The ornate grandeur of the Baroque

The ornate grandeur of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s forthcoming Baroque exhibition might seem out of place in our credit-crunched times. But the Baroque style informs the values of many contemporary designers, says John Stones, who takes a look at some

‘Impeccable timing,’ suggested one of the luminaries assembled for the launch of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s forthcoming blockbuster dedicated to Baroque. Well, not quite. As a style associated with excess, opulence and imposing grandeur, Baroque sits uncomfortably with our recently straitened times.

Witness the combination of anger and ridicule directed at the installation of a $35 000 (£25 500) 18th century commode as part of a lavish $1.2m (£700 000) refitting of the office of the now ousted John Thain, chief executive of Merrill Lynch, when the investment bank lost $15bn (£10.5bn). The age of magnificence indeed.

Baroque developed in an era of despotic rulers and powerful clerics, so it is not surprising that it continues to appeal to financiers, oligarchs and sheikhs with a similar wish to display their power and glory. The very word ‘Baroque’ has become shorthand for excess, visual or otherwise. Yet it would be a shame to leave Baroque to the power-mad, the antique dealer or the crusty art historian.

Indeed, Baroque has had a limited rehabilitation in recent years as designers, often from countries with strong Baroque legacies such as Spain, Italy and France, seek to break out of the continuing constraints of Modernism and a certain hegemonic notion of ‘good taste’.

Philippe Starck’s Postmodern experimentation with Baroque forms started in the mid-1990s, and culminated in the Louis Ghost chair he designed in 2002 for Kartell. It has continued to sell strongly in the fickle world of fashion furniture and paved the way for others, such as Jaime Hayón, whose ‘digital Baroque’ style is evident in interiors for shoe brand Camper and designs for porcelain company Lladró, of which he is creative director. You could also point to the proliferation of chandeliers in recent years, such as the reinterpretation of a classic Baroque chandelier in papier-mâché by Studio Job for Moooi, or indeed the Smoke dining chair burnt by Marten Baas, also for Moooi. Irreverent and playful, these designs do, however, suggest that ‘Baroque’ is almost always taken as kitsch or ironic.

Another designer who is now engaging with the Baroque style is French-born Sam Baron, design director at Fabrica, Benetton’s ‘communication design centre’. His Royal Actual series for Portuguese company Vista Alegre and (F)utiles glassware for Secondome were both launched at this year’s Maison et Objet, and engage with the design language without parody or facetiousness.

‘European designers cannot forget what “made us”,’ says Baron. ‘Baroque and rococo were the most amazing and visual movements, and it is a challenge to give an interpretation of them and to make it readable for the entire globe.’

But perhaps the fullest contemporary manifestation of asymmetric dynamism of Baroque is in the organic, enveloping and emotional forms of Zaha Hadid’s architecture and products.

Baroque has entered the design lexicon for almost anything ornate or decorative, but art historians will tell you that it was a movement of reform starting around 1600, seeking to re-engage viewers and listeners after the esoteric fancies of Mannerism. (Incidentally, ‘Mannerism’ is how Alberto Alessi describes contemporary design.)

The supreme masterpiece of the Baroque is generally agreed to be Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa in the Cornaro chapel in Rome. Orgasm seems more appropriate to suggest her raptures, and trick lighting creates a seemingly divine ray of light. It’s a total work of art long before Wagner dreamt up the Gesamtkunstwerk, drawing on almost anything to create the richest and most overwhelming experience possible. The V&A exhibition, being designed by Land Design Studio, will have its work cut out to create an environment even vaguely as engaging and exciting.

Baroque 1620-1800/ Style in the Age of Magnificence runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Kensington, London SW7 from 4 April to 19 July

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