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Wishful Thinking: The Wish List at the V&A

A series of bespoke, ‘wish list’ commissions for top design figures on display at the V&A is a playful and varied one, but an overt imbalance of power lessons the initiative’s innovative idealism

Humanity will never run out of things to invent, but as we prepare for the Apple Watch to go on sale, the matter of whether or not these new ideas will be at all meaningful seems open to conjecture. There’s another kind of invention that sits at the opposite end of the spectrum to the mass-produced novelty − the bespoke commission. They’ve become an ailing species in the world today, but one that Habitat founder Terence Conran thinks worthy of nurturing back to health. To this end, he recently wrote to 10 friends to ask, ‘What have you always wanted in your home, but have never been able to find?’

The responses initiated The Wish List project, and have since been realised in wood by a cohort of 10 emerging designers as part of London Design Festival. Unsurprisingly, Conran was reaching out to a highly creative set − Paul Smith, Norman Foster, John Pawson and Zaha Hadid and the like. While some of these ‘commissioners’ were happy to supply open-ended briefs (Hadid simply specified ‘tableware’), others arrived with well-developed concepts and, undoubtedly, expectations.

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Win Assakul’s modular walnut serving dish for Amanda Levete was designed to complement a 4.8m-long dining table

For Win Assakul, one of the 10 modern artisans, the project was heightened by an existing relationship with his commissioner, Amanda Levete. He had previously spent a year working for her architectural practice − an insight that surely provoked anxiety and relief in equal measure. Levete seemingly entertains in style, for her wish was for a platter to complement the 4.8m-long dining table she designed for her home. ‘We often have dinners at home for 18 people,’ says the architect, ‘I have always dreamed of having a dish that stretched the whole length of the table so that it is a sharing experience.’

The platter Assakul has created for her is at once decorative and highly functional. Modular and reversible in design, one side can hold fruit in its deep hollows, while the other is almost flat and suitable for cold meats and cheeses. Its undulations handsomely reveal the rich grain that persuaded Assakul to use walnut for the piece, though their creation compelled him to renounce his penchant for CNC milling. He instead shaped the segments by hand, using the lesson to reflect on his previous training. ‘I started this project with only a background in architecture. The very nature of our work creates a level of disconnection with the projects and products that we create.’

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Euclidean pencil sharpeners by Norie Matsumoto for Norman Foster

The pure and organic associations of material choice influenced the thinking of the other commissioners. Despite the functional diversity of their wishes, each sought a modest but nourishing enhancement to daily life. For Norman Foster, it was an opportunity to pay homage to his ‘inseparable companion’, the pencil. He described his wish to furniture designer Norie Matsumoto as ‘a pencil sharpener for three sizes, capable of sitting on a desk and with a compartment to receive the shavings’.

When Matsumoto learned that Foster in actuality has four desks, the solution became obvious − a family of sharpeners in elemental 3D shapes. This minimalist response refers metaphorically to the role that drawing plays for the architect, but also leaves room to appreciate the subtleties of the tulipwood. Although abundant and inexpensive, the wood appealed to Foster for its grain’s marble-like quality.

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Lola Lely’s phallic chair for designer Allen Jones

Of all the commissioners, however, British artist Allen Jones arrived with the most developed idea. For over a decade, he’s yearned for a recliner chair to emulate and truly accommodate the human form. Designer Lola Lely has not only brought this vision to life, but even tailored The Hole Chair’s lines to the contours of Jones’ body. This bespoke fitting took place in a truck outside Jones’ Barbican home, to the understandable amusement of onlookers.

The design’s suggestive dowel (locatable either in the chair’s seat or back) pays homage to the removable phallus of the Angel of the City, a Marino Marini sculpture in front of the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the late collector would sporadically insert the phallus to shock boatloads of nuns passing on the Grand Canal.

This salacious intertextual reference seems to underline the chair’s status as the sole irritant to the exhibition’s overall sense of placid good taste. Yes, the finished items are broadly charming and desirable, but why did everyone feel the need to be so respectable? By and large, I’m frankly underwhelmed with the imaginations of these industry leaders. Ab and Richard Rogers’ The Ladder That Likes The Wall represents a welcome openness to the initiative, but could architect Alison Brooks really think of nothing better to commission than a stool? This overly conventional timidity seems like a missed opportunity.

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Cherry wood kitchen stools for Alison Brooks designed by Felix de Pass

Displayed as it is around one of the V&A Museum’s marble-clad staircases, the exhibition reverberates more with a sense of the Establishment than one of innovation. This is partly a consequence of the unifying effect of a single material yet the impression of consensual timidity invites the unavoidable, if well-worn, critique of a old boys’ club of elite artists talking among themselves.

Compare The Wish List’s commissioners to the line up of grandees chosen to feature in LDF’s God is in the Designs project last year and the overlap of luminaries makes clear there’s still a lot of mutual backslapping going on in the British design world. Couple this with the fact that − despite support from both the American Hardwood Export Council and Conran’s furniture company Benchmark − the 10 young designers went unpaid while they worked on their wealthy patrons’ objects, sleeping in tents pitched in gardens of Conrad’s country estate like an artisan labour camp. The overt imbalance of power strains the limits of what can reasonably be described as an apprentice and master relationship, diluting the initiative’s initial idealism.

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A round wood dining table designed by design duo Barnby & Day for architect Alex de Rijke

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A garden shed with a contemporary twist for Paul Smith by Nathalie de Leval

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An enclosed working space for Terrance Conran designed by Sebastian Cox encloses a desk and storage space in a woven cocoon

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Gwendolyn and Guillane Kershbaumer of Studio Areti responded to John Pawon’s interest in built-in itemps for a room, creating shelving units, hooks and a slanted door

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Often overlooked as ordinary, the humble ladder was elevated with a seat and small table by Xenia Mosely for Richard and Ab Rogers

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Gareth Neal’s vases for Zaha Hadid are playfully parametric and are milled from stack laminated oak

The Wish List

Where: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
When: 13 September - 24 October 2014

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