A bold new design show – or is it really art?

Mark Humphrey’s interiors exhibition challenges the artistic divide

Engaged illuminated basin in rock crystal and Belgian black marble
Engaged illuminated basin in rock crystal and Belgian black marble

Pop into the new St James’s theatre on Palace Street – the first central London theatre to open for 30 years – and you can’t help but be wowed by its dramatic, gleaming Carrara marble staircase. It was commissioned as a work of public art by the City of Westminster from artist-designer Mark Humphrey, and as you ascend its sculptural sweep, you may wonder at what point its design transcends practical purpose and becomes sculpture. Such a conundrum has also been teasing the contemporary-art market of late as artist-designers increasingly apply their talents to functional objects.

Cleopatra Once Bathed Here bath in teak, brass and red agate
Cleopatra Once Bathed Here bath in teak, brass and red agate

With a portfolio embracing fashion, furniture, sculpture and household objects, Humphrey is well-versed in blurring artistic boundaries. What unites his work is a fascination with high-quality materials, fine craftsmanship and cutting-edge manufacturing technology. The glamorous results can be seen at his first solo show, Art in Life, at the Mayfair gallery Osborne Samuel, from October 10.

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Here, the design-as-art dilemma is manifest. One might not consider a bath to be art, however, the elegant shape of Humphrey’s Cleopatra Once Bathed Here (second picture, £48,000; edition of two) and its loving construction in teak, brass and red agate – not to mention its glorious title; how many baths have those? – surpass its functional aspect. Diamond Seat, an illuminated rock crystal and Belgian black marble bench (£230,400; unique piece), wouldn’t look out of place in a museum’s contemporary sculpture gallery. A toilet-roll holder is elevated to the semi-sublime, made as it is from amber, onyx and rock crystal and named Romeo & Juliet (£9,600; unique piece), while Handles for the Virgin and Rock are finely crafted from Paduk, ebony, semi-precious stones, painted glass and stainless steel (£7,200; unique piece).

Layers Perspex desk-cum-table
Layers Perspex desk-cum-table

Grander scale works include The Sun Shines on Our Dining Table, an interactive cocktail table made from Carrara marble, Caramello onyx, glass, walnut and ostrich leather (£84,000; edition of four), Layers, a monumental Perspex desk-cum-table (third picture, £48,000; edition of nine) and Engaged, an illuminated basin in rock crystal and Belgian black marble (first picture, £72,000; edition of two). As the show’s name suggests, art really is life in Mark Humphrey’s artistic hands.

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