V&A: Strange objects of desire

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An eerie exhibition of limited-edition art and design at the V&A owes its inspiration to the worlds of fantasy and fairytales. Charlotte Cripps reports

The V&A's new exhibition Telling Tales delves into the fantastical world of contemporary design, taking visitors on a mind-blowing journey through furniture, lighting and ceramics, all inspired by the spirit of storytelling.

On entering the museum, you set off across the first of three fairy-tale settings – a forest glade, with translucent gauze screens printed with branches, to the sound of tweeting birds.

You stumble across the angel-wing-shaped Fig Leaf wardrobe, designed by Tord Boontje, and made from 616 hand-painted copper leaves, complete with handy tree branches inside on which to hang your clothes. Boontje's Princess chair is upholstered in flouncy taffeta and satin, like a bride, while his Witch chair is more sinister, draped in smooth black leather scales.

These are just some of the works on show at the V&A by a new generation of international designers, many from the Netherlands, whose often child-like Design Art is traded through galleries in the same way as fine art.

The surreal Bathboat, by Wieki Somers, is a small boat with taps that fills with water, while the wonky Sculpt wardrobe, by Maarten Baas, looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The Linen-Cupboard-House, with a spare bed in the back, could be a fairytale cottage and Patrik Fredrikson's table, made out of a bundle of logs, recalls the woodcutters of fairytales.

Next comes the enchanted castle, a palatial pile where grandfather clocks chime. Here, rococo scroll wallpaper provides the perfect backdrop to a muddle of extravagant objects, trappings of high social status, which subvert the lavishness of late-Victorian design.

Both the Pixelated chair by Jurgen Bey and the Clone chair by Julian Mayor seem familiar because their design plays on the historical shapes of Rococo furniture, without the traditional gold leaf and silk upholstery.

There is a monumental cast bronze cabinet from Studio Job's Robber Baron series with a bomb crater seemingly blasted right through its centre and a table with a bronze billowing cloud of pollution, rising from the four towers of a factory. Created in 2006 and first exhibited at the Miami Art Fair in 2007, this series, subtitled "Tales of power, corruption, art and industry, cast in bronze" satirises the excessive tastes of the super-rich.

A red rose motif carpet by Kiki van Eijk looks like an enlargement of a doll's house carpet while the glamorous solid marble Cinderella table, by Jeroen Verhoeven, reportedly purchased by Brad Pitt, combines the profiles of an 18th-century console and commode.

Sebastian Brajkovic's two-seater Lathe Chair VIII is cast in bronze, like sculpture, but remains functional. It is constructed by rotating 19th-century chair shapes around a central axis to stretch them, giving the appearance of a speeding object caught on film.

Elsewhere, the ornate rococo scroll Heat Wave radiator made from cast concrete by Joris Laarman climbs across the wall like a rose bush and a lantern Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend 1 by Matali Crasset, resembles a huge diamond pendant. Towering tulip vases resembling pagodas have been given a modern makeover by four contemporary designers. The fashion designer Alexander van Slobbe's vase consists of stacked boxes in the shape of furniture, dishes and perfume bottles, in which to store fashion and beauty accessories, rather than blooms.

Maarten Baas's 19th-century French Smoke Mirror is charred after the designer took to it with a blow torch. He was inspired by the 18th-century novel where the inner destruction of characters was often mirrored by the disrepair of the furnishings around them.

The last stop in the exhibition is Heaven and Hell, a disorientating, dark dungeon-like setting, with menacing music and moving shadows. A burst of red colour that floods the ceiling at intervals suggests blood.

Inspired by the rise of psychoanalysis at the end of the 19th century and a fresh awareness of mortality, these objects summon up death, judgement and anxiety.

The 19th-century taxidermy fox Do You Hear What I Hear? by Kelly McCallum, embellished with gold-plated maggots in its ears, the luxurious Moulded Moles slippers by Eijk and Van der Lubbe and Ophelia, a sleeping lioness whose torso is made of golden ceramic and glass blobs by Dutch design duo, Idiots, reflect a new interest in taxidermy in art and design.

It's hard to believe that "La Divina Commedia" chair and lamp by Niels van Eijk and Miriam van der Lubbe is intended as a functional object. The axe-shaped white lamp suspended perilously above the chair is inspired by Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy.

Sensory Deprivation Skull, a large skull-shaped, fur-lined chamber for two people, by Joep van Lieshout, provides space for introspection. While the ingenious Hide Away Type 02 personal panic room, an oak box by British designers Dunne & Raby and Cypriot-born Michael Anastassiades, is an ideal shelter for when the going gets tough.

Likewise, the mini metal Buildings of Disaster (including the Twin Towers) by Boym Partners act as psychological containers, into which anxieties can be offloaded. And huggable explosion cushions, such as Priscila 37 kilotons Nevada 1957, which capture the moment of explosion in a soft cushion, is supposed to help to defuse the fear of nuclear annihilation by literally embracing it.

Maxim Velcovsky's Catastrophe vase is covered in earth as if it has survived an earthquake, and more romantically The Lovers rug by Fredrikson Stallard comprises two pools of red urethane, representing the quantity of blood in two people.

And as you leave the exhibition, the illuminated chandelier Damned MGX by Luc Merx glows from inside a whirl of 170 tumbling human figures.

"All the work in the exhibition crosses the boundaries between art and design because each object carries a meaning beyond its traditional function," says the curator Gareth Williams, who is senior tutor of design products at the Royal College of Art and who was formerly curator of 20th-century and contemporary furniture at the V&A. " Whilst the designers are drawing upon fine art modes of practice and distribution they do not necessarily cast themselves as artists. They inhabit a place between the conventional boundaries of art, craft and design."

Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design at the V&A, from today to 18 October ( www.vam.ac.uk)

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