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The exhibition Brand.New examines consumer culture, but is also part of a wider attempt to revitalise the Victoria & Albert Museum’s reputation

Jane Pavitt, Gareth Williams and Thomas Heatherwick have a weight of expectation riding on their shoulders. They are responsible for Brand.New, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s autumn blockbuster. The first two are the curators, and Heatherwick is their designer. And they have to do two things.

First, they must convince us there are new, interesting things to say about branding. So much has been done on this subject over the years. Think of sundry exhibitions at the Design Museum, of last winter’s Identity Crisis at Glasgow 1999 and, of course – back when the Conran Foundation ran the Boilerhouse Project at this very same museum – some punchy little shows that dabbled intermittently in this same area. How do you stifle people’s yawns when they see the Coca-Cola bottle yet again?

Second – and much more difficult – they have to persuade us that it is worth going to the V&A at all. People seem to have got out of the habit. Figures are bandied about purporting to show that even the previously little-regarded National Portrait Gallery now attracts more punters than the South Kensington behemoth. I wonder about that – after all, shows like this year’s Art Nouveau did very good business – but there is no doubt that Henry Cole’s original vision of a home for the best of arts and crafts has become somewhat diffused in recent years.

In particular, it has not been seen to be keeping up with contemporary design. Its Twentieth Century Galleries are small, tucked away, and strangely laid out, as if along corridors. Wouldn’t you expect to find the freshest material closest to the front of house? Instead, you enter into the medieval-treasury section, in a world where it seems nothing has moved for centuries.

Which was why it was so refreshing to find Ron Arad setting out his stall in subversive fashion right in this sacred space – a brilliant linear show starting right outside the main entrance, with his famous totem pole of Tom Vac chairs, and continuing down the axis of the building and out into the Pirelli courtyard, where, with luck, you find yourself sitting in the sun on more Tom Vacs. Some may have seen this as heresy – bashed or moulded furniture elbowing aside priceless jewels of heritage – but Arad’s show did most of the things the V&A should be doing. The juxtaposition of old and new, sidestepping questions of art and functionality – above all, the way it colonised the great spaces like a benign virus – was so refreshing.

So there are already stirrings of life in the great, decayed institution. Let’s not forget the huge ongoing development of the new British Galleries, designed by Casson Mann, which is going to be vitally important. And if the museum can scrape together enough money to get Daniel Libeskind’s Spiral extension finally going for real, then it is into a different ball game altogether. Most crucial of all is who gets to replace the outgoing director, Sir Alan Borg. Remembering how Sir Roy Strong, director from 1974 to 1987, moulded the museum around his own quirky personality in that volatile era, it’s obvious that, after years of retrenchment, a clear-thinking, determined new director is essential.

The British contenders for the job are thought to be Tim Clifford from the National Gallery of Scotland, Charles Saumarez-Smith of the National Portrait Gallery, and Simon Thurley from the Museum of London – but overseas candidates are rumoured to be in the frame also. Whoever they get, the question is, can our triumvirate of young bloods behind Brand.New put on enough of a show to convince the powers that be to hasten the process of change? There is no doubt – talking to Pavitt and Williams – that they see the exhibition as a testbed for things to come, not least in the Spiral extension, if and when that gets built.

Heatherwick’s involvement in the show is a lot more than simply designing the packaging for a previously determined layout. On the contrary: his design suggestions have had a substantial impact on the show’s content, and its appearance. This is possible, as it is not a particularly object-rich exhibition. It deals with the idea of consumer culture, rather than the design of brands, logos, packaging and so on. In a sense it is like a more interesting version of one of the zones in the Dome (if only these three could have been involved there), dealing with the presentation of ideas rather than sacred relics.

Hence one of Heatherwick’s two particularly theatrical moves: the big opening room, a hillside of brand identities on stalks rippling like corn in the (fan-assisted) wind, with no explanatory text whatsoever. It is simply an immersive experience: you wind your way through the field of brands and move through a slot in the “hill” (made of low-cost pegboard) into a cavern where the exhibition proper begins.

“When we were looking for a designer,” says Pavitt, “part of the brief was for a kind of prologue to the show. An introductory zone that would evoke the theme without being too descriptive, too literal. Something that would shift the perspective from the museum. And what Tom proposed was not a small introductory section, but the whole of the gallery.”

Nor are all the “brands” in the undulating hill obvious ones. Yes, there are global brands like Nike there, but also local ones, such as a make of Indian basmati rice. There are logos of cultural institutions, including New York’s cutting-edge PS1 contemporary arts centre, and the V&A itself. Also celebrities who are in a sense their own brand image – all photographed, just to reinforce the feeling of unreality, at Madame Tussaud’s. No commentary is offered – you make your own judgements. Each is given an equal value – the same-sized flag. “It’ll be interesting to see how long people spend in here,” says Pavitt. “They may rush through to the information. Or they may pause here and ponder.”

