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Review: Unexpected Pleasures, Art Jewellery at The Design Museum, December 2012- March 2013

Is this the right room? Oh yes, I think so – a bit hard to tell. On entering Unexpected Pleasures, I was confronted with an array of beautifully designed and clearly very expensive but otherwise blank table cabinets. They are black and round with three massive domed bolts holding the glass down (they are real I couldn’t resist a tiny unscrew of one!). Inside sorted into collections of about six pieces per cabinet is the jewellery displayed on black foam. I found myself peering down these wells trying to decipher what I was looking at and when that was also coloured black. It reminded me of Douglas Adam’s spaceship with “weird black controls, which are labeled in black on a black background, a small black light lights up in black to let you know you’ve done it…”.

The lighting was not helping matters either. I felt the display did not show the jewellery off to is best which is a shame. For example, Steinhaufen by Karl Fritsch, 2004 so prominently displayed in a glorious colour image on the Design Museum website was tucked away in a cabinet so it was hard to tell what colour it was or even that it was a ring. I suspect the design of the cabinets was intended to make the visitor feel as if they were discovering those promised “Unexpected Pleasures”.

The exhibition was in four sections, smaller works in table cabinets at the front, a room-like historical section in the middle, behind that large neckpieces, then the “Worn Out” photography section at the back, a slide show of images people wearing jewellery and a video wall which seemed to be people wearing contemporary jewellery at a party (the wine was flowing at least!) which attempted to address the conundrum of displaying jewellery without being worn.

The range of contemporary jewellery was excellent in an important exhibition that is the first of its kind at the Design Museum. As an introduction to artist made jewellery it really tried hard. The pieces were collected together in loose themes and came from artists all over the world, were there enough from the UK? Does that matter in an international art form? There was also a section on the earliest emergence of contemporary art jewellery in the 1940s – 1960s.

The lack of human context so apparent in the front of the gallery suddenly changed once you had circumnavigated the “historical room”. Here at eye level was an array of big necklaces from famous names such as Marjorie Schick, David Watkins, Caroline Broadhead and Lucy Sarneel. Behind them was a wall of images showing pieces being worn or photography by jewellery artists that were purely two-dimensional works. Maisie Broadhead’s “Keep Them Sweet” is a gorgeous image but a problematic one in the context of this exhibition, its claim on being jewellery was a sweetie necklace used as a prop.

Sari Liimatta Phoenix Pendant 2009
Sari Liimatta Phoenix Pendant 2009

A personal tradition before leaving an exhibition I like to select the piece I would most like to take home with me. This time it is Sari Liimatta’s “Phoenix” 2010. A piece that, for me, embodies what artist made jewellery should; interesting technique, arresting beauty, expressing an intense emotion, with an undeniable ambiguity, exquisite craftsmanship and most importantly wearable.

“Unexpected Pleasures” was an excellent start if somewhat disappointing in its display, I hope the Design Museum will continue to champion contemporary jewellery and help raise its profile with the general public.