The Victoria & Albert museum has recently opened their new permanent gallery, Design 1900-Now, which aims to “tell a different story of [the] 20th and 21st century” focusing on “design and society”.
The gallery displays around 250 objects, many of which are new acquisitions, which have been purchased through the museum’s Rapid Response collecting programme. This collecting initiative was introduced in 2014, and according to the V&A’s website aims to acquire objects “in response to major moments in recent history that touch the world of design and manufacturing”.
The V&A’s senior curator of design and digital, Corinna Gardner, told Design Week that “we have sought to bring the history of design to life” and that the collection “doesn’t lean on the great figures or indeed the accepted canon – they are there and given their due, but it’s not a series of stylistic movements”. As such, the gallery is divided thematically, exploring five central themes: Housing and Living, Crisis and Conflict, Data and Communication, Sustainability and Subversion and Consumption and Identity. According to the V&A’s curator of 20th century and contemporary furniture, Johanna Agerman Ross, these themes emerged after the curators looked at “what really engages audiences”, asking “what are people worried about, excited about, concerned about?”.
The theme of consumption and identity is examined in the gallery through an exploration of consumer trends and how this affects a sense of identity. This topic is highlighted through Rizzoli’s Selfish (2015) book of Kim Kardashian selfies. Gardner states: “she uses social media as a tool to make a product that is hugely successful and deeply compelling”.
The gallery’s focus on diversity and broadening the horizons of the field outside of the accepted canon is noticeable. Less familiar names such as Huren Marsh, a Jamaican-born designer, feature, as well as Althea McNish, a textile designer from Trinidad, whose fabrics influenced by the Caribbean enjoyed popularity in Britain during the 1960s and 70s. Other objects in the gallery are Salvador Dalí and Edward James’s Mae West Lips Sofa, made in 1938-9, a print by Yinka Shonibare entitled Climate Shit Drawing 1 (2008) and a pair of Nike ‘Alphafly’ shoes worn by Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge when he became the first athlete to run a sub two hour marathon in 2019.
Whilst the space explores the whole period from 1900 to the present day, the impact the last 18 months has had is certainly felt. A British Vogue cover featuring three key workers which was released in June 2020 is included, as well as Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya’s I Still Believe in Our City bus shelter and subway posters, which were made in response to racial discrimination and, particularly, the anti-Asian harassment many in New York felt in response to the recent COVID-19 pandemic.