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Art's Little Brother | icon 023 | May 2005

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photo: Steve Double
words Rick Poynor

As a cultural force, design is taken less seriously than art. Why is that, especially when the distinction between the two disciplines is becoming increasingly hard to locate? Isn’t it time we celebrated design as the meeting of art and everyday life?

Designers have always had an inferiority complex when it comes to their relationship with artists and art. It isn’t usually talked about in quite such bald terms – no one wants to admit to weakness – but that’s what it is. It doesn’t matter that design is playing a bigger role in culture than ever or that some argue that it has become the more significant activity. Old ways of thinking persist and the balance of power seems to stay much the same.

Designers rarely achieve the level of recognition and financial reward attained by the most successful artists. Media coverage of art and design constantly reinforces art’s privileged position. While every paper has an art critic knocking out weekly reviews of new exhibitions for the arts and culture pages, design is still not seen as a subject fit for serious discussion. It’s treated as a lifestyle issue and skimpy, superficial write-ups concentrate on showcasing enviable domestic interiors and things you can buy for the home. Design books and exhibitions tend to be ignored. If you ask editors why, they say it’s because, “historically, we haven’t reviewed design” – as though it was written in stone.

Yet questions about design and art’s relationship, their similarities and differences, and the ways they might now be converging, refuse to go away. People on both sides of the divide have a stake in the matter. Some artists are fascinated by design’s role in contemporary society and commerce; they make art about it and create designs of their own. Some designers are increasingly inclined to use their creations as a vehicle for the kinds of personal expression and commentary that are usually seen as art’s preserve. “As we move forward through the twenty-first century,” notes Barbara Bloemink, curatorial director at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, “distinctions between design and art are likely to become increasingly difficult to define.”

Ironic, then, that Bloemink’s recent exhibition, “Design Art”, unwittingly reinforced the old imbalance. It’s perfectly true, as she notes in the catalogue, that “the current ascendance of design gives renewed relevance to questions concerning the validity of art’s conventionally privileged position”. So what was the museum trying to say with the mysterious mathematical symbol in the title, which means “not equal to, but not greater than and not less than”? The Cooper-Hewitt is a design museum, yet only works by artists acting as designers featured in the exhibition: figures such as Donald Judd, Scott Burton, James Turrell and Jorge Pardo. Visitors had no opportunity to compare artists’ designs with designers’ treatments of similar objects and no examples of designers producing more art-like forms of design were shown.

A new study of the phenomenon of “design art” from Tate Publishing by art critic Alex Coles is similarly one-sided. DesignArt examines the way that artists such as Henri Matisse, Sonia Delaunay, Judd and Pardo have dealt with pattern, furniture, interiors and architecture. “A key issue to keep in mind while thinking through designart is that all art is designed even if it endeavours to appear otherwise,” writes Coles. He hopes to encourage “a more flexible approach towards design” and who could argue with that? But the way he goes about it, whatever the benefits might be for artists, only ends up confirming that art remains the dominant term in the relationship. Coles’ exclusion of designers producing anything resembling art could not be more pointed; artists are permitted to undertake forays into design to refresh and extend art, but it appears to be a one-way street since no one is travelling in the other direction. The established positions of art and design in the cultural hierarchy go unchallenged.

It’s worth remembering at this point how designers have tended to view the question of what distinguishes design from art. One of the best accounts is a chapter called “Is a Designer an Artist?” in Norman Potter’s classic What is a Designer. The answer for Potter is clearly: no. A designer, unlike an artist, “works through and for other people, and is concerned primarily with their problems rather than his own”. A painter’s first responsibility, on the other hand, “is to the truth of his own vision”. This is the contrast usually made between the roles of designer and artist: the designer must deal with matters of practicality and function while artists are free to do what they like in pursuit of their self-chosen goals.

A key idea for Potter is that the essence of a designer’s work, as a planner, problem solver and supervisor, is to supply clear instructions so that others can complete the production of the design. By contrast, a painter or sculptor is more dependent on feedback from hand and eye and develops the work through direct experience of the materials. Potter suggests that the designer will need to be capable of more detachment than may be necessary to a fine artist.

But it’s rarely as straightforward as this makes it sound. There are more passionate, less detached designers just as there are highly cerebral artists. Like designers, many artists make work with photography, video and computers. Artists are often dependent on specialist manufacturing techniques to fabricate their pieces and installations and they need to give those who assist them accurate instructions. Meanwhile, the computer has transferred specialised tasks and crafts once carried out by others to the designer’s desktop and control, eliminating the need to prepare detailed instructions. This is particularly the case in graphic design and typography. Using digital tools, all kinds of design work can proceed in a more exploratory and open-ended way and this might be compared to the intuitive shaping by hand of old-fashioned art materials.

