Are these the most important objects of our time?

Clockwise from top left: Katy Perry eyelashes; Ikea's 'Lufsig' bear; Christian Louboutin's 'Nudes' range; a 3D-printed gun


Clockwise from top left: Katy Perry eyelashes; Ikea’s ‘Lufsig’ bear; Christian Louboutin’s ‘Nudes’ range; a 3D-printed gun 

The Rapid Response team’s first job was to find the gun. They’d seen it being
fired – there was a video of a man in the desert taking aim and shooting –
and they swiftly arranged for one of their operatives to fly from London to
Texas to track it down. Louise Shannon is not an Interpol officer, nor is
she an international arms dealer: no, she’s a curator at the Victoria and
Albert Museum in South Kensington, London. And the gun – 3D-printed out of
plastic – was the inaugural purchase under the museum’s Rapid Response
Collecting initiative, the aim of which is to acquire items of political,
social and economic significance, and to display them to the public as
quickly as possible.

Corinna Gardner is another of the four-strong team of curators who have been
involved in the project over the past year. “If you look at what
contemporary design museums do, I think there’s a real risk that they all
become the same,” she says. “If you work on the basis that it’s about
picking the most successful or the most beautiful things, there are
conventions around that and you find a lot of very similar objects in

Next to Gardner’s desk is a white cabinet filled with items that she and her
fellow curators have acquired in the past year. When she opens the case –
which is, she notes, endoscopically secure, so no looking device can get
inside it when it’s closed – a strange array of items is revealed. I see two
bras: one pink, one white. Some mannequin arms with different skin tones. A
cuddly toy. A fake iPhone

The idea, says Gardner, is that each object has a story to tell about the
world we live in today: something about working conditions in the Third
World, or political unrest in China, or changing race relations. “The stance
we are taking is much more politically and socially minded,” she says. “Some
might even say polemical.”

The curators aim to be agile, responding immediately to news events around the
world. “I think the idea that you need the passage of time before you know
what to collect is redundant,” says Gardner. “Time will tell what will be
more interesting and less so, but I think we need to keep going and not be
fearful of failure.” (The activities of the Rapid Response curators do have
a precedent in the V&A’s Circulation Department, which collected
contemporary design from the Fifties onwards, and was seen as a radical
left-wing cadre within the museum.)

Sometimes they are frustrated in their efforts. When 10 fire stations were
closed down in London earlier this year, they were unable to find any
objects that did an adequate job of telling the story. In February, Gardner
tried to get hold of a faulty plastic element in Aston Martin’s accelerator
pedals, which had resulted in almost 18,000 cars being recalled, but Aston
Martin did not share her enthusiasm.

The group’s research occasionally takes them into murky territory. The
3D-printed gun skirted the boundaries of legality, as did Gardner’s
counterfeit iPhone, which she picked up in China (it has space for two Sim
cards, handy for frequent travellers over the China/Hong Kong border; it
runs on the Android operating system). They’re interested in products sold
on the so-called “dark web”, online market for illicit goods. As they’ve
collected e-cigarettes, would they collect modified versions that allow
people to smoke drugs? “I think so long as we are informed and considered
and can be transparent about it, I would hope it would be OK.” She laughs.
“But I’m not the director of the museum.”

The objects

Ikea soft toy wolf, ‘Lufsig’

The cuddly toy that started a revolution

Ikea’s plush gingham-clad wolf became an unlikely symbol of protest against
the Chinese authorities in December 2013, when a citizen threw one of the
toys at the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-Ying, at a town-hall
meeting. Leung was elected in 2012, and is thought by many in Hong Kong to
be too closely aligned with the Chinese Communist Party. The choice of
Lufsig was not accidental: Leung’s name in Chinese characters is similar to
the character for “wolf”. The fact that “Lufsig”, when transliterated into
Chinese by Ikea’s translators, came out as an insulting Cantonese phrase,
also added to its allure. After the incident on December 7, the toy sold out
at Ikea shops in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as in mainland China. A page
created for the toy on Facebook received more than 50,000 likes, and has
become a hub for anti-government comment. (Leung also posted a picture of
himself with Lufsig online: “I realise that this toy has been very popular
recently with heated offline sales and speculation online,” he wrote. “This
shows that Hongkongers’ creativity is boundless.”) In January 2014, when
stores in Hong Kong were restocked with Lufsigs, people joined ticketed
queues to buy him.

The curators at the V & A initially wanted to track down the Lufsig
that had been thrown at Leung, and approached contacts in China about
finding its owner. When this proved impossible, the curators bought one from
an Ikea in Wembley, north west London. “It was a story about people across
the world saying they wanted this object,” says Gardner, “so it was about
that specific toy, but also about the many, many others.”

Christian Louboutin’s ‘The Nudes’ Collection

The second-skin shoes

In 1962, inspired in part by the convulsions of the civil rights movement,
Crayola made a singularly enlightened decision about their crayons: they
changed the name of their pink crayon from “flesh” to “peach”, an
acknowledgement that skin comes in more than one shade. Fifty years later
and the fashion industry, where “nude” still typically means a shade of
beige or peach that relates to Caucasian skin, is still catching up with
social realities. At the end of 2013, however, Christian Louboutin, creator
of distinctive and wildly expensive red-soled high heels, launched his
“Nudes” collection: shoes in five different shades, ranging from “fair
blush” to “rich chestnut”. Along with a pair of “Fifi” round-toed heels in
each colour, the V & A also acquired five mannequin arms which are
used to mount the shoes in countries where display on a full leg would be
considered too risqué. When you consider the fact that China is projected to
account for a third of luxury fashion spending by 2015, Louboutin’s decision
seems like a canny one.

