All That Glisters is Not Gold…

DesignMuseum-Caroline-Broadhead-veil-1983Earlier this week I went with some students to London’s Design Museum to see two exhibitions that I anticipated might be full of shiny things to inspire for the Christmas season. Well, it wasn’t quite like that! The two shows were Unexpected Pleasures: The Art and Design of Contemporary Jewellery and Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum.

I was at the jewellery exhibition because some of my university students are taking part in the Museum’s Design Factory competition and this exhibition is part of the compulsory research. As it showcases a really eclectic array of jewellery and accessories made from all kinds of wierd and wonderful materials and objects it fits with the theme of the competition – melding the traditional and the contemporary in an experimental manner. It certainly did that!

At first, wandering slightly bemusedly around the black show cases I felt that the displays were a bit Emperor’s New Clothes and made you go “Hmmmm!” A lot of horrible bits of plastic and dingy looking metal and not really my idea of jewellery no matter how contemporary and experiementnal.  Giant slinkys worn over the head are not my cup of tea.

But as I walked round I began to mellow and once I saw the ring with the “goose egg carrier” I had to laugh. My collegue and I agreed that the egg, clasped by thin wires, looked like something a be-wigged eighteenth century dandy would wear. The label said it could be worn with care!


I warmed to the neck pieces that should be worn by the witch lady from Pirates of the Caribbean; a pink flocked set of small bones suspended glamoroulsy in gold chain, and an exotic montage neck piece with African icons and bits of French type within it. Red woollen hearts, like many fingered mittens, were cute, as was the case of animal-based jewels where a little fox made of grey folded ribbon won acclaim from all who passed by (Frosty Night Fox, 2010, by Ribbonesia aka Toru Yoshikawa). One of my favourite pieces was a red velvet heart, strung with chains and mini studs, with its front removed to show insides filled with pins. This was a fantastic mixture of soft and dangerous textures, charm and painful promise/threat. (Phoenix, 2009, by Sari Liimatta)

Goose Egg

relic rose

african neckpiece


As well as the modern items there was a section showing similar experiements from the past. Some of these looked more recognisable as jewellery, with tribal influences to the fore, though re-made in metals and perspex. Pierre Cardin’s huge and uncomfy-looking white neck-piece seemed to have jumped straight out of an old Vogue. But best of all in this section was the pendant made by Bauhaus star, Anni Albers, from a drian strainer and paper clips.

Coming away from Unexpected Pleasures I felt that the name of the show had real meaning after all. I undertake a lot of diverent thinking exercises with my learners, both within The Graphic Design Project and with the university students. This is to try to make them see that in design there is not necessarily a “correct” answer to a design problem. It encourages them to – pardon the cliche – “think outside of the box”. This jewellery show looked like some very grand divergent thinking exercise with some clever and well-made solutions. I must admit that I probably would not wear most of the pieces and many of them looked scrubby and uncomfortable. But I really applaud the thoughts and adventurousness behind the objects. I hope my students will be as inspired as I was and come up with some cracking ideas for the competition in the new year.

One last comment, though, on Unexpected Pleasures. The graphics were hard to read and cheap-looking. The bold white type on a bright red or purple background of the labels was difficult and even the wall graphics, were the colours were reversed, made you read slowly, word by word by word, with no flow. I was suprised to find out that the design was by the celebrated Jonathan Barnbrook – deliberately showing himself to be an enfant terrible of graphic design?


Expecting more stunning glittery things we then went upstairs to see Digital Crystal. The strap line was “the future of memory”, but most of it looked like corporate reception area decoration. The promise of paper shades looking like chandeliers was a bit of an exageration and the Ron Arrad piece, Lolita, just looked like an extra pretty LCD advert in a hotel lobby. I was a bit underwhelmed by spinning bits of crystal but I did like the noisy, booming animation of crystal forming, being reminded of underwater lava spouts. However, the Museum has an interesting micro site on its website that shows videos of the Digital Crystal designers explaining their vision – you can find this here.




The best thing I saw that day was in a seperate display, called Designers in Residence. Here the Museum each year gives a chance to new graduates or companies to showcase what they do. One of the designers, Yuri Suzuki, has produced an electronics kit or game called the Denki Puzzle, in which all of the pieces are designed as icons to show what their function is within an electric circuit. Suzuki explains that a few years ago people understood the working parts of radios and other electronics equipment, but nowadays, with miniaturisation and machine-made iPods and so on, people don’t understand electronic components. So the icon shapes of the Denki Puzzle help explain what they do. In the brochure for the exhibition these are compared to typographic forms that “mean” what they do. You can make working radios, lights and so on from the puzzle. You can see more about it at the website of Protein here.

GDP folks, if you are going with minors to the Unexpected Pleasures show be aware that there are items based very descriptively on the most intimate parts of the body – great mix of textures though!



Images credits:

Top: Caroline Broadhead, Veil, 1983 Copyright Design Museum Image courtesy of Design Museum Press Office

Second: Karl Fritsch, Screw Ring, 2012

Sigurd Bronger, Carrying Device for a Goose Egg, 1997

Christoph Zellweger, Relic Rose, 2007/8

Sari Liimatta, Phoenix, 2009,

Ron Arrad, Lolita, Copyright Design Musuem, Image courtesy of the Design Musuem Press Office

Yves Behar, Amplify

Troika, Hardcoded Memory

Philippe Malouin, Blur

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