As we settled down for Object Pitch Day 4, we knew the score: it was going to be another hour packed with great objects and great ideas, making the choice of just one object for the project all the more difficult. It was over to Bill Sherman and his stopwatch…
Reino Liefkes, senior curator and Head of Ceramics and Glass, began pitch day 4 with “a relatively humble pot that’s made of ceramic – a material that’s been hugely important for humankind for such an incredibly long time”.
Rather than illustrate his talk with slides on PowerPoint, Reino brought his object – a drug storage jar from the 16th century – for us to have a closer look at. Holding the object aloft throughout his pitch, he expertly turned it to reveal the links between its design and intended function. In fact, Reino’s reason for choosing “this object is because if you look very carefully it tells such an incredible amount about how it was made, when and what it was used for”.
Reino began by meditating on the object’s original location. As a “storage jar for drugs”, it “would have been ordered by a pharmacy”, with “whole rows of these jars, hundreds,” lined up on a shelf. The context of the jar – as one object tightly packed amongst many – helped Reino make sense of its “waist shape”, which is “immediately very useful if you want to withdraw one jar from the tightly packed shelf”. He identified its “other functional feature” as the “slight lip under the mouth”, which meant that “a piece of parchment” could be tied on top “to protect the contents” inside.
The jar’s decoration was also useful, comprising “a label saying what drug would have been inside” and, underneath this, “a badge” that identified the pharmacy the object was made for, a feature common to all such jars. Although in this instance we don’t know anything about the specific pharmacy, similar objects were made for monasteries, family pharmacies and hospitals.
The text painted on the object in “the gothic script” often used by pharmacies – ‘dia sena nicol’ – reveals the jar once contained “a laxative based on the plant senna”, and as Reino joked, “The great thing is that there is still quite a lot of the drug inside…if you’re in need!”
The inclusion of ‘nicol’ tells us even more about early modern healthcare. This text references Nicolai of Salerno, who lived in the early 12th century and was the first European to write a book on pharmacy – the ‘Antidotarium Nicolai’ – which was widely consulted throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Reino is “almost certain” that the recipe for the laxative the jar contained derives from this particular volume.
The ‘close reading’ of the object continued with those clues that reveal how the jar was made. As “tin-glazed earthenware – or, as the Italians say, ‘maiolica’ – it’s an earthenware that’s covered with a glaze based on tin oxide and lead oxide”. Tin was very expensive in the Renaissance as it had to be imported from Cornwall, via Flanders, so it was used very sparingly.
This contrasts with “a buff-ish, light white-ish colour” present on the jar’s inside. A “fantastic” mid-16th-century treatise in the V&A’s National Art Library about pottery making, Cipriano Piccolpasso’s ‘Three Books of the Potter’s Art’, describes the recipe for getting this white colour: “You reduce the amount of tin oxide and put more lead in, which also protects the inside from fluids”. For the jar’s outside, cobalt oxide was added to the glaze to “produce this light blue background and the dark blue”.
The jar was thrown on the wheel, as “inside there are lots of concentric rings, which show how the hand or stick would have pulled the clay up into its shape”. The smooth outside was “shaped with a template or stick turned, as it were, after the throwing”. Once formed, the jar was taken off the wheel with a “cheese wire between two sticks”, a process evident in “the very typical mark” Reino pointed out.
Once made, the jar was glazed. Glaze was poured inside before being “wiggled around a little bit and dripped out”. Piccolpasso shows how the potter would have grabbed an object with three fingers and “put the vessel into the vat of tin glaze and carefully taken it out, in order to cover the whole jar”, with Reino replicating this technique during his presentation.
On being glazed, the jar was fired – “in this case, the fire was a bit out of control and the jar got fired next to a similar jar and they got stuck together”.
Reino finished his presentation by revealing what he described as “a little bonus on the back”: a painted label that reads ‘iacamo vasellaro a ripa granni fecit 1593’. While the jar might appear to be “traditional maiolica, mid-16th century Venetian”, this shows us that the pot is Roman, and made a little later than we thought – in 1593.
Thinking again in terms of functionality and design, this also suggests the extent to which this type of object needed to be replenished, as “…a pharmacy would order hundreds of these pots and dozens would get broken – you might need to place an order again, and might not be able to go to the original potter”.
