Curator's Choice: 3D guns, Primark trousers and Katy Perry eyelashes at the V&A

By Ben Miller | 06 November 2014

Opened in July 2014, The V&A’s new Rapid Response Collecting strand has a gallery of five showcases. Corinna Gardner, the Curator of Contemporary Product Design, explains more

A black and white photo of a woman standing outside a museum smiling
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“The space has been open for three months. The most recent addition is a Lego set.

It was an instant fit. If an idea comes to us or we see something that draws our attention we have an open plan office and we pump the ideas around.

This object immediately had a tick from three of the four curators. There’s a chemist, a palaeontologist and an astronomer.

It’s a lego set that launched in August 2014 – the first time they’ve done a crowdsourced design suggestion, officially.

You have to get 10,000 endorsements before it goes to a review panel. This was suggested by a Dutch doctor.

She said as an adult fan of Lego, the representation of professional females was askew. The set sold out within three days – it didn’t even make it to the shelves.

It’s the first in the toymaker’s 72-year history to have women in a professional setting, targeted at girls but not gendered.

This object is so important because it addresses pressing current issues – role models for young girls, the question of gendered toys. It was like a field trip to go to look at all the toys.

It can also be used as a lens to look at the number of women entering science careers, which again is something that has been much-discussed and debated. There have been government initiatives here and in the States to try and address this shortfall.

The Lego Design Institute now has more than 40,000 followers. Their figurines depict academic life – that they are women is by the by.

I approached Lego and we were fortunate enough to be gifted this set. It is about concerns that shape how we live together which are often quite abstract or remote.”


A photo of a white and brown handgun
Liberator 3D- Printed Gun (2013). Designed by Cody Wilson / Defence Distributed© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“It’s a slightly provocatively-named handgun, 3D printed, fully optical.

The BBC happened to catch Cody Wilson just as he was about to fire it for the first time. Within days the US State Department had requested that he take the files down from his website.

Within a month, my colleagues travelled to Texas to visit Cody in his studio to seek the acquisition of this object. For us, it was a seminal moment in contemporary design history.

We hit upon a problem that we hadn’t anticipated: the importation of the plastic firearm was beyond the legal frameworks that were in place.

We wanted to display this object as part of the London Design Festival but we couldn’t get the object across the pond.

We had to find somebody in London to produce it. The company that agreed to do it were very clear that they did not want to be seen as manufacturers of a firearm. They don’t have a licence, so that also provokes a discourse around 3D printing technologies.

They modified two things about the gun before they printed it. They changed the dimensions of some of the parts, so even we, as a museum, would never be able to put it together.

The State Department has now amended the law and we now have the first Liberator to be displayed on show in our gallery. We call it rapid response, but we’ve only managed to get this object on display more than a year after this incident.

It has encouraged us to think more broadly about how objects are timely. This gun has forever changed how designers and the broader public understand 3D technology.

There’s been a lot of techno utopianism about what this new means of making might mean. There are many applications of it.

But also, as a museum, the sinister object demands our attention just as much as the beautiful.”

Motorola WT 4-000

A photo of a large black digital watch on the arm of a mannequin
Motorola WT41N0 wearable terminal (2012). Designed and manufactured by Motorola Solutions, Inc© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“It came to our attention because a Tesco worker was reported in the press as having said that he was fired on the basis of having not been productive enough.

This is an object that uses quantified feedback to improve performance. It looks quite strange. It’s a Windows-based computer.

It’s a working and daily reality for thousands of people. You and I take advantage of this when we order something via Amazon.

The hyper-efficiency of next-day delivery has to be facilitated in some way. Designed objects are at the heart of that story.”

Primark Cargo Pants

A photo of a pair of folded black trousers
Primark cargo trousers (2013). Manufactured by New Wave Bottoms for Primark© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“We bought a pair of jeans on the London high street in the aftermath of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory. It was the most significant disaster in the garment industry in recent times.

A lot of the high street fashions that we wear were made in this factory. For us, this is an object that can tell us about the global supply chain.

We acquired these jeans out in Stratford. We’d seen a label in the rubble of the press photography – we’d followed the story closely and seen a picture of Primark jeans.

We went out and bought what we thought was a pair of identical trousers. We immediately contacted Primark to ask whether they could confirm that the jeans that we had were those that were made in Dhakar.

They wrote back and said this was the type of information that they don’t disclose. It was quite firm but not impolite.

We were determined and wrote to a number of organisations including Label Behind the Label and the Bangladeshi Garment Association as a means to try to assure ourselves that we had bought the right thing.

Each garment that you buy on the high street has a seven or eight-digit number which traces that garment back to its place of manufacture.

We couldn’t get to that point – which for us was already instructive about the way that things which cost £10 are made and the processes and chains they’re in.

But once we press released that Rapid Response was opening as a display, Primark did get in touch and said those jeans were made in Pakistan.

We were like, ‘uh.’ But we were very fortunate that they were extremely collaborative in helping us source this pair of cargo pants.

Even they cannot verify that they were made in the factory, but they absolutely know that this style was made in the Rana Plaza at the time of the disaster.

This is as close as we could get. We went through every source possible. They can help us think about the global fashion market in a really different but also considered way.”

