An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection’ exhibition in London displays the most famous shoes from the legendary footwear designer’s archive, set amongst the world-renowned paintings and objects of the collection’s 18th-century rooms. The new exhibition, co-curated by Manolo Blahnik and Wallace Collection Director Dr. Xavier Bray, has been designed by Nissen Richards Studio. Highlighting the common aesthetic territory between the collection’s baroque masterpieces and Blahnik’s own decadent craftsmanship, the exhibition aims to create a dialogue between art and craft.
An internationally outstanding collection of artistic excellence spanning over 800 years, the Wallace Collection has long been a source of creative inspiration to Manolo Blahnik, who has established himself as one of the world’s foremost shoe designers, thanks to his constant intellectual search for the new and the beautiful in art and life, literature and film, in the past and the present. With an artist’s eye for visual detail, Manolo Blahnik has drawn inspiration over many years from the Wallace Collection’s paintings, furniture, porcelain, sculpture and works of art.
“The Wallace Collection has been a point of reference for me since my early days in London. It was – and remains – one of my favorite museums with the most refined selection of art. I am incredibly humbled and honored to be part of the project and have my work displayed at the museum,” Manolo Blahnik said.
Just as the collectors of the works of art in the Wallace Collection sought to acquire the most beautiful, the most captivating and the most precious, Blahnik also seeks to produce shoes of exquisite quality and elegance. The presence of his works in the galleries underlines the artistry and craftsmanship behind what he does: orchestrating a team of skilled artisans to turn his initial sketches into three-dimensional objects in luxurious materials, constantly supervised by the designer himself.
Following its successful collaboration with the Wallace Collection on the recent Henry Moore exhibit, The Helmet Heads, which told the story of another luminary inspired by objects within the famous galleries, Nissen Richards Studio was invited to work with the co-curators to place, contextualise and display over 120 of Manolo Blahnik’s shoe designs (some individual and some pairs) within ten first floor rooms of the two-storey collection, which is located in Hertford House in London’s Manchester Square. The commission also included the creation of graphic collateral, such as the brochure given to all visitors on arrival and the large-scale ground floor introductory panel, placed directly opposite a wall showing a dozen of Manolo Blahnik’s famously-accomplished and exuberant sketch designs.
“We were honored to be asked to work with such a master of his craft and, once again, with this wonderful treasure house of the arts,” Nissen Richards Studio Director Pippa Nissen commented. The structural display stands created by Nissen Richards Studio to house the shoes embody the practice’s architectural approach to the creation of form, whilst at the same time perfectly exemplifying Pippa Nissen’s fusion of talents, as an architect whose passion for theatre led to her taking an MA in Theatre Design at the Slade School of Fine Art.
“We began, as we always do on a new project, with plenty of investigation and experimentation to work out the best way to display these small masterpieces of design,” Pippa Nissen explained. “In the end, we rejected more intricate and ornate ideas in favor of an almost-industrial, stripped-back simplicity of form, using steel discs and rods housed in tall glass domes. The manner of exhibiting had to serve these wonderful shoes almost invisibly and we soon saw there was nothing to be gained from competing with the incredible richness of detail of either the shoes or the sumptuous surrounds of the Wallace Collection itself.”
Although a small number of shoes have been placed within existing cabinets housing painted miniatures, the majority have been displayed within a total of 44 glass domes. Between one and three shoes are displayed in each dome, at the optimum viewing angles, with each shoe supported by a steel rod.
“Everything had to be engineered precisely to ensure the maximum visibility of the shoes and to evoke a deliberate feel of delicacy, even fragility, whilst at the same time ensuring the displays were robust enough for public display”, Pippa Nissen stated. “The great advantages of choosing domes is that they not only offer clear sight of the precious objects from every angle, but the rounded surfaces also create their own light texture, which is useful because the galleries themselves already have highly-controlled lighting to reveal and protect the art and objects, meaning adding in further lighting was impossible.”
Manolo Blahnik helped select masterpieces from his archive, which now lead the visitor on an inspiring journey of inquiry around the Wallace Collection’s great works. Visitors learn about the rise of the public spectacle in eighteenth-century France for example, the Commedia Dell’Arte and the performing arts. In one room, the shoes designed for Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette are placed in front of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1767 painting The Swing, while in another Frans Hals’s 1624 portrait of The Laughing Cavalier is juxtaposed with a single ornate black boot.
The exact placing of the domes and shoes was a finely-tuned visual language exercise, with each one an individual composition. There was a natural gravitation towards locating the domes in well-lit spaces, such as window bays, as well as in fireplaces, which create pleasing surrounding frames. Some of the shoes are paired with paintings of a similar or directly-inspirational aesthetic, whilst others ally perfectly with the colors or textures of the objects and furnishings directly adjacent.