Having shown us how an object might speak for itself, especially in such expert hands, Reino reprised his opening argument, “I like this pot very much as it tells us all these things without looking too much in the history books”.
Curator of the V&A’s Middle-Eastern collection, Moya Carey argued that her choice of object – the Ardabil Carpet – “had everything – it’s got Hitler, it’s got design, it’s got poisoning…”
Moya intrigued us from her opening shot, describing the Ardabil Carpet as “one of these wonderful objects that’s not as it seems – it’s an object that’s had things happen to it. It’s been described as the ‘Franken-carpet’, for reasons which will become apparent”. As her presentation showed, the Ardabil Carpet is also one of those objects that make us think about how design ideas and influence circulate and, more pertinently, the V&A’s role in making this happen, historically and in the present day.
Her presentation was certainly packed with dramatic episodes, as she moved from Safavid design and the revolution in carpet design in 15th- and 16th-century Iran, through Safavid court politics and poisoning in the 1530s, to a very different Iran in the late 19th century, when two ‘Ardabil Carpets’ were bought and sold from a shrine.
In this way, she placed the carpet at the heart of discussions about ‘Orientalism’ and “how the West received and desired and sensationalised” this particular object, allowing her to touch on major issues including race and the display of art from sacred contexts in the public art domain.
As a medallion carpet organised according to a fairly obvious axial plan, the Ardabil Carpet reflects bookbinding from the same period. The example here demonstrates how carpet design “speaks to contemporary bookbinding and other media in early 16th-century Iran”.
As Moya explained, this marked “a revolution for carpet design – from a checkerboard, tile-work organisation of repeated units to a single design that worked along a central axis”. This overlap in design motifs suggests that “there’s something going on between weavers and bookbinders and, more importantly, that there’s something in the middle – artists using a paper design”. The presence of paper designs, as a means of “broadcasting design, transmitting it, whether it’s to wool-knotters or leather workers”, contributed to “harmony across media”.
The carpet was originally woven for the Safavid shrine, as one of a pair and is dated to 946 (AD 1539–40). The shrine in Ardabil, shown here…
…was not just a holy shrine but also a royal one, as the resting place of Safavid shahs and their ancestor, the Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili. Although built in the 14th century, the Safavids, most notably Tahmasp I, took a great interest in Ardabil in the 1530s and expanded it greatly by building wonderful new buildings including a giant octagonal room, which may have been intended as a tomb. And here the plot thickens. As Moya pointed out, if this room had “been a tomb, there shouldn’t have been two carpets in the middle – there should have been a sarcophagus”.
One working hypothesis sets this architectural mystery in the midst of a family scandal: “the row caused by Tahmasp’s mother, the widow of Shah Isma’il, who was meant to be buried there, being suddenly accused of poisoning, or trying to poison, her son”. As “the leading patron of this giant expansion to the ancestral shrine”, her exile seems to have put a stop to the building works, with the possibility that the two huge carpets were commissioned as a “Plan B” to go into “the giant room in the shrine”.
By the time the Ardabil Carpet got to the V&A, it had been “sensationalised as a unique monument of perfect design”, with William Morris describing its design as “…of singular perfection; defensible on all points, logically and consistently beautiful, with no oddities or grotesqueries which might need an apology, and therefore most especially valuable for a Museum, the special aim of which is the education of the public in Art”.
Significantly, its acquisition also reflects one of the V&A’s founding missions: “to get design to inform commerce”. For this reason, the Ardabil Carpet, as an object reproduced in drawings and photographs, including an 1892 catalogue that featured “one of the earliest colour images of the Ardabil Carpet, has undoubtedly been a huge success story, becoming “one of the most influential, known objects in the history of imitating carpets – that is weaving fresh ones. People have been weaving ‘Ardabil Carpets’ for as long as they’ve known about the Ardabil Carpet”.
To illustrate the huge influence of her object, Moya finished her pitch by explaining how “Oriental” carpets have been Western indexes of elitism for over a century (as in an 1882 photograph of Oscar Wilde or still from the ‘Big Lebowski’). She also spotted a few “Cod-Ardabils”: under the feet of politicians in a recent group photograph of the Coalition cabinet and, suggestively, in Hitler’s office – although as she noted, the resolution in the latter photograph is “not quite good enough to be totally sure”. The hunt for ‘Ardabils’ continues.
