Selfridges as a display space for beautiful things makes a fair bit of sense. It’s one of those department stores that encourages the casual viewer to dream, and for the more financially endowed to part with more than they intended to. In the last fortnight, Selfridges has capitalised on its appeal by opening the largest shoe hall in the world, entitled the Shoe Gallery. I love shoes as much as the next girl, but this was something else; rows upon rows of foot confectionery, and rows upon rows of girls with wide eyes and racing pulses. Following their gallery theme, and to accompany the opening, Selfridges also dedicated a large room to an exhibition of Vivienne Westwood shoes. The glass cases and security guard highlighted the shoes’ status as pieces of fashion iconography as recognisable today as they were in their punk heyday. This, the exhibition says, is our kind of art.
Upstairs in the furniture department, it was a different story. As part of their Loft Living series, Selfridges is showcasing the work of three artists, all of whom have constructed furniture from briccole, the monumental wooden pillars on which Venice was built. The concept is excellent; the material is historic, beautiful and novel, with immense potential, and the works’ placement amongst more contemporary and affordable furniture designs highlights their versatility within the home. The trouble is that this is still a shop floor. People aren’t there to engage with art, or to spend £10,000 on a designer table, they are there under duress on a Saturday afternoon looking to buy a sofa and get the hell out.
In a contemporary art gallery, these pieces would have shone. There were carefully crafted stools shaped like hourglasses, a tower of shelves, and an amazing dining table with a wooden top and a metal stand that appeared to have been beaten into both submission and a crumpled shape that caught the light. The table in particular was gorgeous, but surrounded by your more standard living room furniture it looked unattainable and out of place. The price tags were similarly off-putting, but that isn’t unusual; you never go into Haunch of Venison and buy a painting for a fiver, and similarly you wouldn’t expect to buy a piece of Venetian heritage for the same price as a coffee table. The nail in the coffin here, unfortunately, is that the pieces are not held up as works of art in their own right – there are no artist biographies, descriptions of their methods or indeed any explanation as to why Selfridges chose to display this type of work. There is, however, a price tag. On each piece, the price is printed in larger letters than the artist’s name and the title of the work, sadly lowering the tone of the works on display.
When I arrived in Selfridges I was all set to engage with works of art in a commercial setting outside the traditional gallery space. Somehow The Loft Living displays felt wrong, the art lost under price tags that would not seem unreasonable elsewhere. Had the department store’s focus been on great design and novel materials, the displays would have demonstrated that functional furniture can also be a work of art, and vice versa. In this case, the emphasis wasn’t on art, and it almost seemed as though Selfridges agreed with me. I asked three members of staff where the exhibition was, and not a single one had any idea, but they all knew where the shoes were.
-- Alex Field
(Images courtesy of rightful owners)