“We’re writing contemporary design history,” Corinna Gardner says. “And that history is captured in the moment.”
Gardner is the senior curator of design and digital at the V&A and also heads up the Rapid Response collection. The collection was founded in 2014 as a way to showcase design objects that were the subject of “discourse, debate and discussion”, as Gardner says. Rapid Response Collecting works on the basis of looking out to the world to “objects that articulate major moments in our contemporary history — be that industrial, social, economic and political”.
In five years, some of the collection’s highlights include a pair of Primark trousers made in Bangladesh and a pink Pussyhat worn at Washington’s 2017 Women’s March. Each of these speak to a wider issue; a pair of Katy Perry false eyelashes might explore global consumer culture, for example, and the working conditions of Indonedia, their country of origin.
Defining the parameters of the “moment” is sometimes hard: in relation to the museum’s over 150-year history, five years might not be a long term. In terms of contemporary design though, it can be a life time. Gardner points to the iPhone, introduced in 2007, but within five years had “transformed” our world. “The need to be reactive, and also considered is equally felt,” she adds.
“You need to have confidence to bring the object into the collection”
While some of these objects might have more obvious cultural or political resonance (an umbrella from Hong Kong’s 2014 protests), the nature of this “rapid” collection means that some objects seem particularly of a time, even faddy (the mobile app Flappy Bird). But as Gardner points out, “there are many historical acquisitions that have gone in and out of curatorial and visitor interest.” “With the contemporary collection, you need to be rigorous and broad, and have the confidence to bring that object into the collection at that point in time,” she adds.
The parameters of these acquisitions is wide in scope but always object-focused. This can be a blessing and curse; “the good fortune and also the challenge of the collection is that the objects need to speak for themselves and come first,” Gardner says. Objects are chosen for their potential “to ask bigger questions” about the world, which might “articulate something about our economy, or politics, or social circumstance”.
“Bringing an object in at a particular moment of time gives that object a purpose and narrative,” Gardner says. It also helps us understand the world, and contemporary issues, through what is being designer, and how it’s being designed and — crucially — who it’s being designed for. “The collection thinks about how design is a lens to broadly understand the world,” she adds.
“We have a clear and committed focus to looking at design in society, which have a particular type of traction in the real world, or which through their innovation promise substantial change in how we all live in the near future or longer term.”
One example of this is the Xbox Adaptive Controller in 2018, the first mass market videogame controller designed for people with disabilities. Gardner says this was significant because it was “an example of big tech investing in a diverse usership”. It was also co-designed — as part of a ‘hackathon’ at Microsoft — which Gardner says speaks to how “design practice is changing”.
The Xbox controller was acquired at its launch to market — it was not yet a proven commercial widespread success. But at the time it was a “bellweather”, Gardner says. “It’s setting a different discourse — and changing what will happen in its immediate wake.”
The reasoning behind acquisitions is different. 2014’s iPhone 6 was added just after Apple released its third quarter results and became the most profitable private company ever to have existed, Gardner says. It was also because its design was changed: the screen was made bigger, which “allowed an American market to break the Chinese market”. The iPhone 6’s story therefore is about an “actual product in use among a global populus”.
These design objects speak to issues both local and global. In the near future, Gardner sees a trend towards sustainability, both in how products are made and marketed. Her favourite acquisition this year was Extinction Rebellion’s visual identity, including the distinctive — and much-loved by designers — hourglass logo. “Design was part of the Extinction Rebellion project from the outset,” Gardner says. “It’s easily reproducible, immediately recognisable, and at the time allows for individual creativity.”
“The Extinction Rebellion identity is a brilliant example of how design can be used to galvanise public concern for the planet on a global scale,” she adds.
Another trend is a move toward digital acquisitions, which will “inevitably feature more prominently as we enter further into the 21st century”. Gardner points to the acquisition of the mosquito emoji, which was created as a “means to raise awareness of the insect’s role in spreading deadly disease across language and literacy barriers.” In this case, “digital design is being used to advance public health,” she says.
How design helps us understand a moment in time
Whatever the object or its medium, it must say something about contemporary design. Gardner explains how, at the time of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, a lot of suggestions were put forward for the collection.
One was a set of cupcakes made in a Glasgow bakery, decorated with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ for the opposing political views. And while this was a “brilliant piece of social history”, there was “nothing in the design of the object that led to a better understanding of a desire for independence of how a referendum works”, Gardner says. In contrast, during the Brexit referendum in 2016, a leaflet by the Vote Leave campaign which was allegedly made to look like an NHS form — and a Treasury Committee commission analysed as part of a review on Vote Leave’s misleading claims — was acquired by the collection.
Recently, the collection has revised its policy for collection, as it continues to chart contemporary (often turbulent) society through design. And while the distinction between material culture and social history is at times “difficult to navigate,” it always leads back to the object. “We’re a design museum,” Gardner says. “For me the design — and the question that design is asking — rests within the object.”