Christopher Wilk, Keeper of the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department, began his pitch with understatement, commenting that, “I’ve taken an object that may be too well known for this project”. Rather than choose something that was “humbler or more obscure”, he deliberately selected a design classic, a chair by Marcel Breuer, designed in 1925, as “I just thought that as I know a lot about this object I might be able to do a couple of worlds about it”.
This reasoning was hard to argue with, as his presentation took Breuer’s chair and showed just how revolutionary it was from the perspective of design, making, architecture and interiors, arts education and museum collecting.
Christopher started by showing how Breuer’s chair constituted a reinvented object type: “it is a club chair that’s been turned into a completely different lightweight object”. In doing so, it was resolutely against the old and draws on completely new ideas of what furniture can be and should be.
In fact, rather than take its cue from existing furniture designs, Christopher explained how the chair was inspired by an Adler bicycle that Marcel Breuer owned. When he first went to the Adler Bicycle Company with “his brilliant idea to create the chair…they laughed him out of the place” – something the designer later shared with Christopher. In the end, it was the product of a surprising collaboration – with a plumber, “as a plumber was the only person who could help him bend tubular steel”. In terms of the materials it’s made from, the chair is “probably an example of product innovation rather than technical innovation”, as extruded tubular steel had been invented in Germany some decades earlier in 1888.
Where the chair was designed also mattered, as it was a product of “the most famous art school of the 20th century – the Bauhaus”. As Christopher explained, Breuer had been a student there, before becoming the head of the Cabinet-Making Workshop in 1925. At the Bauhaus, “…he worked with a very distinguished group of teachers and colleagues”, including Josef Albers, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky, Walter Gropius, Herbert Bayer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Hinnerk Scheper.
Christopher went onto elaborate the relationship between the chair and new developments in architecture. Along with other designs, it was intended as furniture for the Masters’ Houses at the Bauhaus – “then the most famous example as what was referred to as the New Architecture”. Although the Bauhaus didn’t teach architecture at this point, “Breuer was an aspiring architect” and “the language of architecture” is evident in the chair’s design.
In doing so, Breuer’s design “addresses new concepts of interior space” and, more importantly, was a reaction against “the old, horrible, unhealthy world – the world that had not only experienced the First World War very recently, but had 50-million-plus people die between 1918 and 1919 in the influenza epidemic”. In this “ new world of light and air and cleanliness”, the form of the chair – “that it could be easily cleaned and looked clean when it was clean was very important”. As such, “It was emblematic of the entire Modernist enterprise – this project to reinvent the world from scratch – one of the most far-reaching projects of the 20th century”.
Christopher also explained how Breuer’s chair was an elegant “answer to how do we furnish this New Architecture? How do we create an entirely new architecture allegedly made of mass-produced materials?” Breuer’s chair “hit the nail on the head”, starting out as a handmade object, then being batch-made but “posing as a mass-produced”, until the 1930s when it actually became a mass-produced object. From this point, it “came to be used not only in the highly refined interiors of architects but as mass-produced furniture for commercial interiors”.
Not everyone was so enthusiastic about Breuer’s design. Christopher showed us a satirical drawing by Heath Robinson to illustrate how “…it was an object of satire in some cases, of derision in others, particularly in [the UK].” More seriously, the chair became a “subversive and a dangerous object once the Nazis came to power. The chair we have, according to the story from the vender, from the owner, it was dismantled in 1923 and not reassembled until it was shown in 1992”. And, in common with other objects presented during the Object Pitch Days, Breuer’s chair was a victim of changing fashions, disappearing “from the high-style design world in the 1930s, as a lot of designers turn to a more organic kind of modernism including Breuer”.
As we learnt, Breuer’s chair has had an extremely long afterlife, being “reborn in the 60s and 70s as a completely different object” with a different name, “the ‘Wassily’ chair instead of the Model 3B chair”. As Christopher told us, “The manufacture and appearance – its feel – changes from a 1920s object to a 60s or 70s object”. It gets “used in corporate lobbies [and] reception rooms”; it “becomes a museum piece, (although MoMA collected one in 1934)”; and it becomes a “provenance collectable for us”.
