perspective. Then, set designer Es Devlin’s High Tide for Carmen takes us on a bit of Alice in Wonderland trip to the making of her scenes for the Georges Bizet’s opera.

A visual treat is Flynn Talbot’s Reflection Room which looks incredible in the Prince Consort Gallery, a vaulted space rarely visited. It is dramatically illuminated on either end by the Australian artist’s trademark blue and orange lighting. He says the blue is symbolic of the ocean and the orange of the vast sunsets and sunrises of his childhood.

While We Wait by Palestinian architects Elias and Yousef Anastas explores the cultural claim of nature and is inspired by the Cremisan Valley between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The lace-like structure of local stone spirals softly up the Medieval and Renaissance rooms as we are encouraged to enter and take a meditative and reflective moment inside. Form and objects also chart cultural identity and ideas by V&A artist-in-residence Lobna Chowdhary.

Yet my pick of the V&A exhibitions is Transmission by London designer Ross Lovegrove in the incredible Tapestries room. His 21-meter-long flowing installation and free-standing three-dimensional tapestry works are made of tactile Alcantara – the colours offer the exact pigments of the stunning renaissance textiles that surround it. Lovegrove was inspired by the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries on display at the far end of this dark and mysterious room. In a reflective moment, he expresses his longing to explore such non-commercial projects, of taking this installation to other historical locations and to see how it responds and lives on.

Away from the V&A, as part of the Landmarks projects, architect Sam Jacob Studios presents Urban Cabin, the fourth project in the Mini Living research initiative to see how intelligent design can help city life. Sitting on the Southbank behind Oxo Tower, it explores London’s identity and what the city means to its inhabitants. Jacob questions the concept of private home, how we can challenge the existing (possibly outdated) model to be relevant for today and future urban inhabitants living in crowded cities where property is limited and expensive. He proposes a mixed private and shared space explored through food and books. Urban Cabin offers a shared open kitchen to evoke the feeling of street food and markets, and a micro-library, a cross between grand library and the books piled by our bedside. It is brilliantly constructed with opposing materials – precious stone, building foam, expensive timber, cheap wood – stacked sculpturally to create both shelving and exterior structure. Then the communal modular structure is covered in copper mesh to reflect the surrounding city life.

Elsewhere, Stellar Works presented Indigo: A Cultural Iconography at the Design Museum, an installation by design duo Neri&Hu exploring materiality in manufacturing, the craft of making and the associations between old and new and east and west in attitude, form and application.

Finally, at Design Junction Campari offers Campari Creates a stylish floating bar on the canal at Granary Square, King’s Cross to serve classic Campari cocktails and launch La Vita Campari. This lifestyle book is a hybrid of arts and ideas, design history, liquid history and cocktail book, and it was created by Spinach for Campari and authored by me. The book will be available at the barge until the end of the festival.

Nargess Banks

See previous years’ highlights here.

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©