Saturday, May 30, 2015

In days of old, when knights were bold and monkeys chewed tobacco

Actually, a long, long time ago in a land far, far away, the world's first international trade fair took place in Hyde Park in London. It was called The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations or, as it is often called today, The Crystal Palace … and a marvel to behold it must have been at 1851 feet long and tall enough to hold fully-grown oaks within it. Not only a marvel to behold, the building, a prodigious green house – all plate glass and prefabricated cast-iron – was a not only technological phenomenon but also, architecturally speaking, a portent of things to come.

Yet I wonder if the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations gets more than a passing glance in present-day design school curricula, so much is there to be covered with the emphasis being on contract/commercial, not residential, design. Not to notice the Great Exhibition of 1851 as part of a History of Architecture and Interiors course would be a very odd choice because one might posit that is where the modern concept of design began, as did the still-current conversation about design quality. That the concept of design took root and flourished in the ensuing debate about the aesthetic horrors created by machine production on exhibit at the Crystal Palace is history that should not be forgotten, pertinent as it is to today, one-hundred-and-sixty-years later.

False Principles of Design and Other Legends of the Past
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Great Exhibition of 1851 is The Victoria and Albert Museum,"the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design" with a permanent collection of over four million objects. The Museum opened its doors at Marlborough House with its inaugural exhibition about false principles of design – an attempt by Henry Cole, the Museum's first Director, to define the principles of good and bad design.

Curtain rod holder

Examples of False Principles of Decoration Exhibition
Henry Cole's purpose in holding the exhibition and the seventy-eight objects it showcased was to deter the public from buying goods held to be unsatisfactory and to educate them in matters of taste. A quotation from an Appendix to the exhibition catalogue, illustrates the strength of Henry Cole's dissatisfaction with the industrially-produced goods of his day.

"There has arisen a new species of ornament of the most objectionable kind, which is desirable at once to deprecate on account of its complete departure from just taste and true principles. This may be called the natural or imitative style, and is seen in its worst development in some of the articles of form."

with perspective representation of the Crystal Palace and Serpentine

The exhibition, however, was not a success: a quotation from the Victoria and Albert Museum website:

"The reception accorded this exhibition quickly proved that Cole and his assistant, the artist Richard Redgrave had rather misjudged matters. Every article selected for the exhibition, however unprincipled its design might be, was at least commercially very successful. The public were merely amused by the selection but remained unconverted. The manufacturers whose products were criticised were mortified and immediately complained. The exhibition was closed after only two weeks."[My Italics]

Gilt brass and glass gas lamp bracke
In the False Principles exhibition, this bracket was stigmatized as "direct imitation of nature" and thus held to be unfit for its purpose. 

Roller-printed and glazed cotton
circa 1850 

The chintz above and the printed cotton below were chosen as examples of bad design because of the realistic imitation of nature, and the effect draping or folding the textile would have when used in a room. 

Printed Cotton, circa 1850

The reaction to the Great Exhibition – fundamentally a discussion about good taste and bad taste, with the Aesthetes losing every skirmish on the middle-class battlegrounds then and since – is relevant to today not only because, history being what it is, the pendulum has whizzed round a few times, and we're back where we were – maybe.

The aesthetes, the purists, the minimalists, the expounders of principles such as "fitness for purpose", rightly or wrongly, lose every time the wheel of fashion turns, because the rest of us want our cosy world filled with as much novelty as possible. Any real notion of taste is long gone; "taste" is a word that makes us a little self-conscious, is even pronounced in Italics. And, to be honest, I'm glad of it. Whether or not this is a good thing for the environment is a discussion for another day.

Each of the five examples I borrowed from the Victoria and Albert Museum – the curtain finial, Crystal Palace wallpaper, gas lamp bracket, chintz and printed cotton – is attractive by today's standards (or, if you are a strict Modernist,  probably not). Aesthetically speaking, I'm promiscuous, so I love 'em all, and possessing a fifty-year-old hand-blocked length of the Hollyhock linen I've decided to have a blazer lined with it.

The five images below are of newly printed carpets by Moooi. Printed carpet, long the unmentionable  poor relation frequently seen hanging around many a roadside rug sale, has now come out of the industry closet with a photo-realistic smack between the eyes – to say nothing of a final broadside to notions of taste.

Eden Queen
Marcel Wanders

Marcel Wanders

Jewels Garden
Maison Christian Lacroix

Ross Lovegrove

Imitating nature, industrial revolutions and twenty-first-century photo-realism
Whereas Henry Cole and his associates were horrified at the nullifying effect of the Industrial Revolution on the hand-made craftsman aesthetic thereto customary, we today have for so long lived with an orthodoxy of industrial processes that has made craft something of Etsy tweeness or, at the extreme, an artistic wannabe, we are inured to it all. Of course, to every such blanket statement there are exceptions which are worth noting.

Henry Cole and his fellow exhibition organizers found few supporters in the general public and the manufacturers of his time, but the Arts and Crafts Movement that came after him was influenced by his ideas as were, in their turn, the early Modernists, and here we are nearly two-hundred years later in a post-industrial society, in a technological revolution watching an interior design industry in its death-throes still producing printed textiles that probably would have given Cole apoplexy, but excite the rest of us with their novelty or, perhaps more importantly, in the case of chintz, the lack of. Plus ça change.

Photographs of Moooi Carpets from Dezeen
Photographs of five objectionable objects from Victoria and Albert Museum
Images of Crystal Palace from Wikipedia


  1. Gosh, that is a superb idea - lining a jacket in printed linen. My father, a recently retired tailor, had a commission from a member of the Jordanian royal family to line her jacket in a wildly bold Hermes scarf, so why not a linen of hollyhocks I say.

    I would have thoroughly enjoyed touring the great exhibition at Crystal Palace.

    1. Chronica Domus, thank you. I too would have loved a tour of the Great Exhibition but until a time machine is invented in my lifetime … I have heard of Hermes scarves being used as jacket linings and silk may help the garment drape better than would linen. However, the idea brings to mind those lovely Japanese garments where the sober outer hides a beautiful woven treasure inside.

  2. Yes I too have to applaud your using of the fabric as a jacket lining!
    We did talk quite a bit about the Crystal Palace in my basic architectural history classes in architecture school, but not really about the contents. I think a lot of architecture professors feel 'above' such things as objects though so we focused on the building. The amazing thing was London was so dirty at the time, the interior would have appeared quite foggy, don't you think? The glass would just be filthy dirty!

    1. ArchitectDesign, thank you. London was appallingly dirty at the time with soot from thousands of coal-fired chimneys but the exhibition was a temporary structure in Hyde Park where the air might have been cleaner and one can assume it did rain a time or two. Photographs seems to show the interior as quite clear of fog but … I don't know nothin' about photography at that date.

  3. Love the eye candy and the history. Can't wait to see you in your new blazin' glory!

    1. home before dark, thank you. A few (ahem) more pounds to lose then to the tailor. I'm looking forward to it myself. I have a few of these 40-50 year old memo samples one of which is a 6' length of chrome yellow silk damask and I can honestly say I'm not sure what to do with that.

    2. How about a chrome yellow silk damask Nehru jacket? The material would be fantastic, the lines of the Nehru jacket slimming, the music of the 60s (updated of course) plays on.