Friday, 2 May 2014


The Art of Looking Good- ‘Spectacles- The Oliver Goldsmith Collection’ at the National Glass Centre

 ‘Spectacles’ charts the history of the Oliver Goldsmith Company: three generations of eyewear designers. The exhibition showcases some of their most striking designs and models.

The tenuous link to glass isn’t played up here, Goldsmiths isn’t particularly interested in the technology of seeing more the technology of plastic. The key to their success is their ability to mould plastic into new and exciting shapes for consumers. So, what relevance does this exhibition have at the National Glass Centre?

Since re-opening it’s doors last year the National Glass Centre promised a programme of contemporary exhibitions exploring the many facets of glass. This exhibition is the third since then. First the abstract work of Erwin Eisch then the searingly modern Jeffrey Sarmiento alongside smaller exhibitions from research students and staff at the University of Sunderland.

‘Spectaclesis a departure from these themes, other exhibitions have been keen to point out the artistic validity of glass, here we are given a history lesson in design. This is much more museum-like, text heavy, a video installation and almost interactive displays of suspended glasses providing huge amounts of information. The exhibition is laid out like a clock, working round the designs chronologically. This allows the exhibition to display changes in taste clearly, and also show how deeply ingrained and influential Goldsmith glasses are in fashion.

The glasses themselves are microcosms of fashion from their period. Austere 40s glasses remain owlish, 60’s wing-frames feel frivolous and fun, 70’s wrap around cut-out glasses seem appropriately futuristic, the huge 80’s colourful frames are gaudy and the 90’s slick frames are ho-hum.  Michael Caine looms down in a pair of Consul glasses in The Ipcress File. Audrey Hepburn flutters her eyelashes in the huge white frames of Bude in How to Steal a Million. Goldsmith glasses help create persona of either severity, playfulness or a hundred other aspects that the self-expression of fashion allows one.

After royalty, celebrity and the film industry endorsed Goldsmiths, glasses became fashionable. Sunglasses bourgeoned in popularity. Reading glasses had less stigma attached, though as Freeman pointed out in her acerbic treaty on fashion ‘The Meaning of Sunglasses’[1] women remain wary of wearing glasses. But thanks to Goldsmiths, and other similar designers, women have the choice of wearing flattering glasses that don’t scream of academia or secretarial silliness.

The famous clientele have created an opportunity for the National Glass Centre to market its show to an as yet untapped audience. People will come to see photographs of beautiful people wearing beautiful glasses, but they will garner some appreciation for the craft and skill involved in the design.

As craft practitioners we are all aware of the arguments that abound between function and art. In Oliver Goldsmith Ltd we see the same argument played out in fashion. Andrew Oliver Goldsmith’s aim is to create ‘face jewellery for women, face furniture for men’[2] rather than something that helps their astigmatism. It’s impossible to argue under such a heritage of innovation, design and popularity that he’s succeeded. There’s no other medicinal aid that has crossed the line from purposeful to beautiful as glasses have done, whether Goldsmiths, glass or plastic did this, it’s still true.

Glasses are intimate and here we see real people wearing their choice of glasses, see how they have dated, see how much thought and skill has gone into them. A better illustration of how our opinions on glasses and those who wear them is difficult to imagine.

It’s a bold move from the National Glass Centre to exhibit a designer who uses glass but doesn’t care that much about it. Proof that their gamble has worked is in how much glass lovers can take away from ‘Spectacles’, including how vital our medium is in everyday life. The quality and longevity of these designs is fascinating and surpasses the material differences we might have.

Beyond that, ‘Spectacles’ tells us all that the National Glass Centre isn’t afraid to show us different approaches to glass. There’s no news about what the next exhibition will be, and frankly, there’s no guessing.

Spectacles- The Oliver Goldsmith Collection runs from Saturday the 18th of January to Sunday the 4th of May 2014 at the National Glass Centre, Liberty Way, Sunderland, SR6 0GL. Get involved on twitter by uploading a photograph of yourself wearing glasses and using the hashtag #bespectacular

[1] Hadley Freeman, The Meaning of Sunglasses: A Guide to Almost All Things Fashionable, published by Penguin, 2008
[2] Andrew Oliver Goldsmith’s opening remarks for the Spectacles exhibition.

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