In The Making at the Design Museum is an intriguing prospect that both illuminates and frustrates. It sheds a rare light on manufactured objects by showing them in their part-manufactured state, but misses a trick in not explaining the simplicity of manufacturing — an oversight made worse by putting it next to an exhibit of The Design Museum's permanent collection (of chairs and angle-poise lamps) that did actually promise to say something about materials and processes.... but didn't.
In The Making is a part of the modern genre (trend?) of curator-shows — put together by product design duo Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, who delightfully and modestly only included one of their own creations out of a total of 24 objects.
The idea is exquisitely simple — intervene in the mass-production process to show the familiar object in an unfamiliar light.
Now, that light — a single powerful spot light on each object — as well as making photography very difficult, makes for a crudely fetishistic display, shone as it is within a blacked-out room with the objects placed heroically on black plinths. This felt unnecessary as the items were beautiful enough on their own and the lighting put them in an unfamiliar context, so the comparison between their raw and finished states was harder to make.
A nice conceit was the quantification of the interruption in the production process — the caption gave a percentage of how far the object presented had progressed in its journey from raw material to finished object. What was missing was any explanation of how that figure was arrived at — time? Number of individual processes? Money? It would have been nice to know.
The exhibit included before-and-after photographs of all the items, which seemed a bit odd, as the difficult bit was obviously obtaining the part-made pieces; the finished things would be readily available and it seemed a shame to not get the chance to compare them like-for-like as physical objects. Perhaps more successful was a series of informative videos showing the things being made in various factories, which had a nice BBC-esque public-information feel to them. The videos were also silent, and this allowed you to watch all three screens at once, switching your attention from each key-process and skipping the bloke loading it into the machine or pushing it around on a pallet truck — a big bonus for those of us with cat-like attention spans.
But, my biggest gripe was that there was an obvious story to this exhibition that they failed to tell: the simplicity of manufacturing. Like Shakespeare's theory of dramatic narrative, there are only a few basic types of manufacturing — cutting, bending, sculpting etc. — and this show superbly demonstrated, but didn't explain, the fundamentals of these processes. It seemed to be glaringly omitted, almost as if that would be revealing too much.
That said, it was still a triumphant celebration of manufacturing. Set as it was in the Design Museum, it put the factories and the skills of the craftsmen and women who make this stuff centre stage. The exhibition design, by Build, was clean and simple and the curators did a superb job of finding a truly eclectic range of objects, mostly from the UK.
As it claimed, it showed familiar objects shorn of their familiarity; making you look more attentively (hence why it didn't need the theatrical lighting) at their form to appreciate their innate beauty and the power of adding value to raw materials to create products of genuine worth — politicians take note.
One amusing detail was the catalogue: GF Smith had kindly donated the paper, and Hobs Reprographics the printing, but obviously nobody stepped up for the binding. So, someone had the bright idea that the punters should bind it themselves, resulting in a kind of information-sheet-all-you-can-eat-buffet of pages on each of the objects. Binding rings were supplied for everyone to break their fingernails on putting them together. But, I guess, conceptually, this was a brief experiment in DIY manufacturing.