'Unexpected Pleasures' at Design Museum, London

Unexpected Pleasures at London
(Image credit: press)

Jewellery is rarely the focus of major exhibitions at prominent galleries. This year has been different, with standalone exhibtions from Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels being staged in museums across Europe. Adding to that this week, and somewhat at the opposite end of the scale, is 'Unexpected Pleasures: The Art and Design of Contemporary Jewellery', at the Design Museum in London.

Rather than look only at what’s new in contemporary jewellery – a movement that, roughly, aims to place jewels in a social context – the show is a celebration featuring around 200 pieces from jewelers and designers from the 1960s to today. So, alongside art-jeweller stalwarts such as British designer Wendy Ramshaw’s interlocking rings of gold and silver, are pan-decade designs such as Gijs Bakker’s Porsche bracelet in Polyurethane, Pierre Cardin’s mobile-style acrylic necklace and Manon van Kouswijk’s poppy paper pearls.

That means that there are some absolute crackers on show – Ramshaw’s 1988 'Rings for Woman in an Armchair', for instance, are brilliantly modern, beautiful and curious, and her influence pervades throughout the exhibition. Ettore Sottsass’ 1967 graphic necklace of gold, quartz and onyx is equally compelling. 

Of the new names featured, Japan’s Toru Yoshikawa’s Ribbonesia project’s origami-like grosgrain-ribbon fox is a standout piece, its simplicity, tone and texture imbuing it with a feeling of preciousness. Alexander Blank’s darkly considered response to the proliferation of ‘animal’ jewellery, 'Ed’s Friend Duck' in foam, silver, Perspex and lacquer is also so carefully conceived and realized, especially in his creative use of materials, as to make much of the rest of the jewellery on show appear dated and lacking in originality

It’s a good thing to consider jewellery from a more conceptual, design-led perspective but while the ambition of the expert curator, Australian designer and maker Dr. Susan Cohn, to show contemporary jewellery from every angle, is a bold one, the result is a sprawling mélange of objects that, as a whole, somehow seems to lack contemporary context. That said, every visitor will find something to delight, surprise and inspire further thought here.

Grand wooden cases

Grand wooden cases house the earlier and decidedly more retro pieces of the show

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Ettore Sottsass' necklace comprises gold, quartz and onyx

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Rings for Woman in an Armchair

British designer Wendy Ramshaw's 'Rings for Woman in an Armchair', designed in 1998, are made from 750 yellow gold, amethyst, fire opal and citrine on painted wood stands

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gold necklace from the seventies on show

David Watkins (who is coincidentally Ramshaw's husband and design partner) has this coloured synthetic polymer resin and gold necklace from the seventies on show

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made from elm wood

'Hawk' by Dorethea Prühl, 2006, made from elm wood

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'Wrappinghood' by Suska Mackert, 2005. The site-specific work comprises a digital print and gold-leaf letters

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A mobile-style acryclic necklace

A mobile-style acryclic necklace by French fashion designer Pierre Cardin

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Who Am I

'Who Am I?' rings by Kiko Gianocca, 2008/11, made from gold, silver and polyurethane

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Frosty Night Fox

'Frosty Night Fox' by Baku Maeda for Ribbonesia, 2010, made from resinated ribbon

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Ed's Friend Duck

'Ed's Friend Duck' brooch by Alexander Blank, 2009, made from rigid foam, silver, Perspex and lacquer

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Wendy's Bracelet II

'Wendy's Bracelet II' by Mark Vaarwerk, 2008, Wendy's ice cream topping bottles, plastic shopping bags, sterling silver

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A La Recherche de Joyou Perdu

'A La Recherche de Joyou Perdu' by Philip Sajet, 2011, gold, enamel, rock crystal

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'Porsche' polyurethane bracelet by Gijs Bakker for 'Made by Chi ha paura ...?', 2002

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Object for Dreams

'Object for Dreams' neck piece by Leonor Hipólito, 2006, made from resin, silver and silk

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Big Solitaire Brooch

'Big Solitaire Brooch' by Marc Monzó, 2006, made from silver, zirconia and steel

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Speed neck piece

'Speed' neck piece by Blanche Tilden, 2000, made from borosilicate glass, titanium and anodised aluminium

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Design Museum
Shad Thames
London SE1 2YD


Caragh McKay has been a contributing editor at Wallpaper* since 2014. She was previously watches & jewellery director and is currently our resident lifestyle & shopping editor. Caragh has produced exhibitions and created and edited titles for publishers including the Daily Telegraph. She regularly chairs talks for luxury houses, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier among them. Caragh’s current remit is cross-cultural and her recent stories include the curious tale of how Muhammad Ali met his poetic match in Robert Burns and how a Martin Scorsese film revived a forgotten Osage art.