By Daniel Nelson

A gun you can print out, Indonesian-made false eyelashes, nude shoes, a Vietnamese free-to-download app and a pair of Bangladesh-made Cargo trousers are part of a tiny new exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum that aims to illustrate how design reflects and defines how we live together today.

The Liberator 3D-printed gun, 2013

The Liberator 3D-printed gun, 2013

Image by © Cody Wilson/Defence Distributed/ Victoria & Albert Museum

‘Rapid Response Collecting’ displays objects that have been collected in response to major moments in history that touch the world of design and manufacturing.

The trousers were made for Primark in the Rana Plaza building that collapsed last year in Dhaka. The museum blurb explains that the building had been illegally altered and extended over several years and that, after cracks had been noted the day before the disaster, garment workers were ordered to return to work.

The collapse sparked a global discussion about how demand for fast-changing inexpensive fashion has created poor conditions for workers in countries such as Bangladesh. The exhibition caption says the debate has touched on the need for reform of Bangladesh’s labour codes (‘enforcement’ might have been a more appropriate word), the rights of low-paid workers and the responsibility of global consumer brands and Western shoppers.

The ‘Flappy Bird’ app was created by a Vietnamese programmer, Dong Nguyen, went viral, topped the play charts, created advertising revenue estimated at $50,000 a day until February this year when Dong tweeted: “I am sorry Flappy Bird users: 22 hours from now I will take Flappy Bird down. I cannot take this any more.”

Christian Louboutin’s ‘Nude shoes’ were “the first time that a major fashion house had adjusted its definition of nude to include skin colours other than white” – an illuminating postscript to the decline of the European-dominated world that began to crumble along with empire:

“The [Nude shoe] collection reflects the changing global economy, targeting women of different ethnicities in parts of the world where middle-class incomes are on the rise.”

Less vividly, but with an equally telling point about economic globalisation, the £100 million-a-year British false eyelash industry is based on a factory in Purbalingga, Indonesia, where 3,713 workers are paid £50 a month to make lashes that sell for £6 a pair on Britain’s high streets.

The design for the printed “Liberator” gun comes, of course, from the US. Created by Texas law student Cody Wilson to “defend the civil liberties of popular access to arms …”, it was downloaded over 100,000 times on the day it was first fired, 6 May 2013.

A few days later, Wilson’s files were sized by the government and Wilson was ordered to remove them from websites.

All 11 acquisitions, says the V&A, “raises a different question about globalisation, popular culture, political and social change, demographics, technology, regulation or the law.”

It’s an original, entertaining and thought-provoking corner of the museum. Well worth a look, and a brilliant starting point for school discussion group.

·         Rapid Response Collecting is an ongoing display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, SW7

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