In the cave beneath the hill, everything is suspended on wires, as if dangling from the roots of the field above. A large sign asks, “What is a brand?” and explains that it’s much more than just a logo or a slogan, but a complex identity. This first room is historical, explaining the roots of today’s brands, which essentially became possible with mass production and rapid distribution in the 19th century, though some patent medicines were known by their names even in the 18th. Packaging, trade-name registration, early advertising – all were essentially Victorian inventions. To emphasise the point that there’s nothing much new in invented pneumatic personalities, a Michelin Man (Mr. Bibendum) is contrasted with a lifesize Lara Croft. Most of the best-known brands are around a century old. Some of the newest are “no-brand” brands, particularly in toiletries and cosmetics.

And, of course, there’s Coca-Cola, something both Pavitt and Heatherwick sigh over a bit. To leave it out would have been impossible, but how to get a fresh angle? It’s done by showing how the brand value was built, emerging from a welter of competing “health” drinks, many of them other colas. It’s a tale of business rivalry in which Coke beat off around 300 actual or potential rivals (one was called “Dope”, which in the late 19th century was the popular nickname for Coca-Cola owing to the presence of a certain stimulant in the original recipe). So eventually Pepsi is left as the only global alternative. Videos of big-budget 1980s ads from both companies are shown – in which they competed in their claims to be not just soft drinks but forces for good and world peace.

There’s a cosmetics section, showing how brands are sold as a whole lifestyle rather than as products, and a bit on celebrity endorsement which shows how George Best was selling crisps long before Gary Lineker and Gary Owen. This zone – ending with some wholly invented future brands, if I’ve understood Pavitt correctly – feels compressed, almost tunnel-like, before you emerge into the next section; a series of seven large containers with peeled-back lids, each containing one type of “brand promise”.

These are fun, arranged like room pods. The first deals with authenticity – “the real thing”, but it’s Levi’s, not Coke, with an original 19th century pair of jeans. The second, sporting giant test-tubes, is New and Improved, the promise of continual product development – detergents and beauty products, mainly. “Making friends with your mobile” is about user-friendly technology brands, selling on human and fashionable, rather than scientific, aspects. Then comes Status, in a golden interior – the Bond Street brands, the monogrammed luggage and Burberry aspect, followed by Loyalty – brands which offer merchandise for every part of your life. This pod (styled as a bedroom) is split between Manchester United and Hello Kitty.

The sixth pod is Irreverence – brands which pretend they’re not really brands – Benetton, Diesel and French Connection. The ones that pretend to be somehow subversive, on your side. The final one is Conscience – emotional, better-nature brands such as The Body Shop Co-op Bank, Fairtrade goods and such like.

After such immersion in concentrated branding from the company end of things, Heatherwick then presents you with his second big coup de théâtre: a huge black cube of a room filled with what he calls “burrs” – spiky wheel-like objects with illuminated logos round their perimeter and video monitors at their centres. Co-curator Williams explains: “It’s almost as if all these burrs have rolled through all the previous part of the exhibition, gathering up ideas and notions, and they’ve come to settle in here.” Each monitor plays an interview with a person or group of people somehow or other concerned with consumerism. Produced by the documentary film-maker and psychologist David Cohen, these include a man who, in the cause of inconspicuous consumption, buys absolutely everything he needs from Marks & Spencer. Except for his cars (Marks & Sparks doesn’t do those), which are always Skodas. Another deals with a Barbie-mad little girl (“It’s about pester-power,” observes Williams). Another of the nine “burrs” deals with the tricky subject of how a blind person relates to brands.

As important as the individual case studies, however, is the high impact of the design of the whole room, and that’s down to Heatherwick – who had to battle with Health and Safety officers over the way he designed deliberately tight, constricted spaces between the big set-piece rooms to maintain the element of surprise. Just such a compression-point leads you to the final gallery of the exhibition, which is all to do with “subverting the brand”. This, Heatherwick has designed like a gigantic blister-pack of pills, with the exhibits behind 140 vacuum-formed clear acrylic bubbles mounted on the walls.

“It’s all to do with what happens when brands are taken away from their owners,” says Williams. So one wall deals with parody ads and “uncommercials”, made by anti-commercial artists and activists. Space is left for material from this year’s International Buy-Nothing Day, on 24 November (the day after Thanksgiving, apparently the biggest-spending day in the American calendar) and the British equivalent, No Shop Day, on 25 November. And, of course, there’s stuff on some of the protests about Macdonalds. Elsewhere, there are clothes made from chopped-up fashion brands, gay slogans that subvert well-known ad brands, and counterfeiting. The fakes (usually high street sports-casual wear, but also high-end items such as Mont Blanc pens) are shown next to the authentic objects in a spot-the-difference exercise. Some of the counterfeits are amazingly high quality, sometimes extraordinarily poor. And then there’s the matter of “appropriation” – brands that aren’t fakes, but try hard to look very like their commercial rivals. Not to mention jewellers who make genuinely valuable objects out of everyday products.

I didn’t see it complete, but it looks to be a well-paced show that cunningly leads you from one experience to another in a reasonably revealing way. The exhibition takes the branding argument forward and it will certainly open a few eyes. Would V&A founder Cole have recognised all this as a legitimate subject for a museum? Quite likely he would. Remember he was heavily involved in the world’s first-ever international trade show, the Great Exhibition of 1851. Commerce in all its forms was central to the Victorian world view.

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