The Liberator

The world’s first 3D printed gun

The first object acquired by the Rapid Response team was also the most
controversial. The Liberator was the world’s first 3D-printed gun, designed
by a 25-year-old Texan law student and self-styled “crypto-anarchist” named
Cody Wilson. Wilson was filmed by the BBC firing the gun on May 6 2013. The
next day he made the design available for download from his website, and it
was downloaded 100,000 times before he was ordered to remove the files by
the US Department of State. Louise Shannon, one of the rapid response
curators, flew to Texas to meet Wilson. She ultimately purchased a gun that
he had fired, a disassembled gun, an assembled gun and the Liberator’s
prototypes. Some commentators felt that the acquisition of the Liberator
gave a sheen of legitimacy to Wilson’s creation. “The 3D-printed gun is one
of the most important stories of recent years,” says Gardner.
“Techno-utopian ideas about 3D printing technologies were exploded because
of this one design.”

Motorola WT41NO wearable terminal

The data-collecting ‘spy’ in the warehouse

The costs and benefits of wearable technology are embodied in the Motorola
WT41NO. It’s a device used in warehouses where stock has to be
delivered speedily. The main unit, strapped to the forearm and connected
wirelessly to the main warehouse computer, directs workers where to find
items. They use a ring-mounted scanner worn on the forefinger to confirm
that the item they have picked up is the correct one. The computer then
directs them where to take it. “If I’m an employee,” says Gardner, “my boss
may not know what my next job is, because that’s entrusted to that larger
computerised system. If a new, high-priority order comes in halfway through
a shift, it will jig around and give you a different job.” The story came to
the team’s attention when a story was published in the Telegraph in February
about the way that Tesco used data collected from these armbands. A former
employee of the company claimed that the machines were used to spy on work
rates, with penalties imposed on people whose productivity fell, or who
failed to register loo breaks (Tesco denied the claims). But, as Gardner
points out, these technologies are not straightforwardly dystopian. “It
depends on how you use the data,” she says. “And these are the type of
things that make next-day delivery of books or groceries possible.”

Kone UltraRope

The backbone of tall buildings

Its appearance may be drably functional but UltraRope, a material developed by
the Finnish company Kone, has the potential to change the appearance of the
cities of the future. UltraRope, made from a carbon fibre core and a plastic
coating highly resistant to wear and abrasion, is relatively light and
extremely strong, and was developed to hoist lifts in tall buildings.
Historically, lifts have been hoisted using woven steel cables, the sheer
weight of which has limited the height to which they can rise, topping out
at around 1,640ft. UltraRope, its makers claim, could offer potential lift
runs of 3,280ft – double that of the existing metal alternative. There are
currently three buildings in the world taller than 1,640ft, but there are
plans for 20 more such buildings to be constructed in the years to come.
Kone has just won a contract to supply the lifts for the Kingdom Tower in
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which is set to become the tallest building in the
world when it’s completed in 2018. The Kingdom Tower’s double-decker lifts
will be the world’s fastest, travelling at around 33ft a second.

Primark Denim Co slim Jeans

Fashion almost lost in the fire

These jeans were originally thought to have been manufactured at the
eight-storey Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, which collapsed on
April 24 2013 with the loss of 1,129 lives. Primark was one of several
clothing companies – among them Benetton, Mango and Matalan – which
subcontracted work to the New Wave Bottoms factory. In the days after the
disaster, an AP photographer took a picture of the rubble in which a pair of
Primark jeans featured prominently (above); it was this photograph that
inspired the V & A’s curators to rush to the Primark in the
Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, east London, and buy a pair of jeans
of the same make and model. “The jeans tell a story about workers’ rights,
about fast fashion and what it means, about the importance of building
regulations as well as labour regulations,” says Gardner. In recent weeks,
Primark heard of the V &  A’s acquisition, and got in touch to say
that their jeans were not in fact made at Rana Plaza; they have offered a
pair of men’s shorts that were manufactured there as a replacement.

Oculus Rift Development Kit I

Virtual reality made easy

The most recent object acquired by the rapid response team is Oculus Rift, a
virtual-reality headset. The curators began investigating the device when it
was bought by Facebook for $2 billion in March 2014. “It’s the first device
to really make virtual reality possible,” says Gardner, “in the sense that
the lag between when you move and what you see has been dramatically
reduced, and you don’t feel sick, which has been a major problem with this
kind of headset.” The next thing the V & A wants to acquire
is the hardware and games to bring the machine to life; currently they don’t
have a powerful enough computer to make it work.

Eylure Katy Perry ‘Cool Kitty’ false lashes

Real hair meets pop fakery

They may be available in your local chemist for less than £5, but these false
eyelashes, endorsed by the American pop star Katy Perry, are works of
extraordinary craftsmanship. They are made from real hair, and are knotted
by hand onto pieces of string which form the basis of the eyelashes. They
were the gift of Gethin Chamberlain, an investigative journalist who had
written about the women who make the eyelashes in Indonesia. “It’s a product
that connects a very low-income woman working in pretty poor conditions to
one of the most famous women in the world,” says Gardner.

The Rapid Response display, which will be updated as new objects are
acquired, opens at the V&A on July 4. See
for more information