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Bastardizing a classic.

March 5, 2017

Desperately clutching at the precipice to secure a hold on the edge in a competitive race to survive against the vast selection of cultural establishments London has to offer, we can find the V&A. Coming from a historic grounding as a mecca for students, and the intrigued, has the V&A lost its way? Rather than looking in the obvious places, I suggest it might be simpler to look no further than our stomachs. I propose that the V&A Café indicates that the museum itself has transformed its focus from education to capital. A shift in narrative from its institutional history.

The café of the V&A is an intriguing array, swallowing the masses as they come to find refuge from the enormous museum collection. As part of the museum’s ‘FuturePlan’, the café development was to restore “modern design and innovation into the heart of the museum” (V&A · V&A Café, n.d).

Interesting that this ‘magnificent and historic café’ that we must visit (according to the website) has been half-baked. The corridor itself demonstrates a modern style of thinking and cohesive design couplings, with a clean, pared back aesthetic, utilising Arne Jacobsen’s Ant chairs in an application aligned with their designed purpose (Novo Nordisk’s Canteen), slightly neglected, but cohesive nonetheless.

However once we venture into the centre of the “exciting, accessible and relaxing” mess (Development of the V&A café, 2006 – V&A Museum, 2013), a haphazard menagerie can be found within the main dining rooms. Cluttered, disorganised layout, self-service and grand piano aside, let’s focus on one specific artefact to centre this examination, the V&A’s choice of chair for within the dining rooms; Arne Jacobsen’s 7 series chair.

Arne Jacobsen’s 7-series, an iconic Danish design created in 1955, licensed to be reproduced exclusively by Fritz Hansen, but often imitated. The simple, ergonomic design still holds its weight within a contemporary design setting, however perhaps the older population of the United Kingdom might have it synonymous with the Lewis Morley photograph of Christine Keeler. Here at the V&A, the modernist steel frame is executed in mahogany leather, plentiful amongst anonymous white cafeteria tables summoning thoughts of practicality and durable functionality.

If I was to gleam what they might intend by the selection, optimistically I could suggest that they believe good design doesn’t need context, that good design is good anywhere. Big names will automatically be a big hit and suitable choice. A decision ‘justified’ by deferring responsibility to the ‘young architectural practice’ (V&A · V&A Café, n.d). The cynic within wonders if the ‘young architectural practice’ were chosen as a cost cutting gesture, or if they believed a young practice would have cutting edge and contemporary ideas for the space.

One could suggest the chair selection is a reflection on the V&A as an institution, a museum interested in numbers rather than the individual experience, quantity not quality. As Tim Barringer expresses (p.12, 1997), “The meaning of an object is inflected, even re-invented by the context in which it is displayed”. So despite being a beautiful Danish classic, in a discerning shade, fitting into the colour scheme of the Morris room, the elaborate and beautiful craftwork within the room’s historic detailing is lost amongst the frenzied cafeteria style outfitting beneath in a sad, extreme juxtaposition. A masterpiece blends into its milieu and goes unnoticed.

References:

– Architectural history of the V&A 1863 – 1873 – Victoria and Albert Museum (2013) Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/architectural-history-of-the-v-and-a-1863-1873-fowkes-architectural-master-plan-an-interrupted-vision/ (Accessed: 27 February 2017).

– Barringer, T. and Flynn, T. (eds.) (1997) Colonialism and the object: Empire, material culture, and the museum. New York: Taylor & Francis.

– Development of the V&A café, 2006 – Victoria and Albert Museum (2013) Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/d/cafe-development/ (Accessed: 27 February 2017).
– V&A · V&A Café (no date) Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/va-cafe/ (Accessed: 27 February 2017).

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