Sometimes a Penis is Just a Penis

Some years ago, a Pads design school set an exercise for its international students to create designs that were French in character. Some took their cue from the Gallic tradition in the decorative arts, and came back with, for example, a red velvet and diamante Walkman, or balladeur as the French are obliged to call it. Others tightly saw something distinctive in the French preoccupation with the sensual that underlies a national strength in fashion, perfume, succulent food and, let’s face it, sex.

And this is where things began to go wrong. One English-speaking student created a penis extender called Penomet. Another came up with a vaginal toaster, with a little knob to adjust the machine’s setting. In fairness, those adolescent projects are little worse than many of today’s perfume bottles, whose dimples and protuberances are boringly literal in their suggestiveness.

The new show at the Design Museum recalls this unsatisfactory occasion. The erotic is the work of the imagination – the physical object world, and in particular a museum of objects, would seem to be the last place to find it. This show is about society: erotica mediated and commercialized, seductively shaped cars, advertisements which know that sex sells.

Part of the museum has itself been tarred up by the architect Nigel Coates. Red neon signs, subdued lighting and flesh-hued walls offer an effective antidote to the purism of the surrounding space. Sheer black nylon hangs from the ceiling, snaking around the entire show, both leading us on and screening some of the more salacious exhibits.

The content is more problematic. In order to do the subject justice, “design” has been loosely interpreted. There are illustrations from Aubrey Beardsley, architectural drawings, advertising photographs, and even art in the form of Allen Jones’s notorious sculpture of a woman on all fours supporting a glass table top.

George Bataille described the erotic as “a means of transgressing the conventional limits of morality to explore the limits of human experience”. The truth of this statement exposes the real difficulty in staging such a show: plenty of morality, very little experience. Vivienne Westwood is quoted as saying: “Fashion is eventually about being naked.”

But it’s the “eventually” that matters: the temporal dimension of anticipation and deferment so essential to eroticism cannot come across in a museum. Experience cannot be memorialized in objects. Eating lobster may be erotic; talking on the telephone may be erotic; but Salvador Dali’s lobster telephone just isn’t.

Like those students in Paris, many of these designers take the human body as their starting point – too often their finishing point as well. A 1919 project for a people’s theater in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark by Hendrikus Wijdeveld welcomed visitors in through a giant vulval doorway. From the same period, Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower is the token Penomet enlargement pump, although almost any tall building would have done.

Now, as then, how these buildings look bears little relation to what they’re for. Will Alsop’s museum of erotic art on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn is no more than a tasteful conversion of an old warehouse. Conversely, why does Richard MacCormac’s new Ruskin Library at Lancaster University make such explicit reference to the penis?

And what is an erotic product these days, when you can buy a Nina Ricci suede watering-can or rubber-studded gloves to groom your cat? The superior duster in the collection of contemporary product design, for example – its purple riding-crop handle tapering to a rubberized, articulated penis. What could one get up to with that?

The feeling soon passes. As even Freud was forced to admit, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.