Not to be outdone by the drama surrounding the Ardabil Carpet, Christopher then shared how the V&A’s Breuer chair was “on the fringes of a major scandal”. The museum had acquired it from the son of a man who’d attended the Bauhaus. This same man had taken paintings from the German Expressionist painter Lyonel Feininger – that is, “…kept them, not in storage, and then claimed ownership [after which] a long court case ensued”. Some “of these paintings are in what was East Germany and only some were retrieved”.
In pulling together the many strands of his pitch, Christopher simply reiterated the importance of his object in design history: “It’s been an inspiration for later designers and is possibly the quintessential object of the 20th century”.
Olivia Horsfall Turner, curator of Designs and Architecture in the Word and Image Department, introduced us to “Museum number IS.68-2002 – a dish made of stoneware with a green glaze and incised ornament”.
Quoting Bernard Leech’s dictum that, ‘Pottery has its own language and inherent laws, and words have theirs, and neither can be bound by the other’, Olivia then set herself the challenge of putting “into words for you the rationale for choosing this object”, moving from a broad appreciation of the meanings invested in pottery to a discussion of her particular piece.
First, her choice was underpinned by what she termed “the fundamental nature of pottery”, as something made quite literally from the earth, that offers “continuity but also diversity”, with “The Ceramics Galleries providing a wonderful timeline where you walk along and experience that unfolding chronology of creation”. Considered in this way, “the potter’s act of creation is so fundamental that it’s caught up in the idea of creation itself – of God as divine potter and man as living vessel”, with all cultures creating ceramics: from East to West, and from antiquity to modernity. In clinching her argument, Olivia made reference to the indisputable logic of an advert “for BT telephone from the 1980s, where Beattie says to her grandson Anthony, ‘People will always need plates’”.
Second, her choice depends on this object’s form as a type of bowl – “a form that I believe is essential because it satisfies some of our basic needs” as “the natural bowl is our cupped hands”. Taking the comparison further, Olivia framed the bowl as an object type as an extension and augmentation of the “human frame, becoming a second pair of hands in which we can hold and carry things”. That such vessels “have this particular and unique correspondence to the human body” is reiterated by the terminology we use when “…we talk about their necks, their bellies, their lips and their feet”. In both “its material and its form”, the pottery bowl was presented as “something essentially human”, ensuring a “human-focussed logic to the multiple worlds that it will lead us to”.
In discussing the particulars of her object, Olivia then revealed its rather dramatic story. It was made in about 1450-1500 in the prestigious Si Satchanalai kilns of northern Thailand – “that’s roughly at the same time that we were preoccupied in England with the Wars of the Roses”. Once finished, it was shipped from Thailand to a port in Indonesia on a junk, “a type of boat that measured approximately 28m x 7m made of Southeast Asian hardwood”, as “one of 20,000 objects in the cargo”. En route, the junk was shipwrecked and the bowl “fell full fathom five to the bottom of the ocean”, where it stayed until it was discover in 1992 by marine archeologists, who found the remains of what they called the Royal Banhai, becoming “one of many [objects from the shipwreck] that are found in global collections across the museum world”.
“And so we have an object that was on its way from one part of the world to another. It was submerged in an aquatic world and then resurrected back into our own. This is an amphibious traveler through time and space. So which of the worlds might this lead us to?”
Framing these as “concentric waves reaching out from the object”, Olivia related her bowl to worlds as varied as those of the historical potter, the contemporary maker, the geologist, the chemist, the marine archeologist, the diplomat, the trader along “the expanding international trade routes of the late medieval and early modern world”, the ship builder, the artist, the colourist, the collector, the philosopher and theologian, and even the industrialist – if we traced “the journey from hand-thrown pottery to machine made”.
In signing off, she left us with one final thought, “So just as this bowl was part of a cargo – and just as it is still a vessel – I believe it can carry for us multiple meanings and interpretations – even as many as 100 worlds”.
Marion Crick, Head of Collections Management, impressed us all by bringing the perfect prop to illustrate her object: the gorgeous jumper she wore to Object Pitch Day 4 that she’d knitted herself.
Marion’s choice wasn’t actually the sweater itself but the pattern it was made from: an object that sits “within the Archive of Art & Design at Blythe House”. This pattern was “cut carefully out of a magazine by the original owner and filed away in her own collection of knitting pattern”, eventually making its “way into the V&A’s archives as a set of archetypal 1940s knitting patterns”.