Louboutin Shoes

A photo of a line of cream-coloured shoes
Fifi pump in five nude shades (2013). Designed by Christian Louboutin Ltd© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“These are a particular favourite of mine. He launched them in Autumn 2013, just called them nudes.

Within the fashion world, ‘nude’ is still understood as a specific colour, of Caucasian skin. Someone like Crayola changed their flesh-coloured crayon to peach in the 60s.

Beyond that question, which I think is very current – people keep reminding me that Kate Middleton is particularly fond of her nude shoes – these are £500-plus high heeled shoes with a global economic story.

When you start to interrogate that a little bit more, you see the mannequin arms, which we have made the effort to acquire as well.

These shoes are sold in foreign markets where it’s culturally taboo to show certain parts of the female body. But of course you have the need to show the skin match, so you get this slightly odd mix of shoes and hands.

They also come with a dedicated app. For us, this is a newer insight into high fashion and online retail. You photograph your skin colour and it matches it to the appropriate tone.

The Louboutin team say that in China, particularly, with it being such a mobile-connected society, having an app is a real way to tie in the customer.

Brands which haven’t adopted it are not as popular. It’s about enabling our collection to be interesting to researchers and future viewers in different ways.”

Katy Perry Eyelashes

A photo of the front of a packet of eyelashes being modelled by a young woman
False eyelashes endorsed by Katy Perry, Cool Kitty style (2013). Manufactured for Eylure© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“These were brought to our attention by a journalist who we had been in contact with about the Primark jeans.

They are made from human hair, individually knotted strand by strand into a thread by women in Indonesia earning the minimum wage – it’s a link to very anonymous women working in particular circumstances to the most followed individual on Twitter.

It’s an incredible piece of craft that can tell us about our shared existence – not just in the UK, but our choices on an everyday basis spiralling out into the everyday world.

The politics of things is very fitting. The eyelashes and jeans are noteworthy examples but there are others, too.

I’m really thrilled that we have managed to create a discourse.”

Vype e-cigarette

A photo of a cigarette lighter next to a cigarette
Vype 'reload' e-cigarettes (2013). Designed and manufactured on behalf of CN Creative© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“It’s an electronic cigarette which has been around since the sixties, but they really took off in the mid-2000s when they were manufactured in Southern China in larger numbers.

British American Tobacco was the first big firm to enter the market in the UK with this cigarette. They put an advert on television and it was the first time in near-50 years, since tobacco advertising had been banned in the UK, that something of that nature had been advertised, albeit after the watershed.

There are two things about Vype which were instructive to me: I bought the cigarette independently and then I approached the company so that we were able to show the advert in the display.

For me, the advert was really important. Because of the regulations around British television and what you’re allowed to show, the ad said ‘for vapours’ because you’re not allowed to say ‘for smokers’.

But the company were very clear in their brand management online – the ad said ‘for smokers’. To show it in the gallery, I had to go through a process of convincing them that it was a suitable place.

They were concerned that children might see the advert. But the V&A has smoking paraphernalia throughout its collections, and also if you go to a contemporary museum or gallery smoking is a very regular thing in the art world.

It’s critically important to understand how that environment is different to your front room. I think there was a slight mismatch in expectations despite my sense of having been quite clear.

The company were really quite upset with the context in which they thought they were being shown.

When Primark came in to see the objects inside the gallery, they were entirely reassured with how it was being displayed. Our objects are shown with contextual information, but we’re also clear that the tone of the information we provide is fact-based.

It’s not there to say ‘this is what you should think about globalisation or mass manufacture’ – it’s about the realities of today, putting the facts out there and allowing our viewers’ imaginations to run wild.”

The impact of the collection

A photo of a small stuffed toy bear holding a stuffed toy woman beneath its arm
Soft toy wolf Lufsig (2013). Designed for and manufactured by Ikea© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“It’s been really staggering how much impact we’ve managed to have with 12 objects. I think that’s because what we do is idea-driven and it’s questioning the role of design in the museum.

Not all of the responses have been that positive. Some of the early coverage caused some friction.

There was an article in the Sunday Times just before the display was to open which called us out as a team for collecting controversies and, you might say, wagging fingers.

It made a number of the companies who we were working with intensely nervous. I think that’s healthy, but it also caused us some problems: Primark became anxious because of the tone that the journalist took.

At the V&A we have about eight miles of galleries, over 700 employees, of which more than 100 are curators.

Of those, about 30 have an engagement – although not a sole engagement – with contemporary practice. I’m staggered by this when I walk into work every day.

Although the museum is a place of more than 150 years of curatorial activity, we still feel very fresh-faced. The four of us working in Rapid Response have been welcomed and there’s been a great deal of latitude to think freely.

It’s rare that you have a job like this where there are no shoes to fill. We have a breadth and scope to think about what we want to do.

We set ourselves a target of collecting between 12 and 20 objects a year, which doesn’t sound that many. But after three months, we’re not quite keeping pace.

Some people think that we should be collecting things very quickly because the V&A has not been concentrating on these things so much, but for us it’s more about being timely.

Yes, we are a depository of things, but we’re also about debate and discussion and bringing that to the forefront.”

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