Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Import Export & Global Local

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

“Import Export: Global Influences in Contemporary Design” and “Global Local”
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
20 September 2005 – 4 December 2005

Having toured India, Australia and Finland “Import Export” makes landfall at the V&A at an opportune time. If ever we needed (another) reminder of why multiculturalism is not only vital, but also central, to contemporary British identity this exhibition provides answers. Here the work of fourteen designers, each of who have come to call the UK home, reveals a dynamic but thoroughly diverse and independent design community. Based on the knowledge that designers from around the globe are drawn to the UK for education, the exhibition examines less why they arrived, than why they stay.

Curator Lesley Jackson explains, “When foreign-born designers relocate to Britain, and when British-based designers collaborate with foreign companies, something rather surprising occurs. Instead of ironing out cultural differences, they are bought into sharper focus. This might sound like a recipe for disaster, but instead it has become a formula for success.”

Celebrated for their bold patterns, the Welsh Japanese couple behind the fashion label Eley Kishimoto exhibited clothing, accessories and a series of short films coined “screen prints.” Commissioned for the company’s tenth anniversary last year, the films were produced by art directors, photographers, graphic designers as well as filmmakers, with the quest of “bringing to life” a print from the label. Although some may argue that Eley Kishimoto’s designs hardly need any help to do this, the work represents another strong aspect of this exhibition; the interdisciplinary nature in which many of these designers work. Indeed, there seems to be a certain penchant in evidence here for disciplinary boundary hopping by designers whose own personal identity is not fixed.

The clean colours and unfussy approach of Finnish born Anne Kyyrö Quinn’s industrial felt textiles for the home are perhaps easier to connect with her Scandinavian background. But they too stand apart through their striking originality, suggesting once again that borrowing from two or more cultures can vitalize rather than muddy a maker’s vision. Tord Boontje’s inclusion, by contrast, seemed less helpful as he is no longer based in London. While certainly a darling of the British design press, I can’t be the only person that has seen enough, however lovely they are, of his Garland Lights.

In partnership with the British Council, the V&A also presented “Global Local”, three companion exhibitions in the room adjacent to “Import Export.” As a snapshot of international design, the three global local exhibitions from India, Australia and Finland provide intriguing juxtapositions both amongst themselves and to “Import Export.” A greater sense of national style is in evidence here, a phenomenon intriguingly absent from “Import Export”, although I suspect that is precisely the point. But even here are examples of design work so hybrid in reference that it becomes impossible to place. For example, the trio of Chinese-Malaysian born sisters, Rowena, Juliana and Angela Foong of the fashion label High Tea with Mrs Woo based in Newcastle, Australia seem to thrive on the visual culture clash and the impossibility of belonging to one style or place.

While “Import Export” is based on the premise that young designers are attracted to the UK because of the design education available, it is impossible to ignore that in this exhibition at least, excellence centres around only two institutions commanding a near cult like status: All but four of the exhibitors trained at either the RCA or Central Saint Martins and of these, three collaborate with a graduate from one of the two. Without belittling the accomplishments of either institution or their graduates, one wonders if design education in the UK is as healthy as it proclaims?

Designed by exhibitor Gitta Gschwendtner, “Import Export” continues the standard set earlier this year by “Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back” with truly innovative and considered exhibition display. In comparison, “Global Local” felt cramped. But in the final event both exhibitions suggest a new atmosphere for postcolonial studies, one perhaps that does not dwell so heavily on the damages done (which undeniably were enormous) but also accepts that we live in the present and Britain now enjoys a culture that is fertile not only because of its own climate, but precisely because of the diversity that resides here.

Crafts Magazine (Jan./Feb. 2006: 62-63)