Marion showed how the pattern was a product of its time and how “…you can see lots of stories just by looking at the details”. It was published in a magazine called ‘Home Notes’ on 2 June 1945, “just after V.E. Day” (‘Victory in Europe Day’), 8 May 1945, the date chosen to celebrate the end of the Second World War in Europe. This timing was reflected in the design: “…if we look at the stitch pattern, [it’s] designed as a victory jumper – those are all little ‘Vs’ within the pattern, the colours are patriotic, and the title of the pattern itself is ‘Your Victory Jumper’, all of which tells us a lot about its place and time”.
As a keen collector of “vintage knitting and sewing patterns”, Marion was also able to tell us about the conventions of the day, revealing that knitting patterns from the time only came in “one of two different sizes”. She went onto elaborate that “in the 1930s and 1940s, a knitting pattern would fit roughly a 34” bust, unless you went for a ‘mature’ pattern, for the older lady, in which case, it was around a 36” or 38” bust”! “The world of the knitter at that time meant that, unless you fit one of those two sizes, you took your pattern, which is the coded language about how to make that jumper, and you had to adapt that yourself to make it fit properly – and I had to do that with the jumper I made.”
The pattern can also be used as evidence of globalisation, and to highlight changes in manufacturing and the economy, as it provides “information about the materials used, giving us context for the knitting industry, the wool industry and where things have moved to now”. Although Sirdar, the manufacturer of the wool included on the pattern, still exists, it no longer produces in the UK and most of its products are synthetic. By contrast, the wool used in the “1940s is Shetland wool, reflecting that most knitting at this time was done with natural fibres”, and that Shetland “still had a thriving spinning industry”.
Marion finished her presentation by demonstrating how the pattern – as “something taken out of a magazine…something highly ephemeral” – has subsequently gone viral.
She explained how “about eight years ago, someone decided to carefully transcribe a selection of 1940s knitting patterns, get them scanned and put them up on the V&A website”. From that point onwards, this particular pattern “has taken on a life of its own outside the V&A”. She showed how people have interacted with the pattern to make “their own version of the jumper, and told their story of how they’ve worked with it”. On Ravelry, the hugely active online community of knitters, the pattern has become a networked object, as “there are over 86 stories about this particular pattern”; in addition, there are “20 or so blog posts about people’s experiences with it”.
From the V&A website, “the sole source for it spreading across the Internet”, the pattern has “not only inspired people from the vintage knitting community to interact and talk to each other about their experiences – the vintage knitting community is very active and we talk a lot – but it’s also inspired people who don’t want to go to the effort of a vintage pattern”. A “modern reinterpretation”, which doesn’t require “small needles and fine yarn”, means the pattern “continues to inspire and create new versions”.
Linda Sandino, CCW Graduate School, UAL / V&A Research Fellow, approached her “choice of an object as a problem: what object in the V&A could actually produce 100 different perspectives?” Providing a fitting close to Object Pitch Day 4, she reflected on all that we had learnt and the “objects that all can produce the wonderful perspectives that curatorial knowledge and expertise are about”.
However, for her, “…the project shouldn’t just be curators talking about the V&A in 100 worlds”, so turning the problem on its head, she proposed “the V&A Museum itself”…
…because “it encompasses both space and time, and it will also encompass all the expertise that individual people within the V&A have in terms of the qualities of materials, the way in which these are designed, and also the way in which the building has changed over its history”. In finishing her short but perfectly formed pitch, she asserted, “I don’t even need five minutes as it’s the perfect object! It’s a mega object that will be able to deal with the impossible task of representing the 100 worlds, or even more, that this project is about”.
Linda’s pitch gets to the heart of the unenviable challenge we’ve set ourselves: how do we choose one thing from the riches of the V&A’s collection? Object Pitch Day 4 offered yet more ways of thinking about the museum’s collections, as well as revealing some rather dramatic episodes – shipwreck, scandal, poisoning! Once again, we were pushed to ask whether our final choice should be a design classic, or should the project be used as an opportunity to celebrate something less well known? Similarly, should we choose an object that can speak for itself, or one that only truly comes to life with context and background information? And, as a number of today’s pitches touched on, what should we make of the afterlives of our objects: should our choice be something that has clearly and demonstrably continued to influence and inspire later generations?
Object Pitch Day 5 was only going to make our decision even harder…