The Global Life of Design at the NGV, a voyage through the history of design

Oct 20, 2022
  • Article by Clémence Carayol

The National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) newest exhibition, The Global Life of Design, examines and reveals the interlocking networks of power, economics and influence that continue to shape design practices today.

From pigments to produce, timber and textiles, the global exchange of commodities throughout history has influenced design traditions, leading to breakthroughs in technology, the rise of luxury markets and the development of consumer culture. 

Installation view of Japanese Box of  decorative fabric samples 1600-1868 on display in The Global Life of Design from 7 October 2022 to 29 January 2023 at NGV International, Melbourne.   Photo: Sean Fennessy

Spanning the middle ages to the present day, The Global Life of Design presents over 100 NGV Collection works created from – or in response to – materials that became available through global trade, including exquisite garments made from silk and Indian muslin, elaborate teaware, ostrich feather fans and lacquer furniture.

“The idea behind the exhibition came from thinking about how the world was a lot more interconnected in the past, it was already a world with this concept of a globalism before globalisation,” NGV curator Maria Quirk says.

Installation view of England Bed curtain 1720-1730 on display in The Global Life of Design from 7 October 2022 to 29 January 2023 at NGV International, Melbourne.  
Photo: Sean Fennessy

“With design being one of the most visible legacies of that globalism, the movement of materials and goods around the world, influencing new art and design traditions, the exhibition is about thinking about art and design from the past in a very global context and how movement of people and ideas and goods made the world as we know it today, a very interconnected world, even though the past might seem much more inward looking than our present day.”

Presented across four thematic sections that explore the exchange of knowledge, natural resources, luxury and technologies, the exhibition examines and reveals the interlocking networks of power, economics and influence that continue to shape design practices today. 

Installation view of  The Global Life of Design from 7 October 2022 to 29 January 2023 at NGV International, Melbourne.  Photo: Sean Fennessy

The Global Life of Design juxtaposes important historical designs with contemporary works, creating dialogues between different times, places and traditions in order to examine the complex legacy of global trade and its entanglement with colonialism.

“We chose to bring the exhibition up until the current day, and try to reflect on some of the current themes or challenges of trade in the context of Art and Design, thinking of themes around supply chain and waste and technology,” Quirk says. 

Installation view of Anton Gerner Huon pine sculptural drawers 2011-2019 on display in The Global Life of Design from 7 October 2022 to 29 January 2023 at NGV International, Melbourne.  Photo: Sean Fennessy

“The prime angle of this exhibition was looking at this early form of globalism, but then taking it all the way to our current era and interrogate this continuity with the challenges, ramifications and legacies of trade and how that continues to play out in today’s universe.”

Highlights of The Global Life of Design include the etching Bay with two large Dutch sailing vessels, 1656, by Dutch artists Renier Nooms.

Nooms worked as a sailor and draughtsperson at a time when Dutch companies dominated international trade and used his intimate knowledge of sailing to accurately document the inner workings of maritime commerce. An oil painting by Gerritt Berckheyde, also on display, depicts the Amsterdam Town Hall, a potent symbol of the wealth and power the Netherlands accumulated as a result of its central role in early modern global trade.

Installation view of  The Global Life of Design from 7 October 2022 to 29 January 2023 at NGV International, Melbourne.  Photo: Sean Fennessy

In the 18th and 19th centuries, textiles – particularly muslin and silk – were valuable and luxury commodities. On display is an 1820s English Dress, made from the fine, dianphanous muslin which was introduced to England from India in the seventeenth century. The work is paired with an 2018 Ensemble by British designer Richard Malone, an example of the exploration of new textile technologies to combat ecological issues created by the modern fashion trade. The fabric used is created from recycled ocean plastic and is woven by the Oshadi weaving workshop located in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where the female workers are guaranteed fair-trade wage and provided with housing, apprenticeships and education for their children.

The movement of people and things around the world also precipitated the exchange of ideas, technology and knowledge systems. The spread of a universal system of timekeeping based on standardised, mechanical clocks was an important facilitator – as well as a lasting legacy – of global trade. The exhibition showcases a rare Edo period (1603-1867) clock that merges Western and Japanese time keeping systems.

Photography: Sean Fennessy

The Global Life of Design  is at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne and runs until 29 January 2023. You can find out more about what’s on offer at the NGV website.

Also at the NGV, you can learn more about the gallery’s triennial Rigg Design Prize, the highest accolade for contemporary design bestowed by an Australian public gallery, here.

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