So we come back to the essential split between function and vision. Donald Judd insisted on the difference between his art and his design work, which he kept hidden from public view for many years. In 1993, he explained why: “The configuration and the scale of art cannot be transposed into furniture and architecture. The intent of art is different from that of the latter, which must be functional. If a chair or a building is not functional, if it appears to be only art, it is ridiculous. The art of a chair is not its resemblance to art, but is partly its reasonableness, usefulness and scale as a chair ... A work of art exists as itself; a chair exists as a chair itself. And the idea of a chair isn’t a chair.”

Judd had good reason to preserve the distinction. The worst accusation that could be levelled at abstract art was that it was “decorative”. In 1967, art critic Clement Greenberg attacked the new minimalist art, saying that it was “closer to furniture than art” and comparing it, with an audible sneer, to “good design” executed by someone else rather than made by the artist’s own hand. The obvious danger, if Judd’s furniture started to gain attention, was that his art would be demoted to the same level.

But Judd hadn’t so much resolved the issue as dodged it. Coles jokes that his “stack sculptures would make sublime shelving units and the floor sculptures comfortable stools”. Others claim that Judd’s furniture fails as furniture and must be art, after all, because it isn’t comfortable to sit on and flunks the design equals function test. The art or design question comes up again in art critic Matthew Collings’ long interview with Ron Arad in Arad’s latest monograph. Judd owned a Rietveld chair, displayed at his home in Marfa, Texas among his own pieces. What would happen, Collings and Arad wonder, if you were to take a Rietveld chair and a Judd chair to Covent Garden and show them to a passers-by? “If you tell them which is art and which is design,” says Arad, “they’ll think you’re having them on – they’ll think, why the distinction?”

Why indeed? There are few better examples of the way in which ideas about design have been enlarged in the last two decades than the work of Arad, an obvious candidate for inclusion in any exhibition or book about “design art”. In 1987, Arad participated in Documenta 8, devoted to art and design, in Kassel, Germany – the hoped-for inter-disciplinary meeting of minds failed to happen – and, the same year, he was one of the first designers in London to venture into art’s territory with an exhibition at the Edward Totah Gallery. He created chairs – as well as concrete hi-fis and telescopic aerial lights – that were functional in their way, but also concerned with what Judd called the “idea of the chair”. At the time, design critic Deyan Sudjic went so far as to propose that Arad be viewed as an artist whose subject matter was design. His work dealt not only with the qualities of a chair that are to do with sitting, but with its symbolic, allusive and literary dimension.

Arad was one of many designers who, in the 1980s, tried to endow his designs with an extra layer of meaning, but with such little discussion of design as a cultural activity, wider critical awareness of design’s enhanced potential has been slow to develop. In his conversation with Arad, Collings says he feels that he knows when something is more a piece of design than art, but that he is “completely naïve” about what design is and about its history. He is embarrassed, he admits, by his ignorance. Offering his own version of the familiar riff, Collings suggests that the essential difference between design and art is that design has function while art has mystery, yet he acknowledges that “the art world’s mystery often isn’t all that mysterious any more”. He is absolutely right there. Art’s routines are often obvious, repetitious and stale.

The point about Arad, though, was that his work did possess a sense of mystery. His One Off display space in Shelton Street, London was a cave of billowing steel sheets that couldn’t have looked less like a sleek furniture showroom. There are many examples of designs that exceed their functional role and take on some of the qualities associated with art: Charles and Ray Eames’ LaChaise lounger; Shiro Kuramata’s How High the Moon metal-mesh armchair; Daniel Weil’s deconstructed radios in plastic bags; Dunne & Raby’s Globally Positioned Table, which responds to the influence of electromagnetic radiation. The mystery comes from the way that our expectations of form’s conventional possibilities and limits are overturned. The sensory, intellectual and emotional satisfactions they offer as pieces to look at, think about and react to – as well as to use – are akin to the experience of sculpture.

Hella Jongerius is another designer who regularly blurs the distinction between design and art. “If, as a designer, you don’t grab the theme by the throat and probe it to its farthest consequences, you’re inevitably going to get stuck at the outer surface,” she says in a recent monograph. “In the long run it’s a dead end. I believe we make a mistake if we restrict ourselves to pragmatic aspects.” An interviewer suggests that she might be in the wrong profession and that designers should perhaps leave the other side of the story to art. “Usable objects have their story too,” insists Jongerius. “Still, does it really matter all that much? Who cares if it’s art or if it’s design?”

