Style Over Substance?

I arrived at the V&A with great hopes and optimism and headed immediately for the gallery containing the recreation of the Mackintosh tearoom – unaware that this was the only gallery (apart from a paid exhibition on the history of gaming). I spent approximately 45 minutes in this Scottish Design Gallery before heading off to see the rest of the galleries. I was quite taken aback when I realised that I had seen all there was to see, apart from a community space where children were drawing and copying images of prosthetic limbs.

There appears to have been some convoluted plan to base the Scottish Design Gallery on 19th century items associated with the V&A in South Kensington’s Scottish collection but I personally didn’t get a sense of that in its curation, with 19th century objects surrounded by 16th century tapestries, 17th century silverware, Napoleonic furniture and 20th century fashion. The work of architects William and Robert Adam was represented by a chimney piece and a small text panel – quite incredible when you think of their influence on Western architecture.

I did like the Oak Room, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s tearoom for his patron, Catherine Cranston. It is a thing of beauty and far ahead of its time in terms of design. Moreover I was surprised to learn that Scotland, in the 19th century, was exporting transfer-printed ceramics, with Chinese designs, to Asia on ships leaving Glasgow. That would appear to be like selling ice to an Eskimo, but they were extremely successful. Also, the Gaming exhibition is entirely appropriate for a design museum in the City as only this year statistics showed that Dundee-founded gaming companies are among the UK’s most successful video games developers over the last two decades.

However, the building allocates far more space to its shops and eateries than to its objects which, judging by the feedback I’ve received on social media, has been the experience of all visitors. A cavernous space which feels self-indulgent once you appreciate how little there is to see. I got no sense from that Gallery, nor did my companions, of the huge global impact of Scottish design across the industries of textiles, architecture, ceramics, interiors, fashion, shipping, engineering and more. The very sparse and random objects were preaching to the converted – those who are already familiar with design and its history – and whilst very nice, provided no real impact.

I hope their temporary exhibition space is large enough to house the whole of the forthcoming Mary Quant exhibition and not edited highlights because to encourage visitors back they’ll need to pull out all the stops.

However, you must visit and make up your own mind. Sadly, for me, a definite case of style of over substance.

Don’t Miss – The Oak Room – Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s tea room

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