After reviewing Julia Lohmann’s latest work for Gallery Libby Sellers (see previous post) I thought I’d examine the recent prevalence of morbid symbology and references to death in design in a bit more detail. Lohmann herself is certainly one of the key protagonists in this trend having based the majority of her previous work on giving a new lease of life to animal carcasses that would normally become waste. Two such pieces featured in the recent exhibition Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in which curator Gareth Williams dedicated an entire section to the theme of death entitled Heaven and Hell. The show featured disturbingly direct evocations of human vulnerability (the flesh-like Rubber Table and a rug resembling pools of blood called The Lovers by Fredrikson Stallard) as well as references to the terror of natural or man-made disasters and acts of human brutality and war. As well as Lohmann’s work there were a number of other designers who made use of taxidermy to create provocative objects with a dark sense of humour including Kelly McCallum, Niels van Eijk and Wieki Somers.
Mortality has been a popular theme in art for centuries, from its allegorical use in religious painting and sculpture to representations of war and destruction such as Picasso’s Guernica. I think the appearance of these sorts of themes in design is representative of the attempt to close the gap between design and art over the past decade. Many designers decided that to generate publicity for their work they would endeavour to shock and disturb. Only in this environment of critical exploration could anyone justify a teapot in the shape of a pig’s skull covered in a rat’s skin.
The use of pelts and hide in some of these objects also signifies the relaxing of taboos surrounding animal produce that results from an increased awareness of more responsible farming and hunting practices. Interior design has seen an increase in the use of sheepskins and cowhides in recent years as they add a touch of warmth and naturalism to bare, minimal loft and warehouse spaces. In fashion, there have been more collections featuring fur, responsibly sourced and simply treated. Traditional taxidermy has also seen a rise in popularity, all of which seems to suggest that we are becoming more comfortable with the inevitability of death and with art and design that confronts this issue.
In modern society we are constantly reminded of the fragility of our existence through omnipresent media coverage of terrorist threats and the dangers inherent in the warming of the climate so perhaps the popularity of this theme is a case of art mimicking life. Designers choosing to create contemporary memento mori can seem particularly pertinent in these fraught social conditions. However, I expect that the time has passed for design to be employing arbitrary shock tactics and that the task of expressing fear and mortality will be rightly passed back to art while design again focuses on improving the life that we have.