There is a tendency, when design ventures too close to art, to say that it has ceased to be design and become art instead. Designers have often been the first to criticise colleagues deemed to have crossed the line. Some show a deep distaste for what they see as gratuitous self-expression and they make these complaints even when a design has satisfied functional requirements. What these criticisms reveal is often no more than a preference for a particular design aesthetic in which traces of the designer’s hand are kept to a minimum. The unapologetic embrace of decorative motifs in Tord Boontje’s work is a deliberate rejection of the cold, machine-like, modernist-derived design language of many industrial products and objects. Far from being something to be shunned, uninhibited decoration is now seen by some designers as a way of re-humanising design.

Stephen Bayley has always insisted that industrial design is the real visual art of the 20th century. This was good showmanship, but reversing art and design’s position so decisively is not plausible at this point even if you suspect that history might one day share his opinion. The aim is not to pull art down. Nor is it to crown design as the new art. But it is certainly to elevate design. Art and design exist in a continuum of possibilities, and rigid definitions that might make sense on paper are not tenable in practice when both activities can take so many forms. The most interesting work often happens in the gaps where there is room for manoeuvre and scope for debate.

Dunne & Raby are a good example of why we need to approach the relationship of art and design more flexibly. They are emphatic that they don’t wish to be seen as artists. They recognise that it is in the context of design, perceived as designers, that their speculative research could have most impact. If their self-initiated projects were to be classified as art and shown only in art galleries, their work would be seen as a kind of artistic fantasy and would be ignored by the companies, institutions and policy-makers they would most like to influence. All kinds of opportunities will open up if only we can enlarge our notion of what design practice might be to embrace new kinds of design thinking and research.

If design really is in the ascendant, it is perhaps for the most fundamental of reasons. Since the 1960s, art has become increasingly suspicious of forms of expression that are merely visual. Artists saw beauty as simple-minded. They regarded design and decoration, which still cared about aesthetics, as superficial and vacuous. The artist’s role was to go deeper, to be a visual thinker, to deal in ideas. Duchamp’s legacy, conceptual art, has become a catch-all and art based on the sketchiest of thoughts is routinely described today in these terms. A visit to MoMA’s new galleries reveals what art has lost in the process. The early 20th-century floor, showing masterpieces of post-impressionism, cubism, fauvism, expressionism, suprematism and surrealism, is an inexhaustible banquet of visual stimulation and pleasure. MoMA’s work from after the Second World War is a lot bigger, but it is also thinner. Its overblown gestures can often be absorbed in moments. There is much less to savour and study and consequently, in both aesthetic and intellectual senses, rather less reward.

Design has no such hang-ups about the beauty of visual form. It exults in it. Artists may resist beauty because it is too easy, too compliant or insufficiently critical, but this does not change the fact that people hunger for it. We seek retinal pleasure, things to run our eyes over, colours, lines, textures and shapes to explore and inhabit, and design has no hesitation in supplying these experiences. Design is becoming more elaborately layered, more spectacular, more pervasive in our lives. Design, rather than art, is foremost now in embodying the visual spirit of the age. Millions get by without going anywhere near an art gallery, but everyone is touched in some way by design. Perhaps what we are seeing in the inexorable rise of design is the gradual reunification of art, in the pre-modernist, “decorative” sense, and everyday life. If art is so important to our social, mental and spiritual well-being, why should we keep them apart?

In their books, both Bloemink and Coles quote Matisse’s famous statement: “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art that could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.”

Matisse’s sentiment, recorded almost a century ago, could not be more contemporary, though the stresses of modern living that he wants to heal with art “like a good armchair” are more intense than he could have guessed. He describes his hopes for painting, but he could just as well be talking about design’s comforting sensorial embrace. “Design art” is an awkward compound term and it may not catch on, but at least it suggests the continuity between design and art. Neither word on its own seems fully adequate any longer to explain how our visual culture is evolving. To move forward, we need a wider public understanding that design is a means of personal and cultural expression with the potential to equal and even exceed art’s reach. It’s high time the media stopped treating design as a nothing more than a pleasant diversion and woke up to this. If The Guardian, for instance, can devote an entire issue of its daily review to a 17-page article about the painter Caravaggio, it can certainly find space to think more seriously about design.

Rick Poynor is a design critic and author.

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