Brief One - Design in the Second Gilded Age
First brief - Set by Thomas Thwaites - Design in the second gilded age
Gilding is a surface treatment, a process of applying a thin layer of gold to a material, to create a sense of
luxury, solidity, an illusion of depth. The process lends its name to period in American history from 1865 to
1898 known as the Gilded Age, a name coined by Mark Twain in his novel of 1890.
During the period a few individuals accumulated astounding amounts of money by capitalising on some
disruptive technological developments; railways, the bessemer steel production process, telephones,
electric lighting. These vast fortunes of a few captains of industry stood in stark contrast to widespread
poverty of the workers manning the factories. Furthermore the time was characterised by intense political
lobbying, corruption and cronyism, as well as an ethos of social darwinism.
The metaphor of the Gilded Age conjures a sense of luxury, success and decadence, but only on the
surface, to mask the mass of base material below. A Gilded Age, rather than a Golden Age...
Today, growing wealth inequality globally has led some critics to argue we’re living in a Second Gilded Age.
Not since the time of the Robber Barons/Captains of Industry in those last decades of the 19th Century has
so much wealth been owned by so few. Computing technologies have fundamentally changed civilisation
and generated vast fortunes for the 1%, and the 0.1%, but standards of living and real wages have been
declining for the majority. The Occupy movement, but more recently leaks of secret financial information
have focussed attention on corruption, tax evasion, and regulatory capture by the super wealthy.
The idea of luxury is morphing in response to global shifts in wealth. In fashion a new luxury from the banal
style has emerged spearheaded by the collective Vetements, in music the Wu Tang Clan made just one CD
of their 2015 album and sold it at auction for $2m to a pharmaceutical businessman (since jailed for fraud).
In design, the jeweller Tiff any & Co has created a line of ‘everyday’ items in precious metals, so you can
purchase a silver ‘tin can’ for $1000 or a ‘ball of yarn’ for $9000. The concept of meta-luxury has arisen to
distinguish luxury luxury from mere luxury.
Gilding is a surface treatment, one of many that designers use to change the look and feel of an object.
Nowadays we use electroplating, hydroscopic transfer, flocking, powder coating and so on, but the advent
of consumer ‘Mixed Reality’ suggest the idea of applying a sort of virtual surface to objects. What does
exclusivity mean in an age of digital reproduction? What is the role of objects in a culture increasingly
mediated by digital imagery?
In this brief, I want you to:
• Research luxury design from the period of the first Gilded Age through museum collections.
• Experiment with material surface treatments, such as electroplating, hydroscopic transfer, flocking,
powder coating and so on.
• Experiment with applying virtual content to surfaces with mixed reality techniques.
Combine this research and experimentation to create (decorative) domestic object(s) that critically engage
with the metaphor of the Second Gilded Age, and what comes after it...