In November 2019, after almost 30 years, the V&A’s 20th Century gallery closed its doors. Split across the same two rooms that blend into the National Art Library, the ambition was to reopen having found a way to tell a new story of the 20th and 21st century, “focused on design and society”.
The gallery was supposed to open last June. It was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and there’s a frugal feel to the space with the same cases being used to display the collection (the plinths that the items stand on being the only new elements).
There is some seating now, with movable stools and nooks for visitors, but its lead curators, Johanna Agerman Ross and Corinna Gardner, have essentially had to remix rather than completely reimagine the story of design over the last century and a quarter.
Instead of being organised purely chronologically like the old space, things are now broken down into themed sections. Automation and Labour covers the period until 1930; Housing and Living takes us up to just before the second world war; Crisis and Conflict runs through the postwar period; Consumption and Identity takes on the 60s and early 70s; Sustainability and Subversion stretches until the millennium; and Data and Communication runs from 2000 to the present day.
The vast majority of items come from the V&A’s permanent collection, though 50 of the total 250 are new acquisitions. Part of the refresh involved the closure of the Rapid Response Collecting gallery, and now items from that collection, which was set up in 2014, are dotted around the gallery like punctuation marks.
Some, like the same type of Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite trainers Eliud Kipchoge wore when he broke the mythic two-hour marathon barrier, are exclamation marks signalling design’s innovative impact. Others, like the subway campaign in New York that flagged the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, are more like full stops that show the discipline’s ability to convey a clear, definitive message.
Much of it ties together, particularly the sustainability section that moves smoothly and logically from the southern California new age movement into the birth of Apple as an outsider tech company. Crisis and Conflict neatly combines the wartime designs of the Eames with the furniture that followed. There are fun new inclusions such as Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies, and important new arrivals such as Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir’s road signage system.
The delay in opening dovetailed with the Covid-19 pandemic, but also the Black Lives Matter movement, which presaged examinations of collections and their lack of diversity. You can feel that shift in some of the new space with everything from the Nigeria football team’s 2018 kit by Nike to Virgil Abloh’s Ikea shopping bag and Vogue UK’s covers featuring key workers rather than the usual celebrities or models, all nodding to the new voices changing society and design.
But the thematic premise throws up some jarring juxtapositions. Can you smoothly segue from a piece of Memphis furniture to a photograph of John Lewis and other SNCC civil rights organisers taking the knee? Part of that is down to the sheer ambition of a space that seeks to tell the tale of a period in which every conceivable element of human life was touched by design, while doing so on a budget.
But even when the vaults across design’s history seem hard to follow, the desire to tell a new, more inclusive version of that story is obvious. It might not always succeed, but there is a real commitment to trying something different and add meaning to the phrase “build back better”.