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Mark Humphrey: Art in Life, Osborne Samuel Gallery, London


"This is my art," Mark Humphrey announces in a film that accompanies his new exhibition of fashion, furniture, sculpture, architecture, and interior design.

Born in Berkshire in 1970, Humphrey has worked hard to develop a business that spans disciplines and caters to the super-rich in need of a toilet-roll holder made of amber onyx and rock crystal, for example. The latter is termed Romeo and Juliet (2007) and costs £9,600. Its function is not immediately obvious to the viewer; it could be an unusually shaped ash-tray or a sloping, Henry Moore inspired sex toy.

Indeed, many of the works in this exhibition appear oddly sexualised: Sunflowers (2011) is a sculpture composed of several layers of “floating” glass, which hang suspended on the wall. From a distance, the delicate patterns on the glass look like the piece’s namesake, but up close the viewer is confronted with spiralling, minuscule images of men and women mid-coitus.

Each work is described in terms of a code: Engaged (2011), which appears to be a coffee-table-cum-lamp shaped like an engagement ring and made partly out of Belgian black marble, equals “(vanity + eternity)”. Elsewhere, a sleek, black sink called Droplet (2003) is equated to “(basin + sensual)”. The impression that such labels create is one of mad opulence minus taste.

Humphrey is clearly a talented polymath with excellent entrepreneurial skill and genuine “creative urgency,” as the catalogue essay deems it. After studying Interior Architecture at Middlesex University, he became a partner in socialite-designer Nicky Haslam’s company, before building a star-studded client list of his own: he designed interiors for both Ringo Starr and George Harrison.

The miniature of Final encore (2012), the Carrara marble staircase that he created for the St. James’ Theatre, London, is perhaps the most impressive piece here: the curved, skeletal structure is elegant. So too are some of the handbags, unfortunately named Fill Me pt1 (2011).

However, the problem arises when this eye-wateringly expensive merchandise is called art; it isn’t. While Humphrey is entitled to challenge the hierarchies of fine art and craft, his work doesn’t resonate with William Morris’ famous dictum that we should have nothing in our houses that we do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

Instead, it recalls the decadent hermit of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 19 century novel A Rebours, who walled himself in with absurd luxury out of contempt for the everyday world.