Aberrant Architecture at the V&A Museum

Change is blowing over to this side of the Atlantic, bringing with it a warm breeze, a spring clean and a change of scene, and in the midst of all of this blustery hot air, I recently found myself being carried back to the mainstay of conservative tradition: the V&A museum.

After a long hiatus, I revisited the museum in South Kensington to find that even the V&A, the keeper of global art and design spanning the last five millennia, has made a few alternations to its vast interior showcase. No, I don’t mean the much-hyped Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, though the timber-frame façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s Bishopsgate home is impressive. To mix it up a bit, I went to the V&A in search of contemporary art and I came across a young firm of designers, aberrant architecture, who have taken up a residency at the museum.

As part of the V&A’s Residency Programme, the museum has been opening up its doors to a range of artists and designers working in a variety of creative disciplines. Every six months, the initiative provides two artists with a studio inside the modish Sackler Centre, the V&A’s new educational wing, during which period the artists are given privileged access to the V&A’s collection as well as the time, the space and the central heating to create new pieces of work.

The two studios have previously been occupied by a jewellery designer, a basket maker, a toy maker and a comic book artist, and the digital designer, Christian Kerrigan, is the other artist currently in residence alongside aberrant architecture.

But of course, there is a catch. In exchange for the museum’s cosseted patronage, the artists must allow the public to nose around their studios on the selected open days occurring throughout their residencies. The open days are free to visit, the dates are listed on the V&A website and the artists are on hand to introduce visitors to their respective crafts.

Taking advantage of this rare ‘Through the Keyhole’ opportunity to see inside of a working architecture studio, I picked out a Saturday open day, I left Loyd Grossman in the sauce aisle in Sainsbury’s and I decided to pay aberrant architecture a visit.

The V&A website describes aberrant architecture as a ‘design firm and think tank’. At first blush, this makes the holders of the architecture residency sound like an austere and fitting playmate for the museum, the perfect dinner party guests, witty and intelligent and promising plenty of good chat. But then I read the aberrant blog, which is also available on the V&A website. Acting in much the same way as a film classification, the blog gives visitors an advance warning of the firm’s irreverent mix of art and academia, especially for those of us who haven’t swallowed the Oxford English Dictionary (the word ‘aberrant’ itself means abnormal, peculiar or deviant).

Bearing this in mind, I exited South Kensington tube station and entered the museum tunnel running under Exhibition Road expecting to see…actually, I don’t know what I was expecting to see in the aberrant architecture studio; perhaps a few deviant models, or an abnormal two-story design for a bungalow maybe. Who knows? I’ve never been into a working architecture studio before, so it was all going to be new to me.

There were a few models on display when I visited the studio, and the junior members of the aberrant team were working on a design for a workshop conversion. Plus, to make traditional architects feel more at home, a student from the interior architecture course that aberrant teach at London Metropolitan University was gluing plastic men, women and trees to a model for a home-school.

But I’m not an architect, and I gave up playing with Lego men when I was eight years old. These days, I am more accustomed to modern art than modern architecture, so I rarely find myself getting excited by a 3-D model for a converted schoolhouse and computer-aided design is even less of a turn-on. Therefore, it made sense that I would feel more at home with the selection of aberrant’s projects exhibited on the studio walls.

Though calling them ‘studio walls’ could be slightly misleading, since there are no architectural plans, drawings, room layouts or building elevations on display in the aberrant studio. On the contrary, the walls look more like a graphic art gallery than the stock image of an everyday architectural workspace that I had in my head. As a result, it didn’t seem to matter that I know relatively little about architecture, and in a welcome change to the dorky headsets I never pick up in art galleries, the two founders of aberrant architecture, David Chambers and Kevin Haley, were on hand to walk me and the other visitors around the exhibits.

‘Feeling at home’ seems to be an appropriate phrase to describe the work being carried out by aberrant architecture. The theme of ‘home working’ runs through everything they do, from the projects exhibited in the studio, the course they teach at London Met, the research they are currently undertaking at the V&A, right down to the front doorbell at the entrance to the studio, though the guys assured me that the bell was there when they moved in.

The firm believes that in future, the majority of office workers will work from the home, but at the moment, the home is not designed to be an office. Their research into this mismatch has highlighted the isolation and the distractions that stay-at-home workers suffer and they design buildings and interiors that respond to these findings. But in addition to their conventional architectural output, aberrant have also utilised popular mediums, like the novel, and less obvious – dare I say unusual – ways to translate their design ideas and research to the public, such as their ‘Lunchbook’ idea, which has been featured on Dezeen.

It is these atypical architectural projects that dominate the gallery space in the studio. On the back wall, there is a giant exhibition area half-covered by the glossy red and yellow advertising posters, banners and brochures, which formed part of aberrant architecture’s installation at the 2010 biennale in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. In China, aberrant created a phony trade stand for a fictional Hong Kong businessman called ‘Gordon Wu’ and the architectural hoax promoted franchise businesses to the visitors to the biennale.

Although the marketing posters in the studio are mostly in Mandarin, the guys assured me that the symbols are legit. They also said that the trade stand looked so convincing at the biennale that a string of Chinese businessman approached them wanting to become Gordon Wu franchisees.

The other half of the exhibition wall is taken up by a fifty-square matrix of multicoloured paper. On each piece of paper, there is an extract from their ‘Love Stories of Recession’ project, a series of short stories created in collaboration with the writer Falcon B. Mews and the illustrator Rosalind Richards. These stories explore the fictional lives of a cross-section of flexible workers, and in a change to the usual exhibition hand out, visitors to the aberrant studio can take away a hard copy of one of the stories to read on the tube journey home.

During my visit, I learnt that aberrant are in the hunt for historical lessons about home working. As part of their V&A residency, they have been researching the silk industry in 17th and 18th century London, and they plan to follow up their Love Stories of Recession project with a set of short stories focusing on the weavers who used to work out of their tenement homes in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green.

Fortunately for me, they have no plans to start designing 17th century silk dresses and displaying them at the V&A, which means that I won’t have to duck the museum for another four years, just like I successfully ducked the Versace retrospective and the exhibition of Kylie Minogue’s stage costumes. The Golden Age of Couture show was a close call two years ago, and it will be touch and go to see if I can get out of the Grace Kelly dress exhibition opening this April.

But putting dresses to one side, it is refreshing to know that the museum is living and breathing and trying to change its antiquated image – in my head at least – and the residency studios are a great opportunity to have a peak behind the closed doors of a working artist’s studio. Sheryl Crow told us a change will do us good, and she may be right, because my tour of the aberrant architecture studio has certainly changed my opinion of the stuffy V&A. It turns out the museum is not just for old people, tourists and second-choice school trips, nor are the exhibitions all about mothballed party dresses and ceramic pots.

That being said, if you do visit the V&A and you are under thirty years of age, I suggest you give the Decoded exhibition a miss. Even a fiver is too much to pay for this small, interactive exhibition, and anyone with an iPhone or a MacBook Pro is not going to be impressed by the technology on display.

I guess the poor buggers at the V&A just can’t win!


  1. I have hard time finding useful blog posts, because there is so much crap on the internet now, but this is really interesting stuff. Thanks a lot for posting!

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