Design Beyond Art

Here’s a review of two exhibitions – ‘Telling Tales‘ at the V&A and ‘Super Contemporary’ at the Design Museum. Both exhibitions closed in October 2009 but Telling Tales has left an impressive website. The piece first appeared in 2+3d.

Any book or exhibition which carries the title ‘contemporary design’ is a promise to make sense of the diverse and confusing range of new things and ideas which join the world every day. Curators and critics sift through the over-production of our age to find significant themes and patterns. Over the summer, London was home to two such barometers of design. The Design Museum mounted ‘Super Contemporary’, a show which attempted to put some muscle behind the city’s claim to be an international centre of creativity. And behind the imposing walls of the V&A museum, a couple of miles to the west, ‘Telling Tales. Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design’ was open to the public. The two shows could not have been more different.

‘Super Contemporary’ set a cast of international design luminaries who have made London their home the challenge of rethinking the city. Reflecting London’s diversity, many – including El Ultimo Grito and Zaha Hadid – are adopted sons and daughters of the city. Some – with their tongues pressed firmly inside their cheeks – tackled clichés. Reflecting on London’s legendary raininess, Paul Cocksedge developed a device charged with static electricity which repels falling water. Others were rather more purposeful: Industrial Facility (Kim Colin and Sam Hecht) revived the high-street Post Office, currently in terminal decline, as a computerised street kiosk whilst menswear designer and retailer Paul Smith turned London’s charmless rubbish bins into 1.5 m high green rabbits that applaud tidy citizens with an electronic flash of their ears.

If ‘Super Contemporary’ focused on the pubic spaces of the city, ‘Telling Tales’ at the V&A was rather more introspective. Works by another, very different cast of celebrated designers were brought together to demonstrate the rise of fantasy and narrative in contemporary design. Jurgen Bey ‘s 2002 ‘Linen-Cupboard House’, for instance, is fashioned from a bed, cupboard and bentwood chair. Under the alibi of being a ‘guest room’, Bey’s work seems interested in the kind of hideaway spaces in which children delight and adults bury their secrets. The fact that his furniture remodels familiar, even old-fashioned objects adds to this effect. Making explicit reference to fairy tales and mythology, Tord Boontje’s furniture takes centre stage in ‘Telling Tales’. His ‘Fig Leaf’ wardrobe for Meta – the product of considerable virtuoso craftsmanship – weaves art historical, biblical and literary references into an impossibly expensive domestic object.

‘Telling Tales’ promotes ‘Design Art’, a strange confection which has been much discussed in Britain in the last couple of years. One-off pieces and limited editions by well-known designers – often sponsored by high-end manufacturers – have attracted considerable attention from the media. Curator of ‘Telling Tales’, Gareth Williams, sought out works which cross the ‘arbitrary and invisible line that separates design and art’. The appeal of ‘Design Art’ to designers is clear: becoming Design Artists they can extend their reputations as conceptualists without foregoing the benefits of the market. Maarten Baas’s photogenic ‘Smoke’ furniture represents the trend well and is given a prominent place in the V&A show. Elegant reproductions of eighteenth century furniture as well as design classics by Gerrit Rietveld and Charles and Ray Eames are blowtorched by Baas and his assistants and then coated with a clear epoxy resin to conserve their charred and blackened appearance. These objects have a shrewd schizophrenia, suggesting both the destruction of luxury and, when sold in the Murray Moss gallery in New York, its production. A creation of the booming international market for design over the last few years, ‘Design Art’ may find that it now lacks willing patrons. Baas’s designs are hardly naïve in this regard: after all, they look like the aftermath of a catastrophe.

In fact, the most compelling exhibits in ‘Telling Tales’ can be understood as a kind psychological diagnosis of contemporary consumerism. ‘The Lover’s Rug’ designed by Patrik Fredrikson and Ian Stallard for Editions David Gill takes the form of two pools of red urethane representing the amount of blood in two people. Part Rorschach diagramme, part scene of crime, ‘The Lover’s Rug’ balances hints at the violence which often accompanies desire.

A pulsing vein of irony runs through many of the works displayed in the V&A’s show. The role of chief ironist was played by Studio Job, designers Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel, whose series of pieces of furniture entitled the ‘Robber Baron’ series combine excessive use of over-the-top materials like gold and bronze with very literal symbols: clouds of gold belch from the chimneys of a nineteenth century factory to form a table; whilst a lavish style cabinet in the style of master cabinetmaker has, seemingly, been ripped through by a mortar. These highly-expensive limited-edition pieces satirise the legendary bad taste of the obscenely rich – whether the robber barons of nineteenth century America, Wall Street bankers in the 1980s or the Russian oligarchs today – and point to the unsavory sources of their wealth. Yet perhaps today only oligarchs and despots have sufficiently deep pockets for Studio Job’s products. Not only, it seems, are the designers ironically-minded: their clients have to be too. There is little question that such designs aspire to be the kind of modern art favoured by commercial galleries: exclusive, provocative and, of course, expensive.

The debate on ‘Design Art’ has tended to focus on the question of function. ‘How can it be design’ ask critics, ‘if you cannot use it?’ Stephen Bayley put succinctly when he wrote recently ‘Should a chair be a narrative, a theorem? Or something to sit upon?’I am not convinced that purposefulness is the best way to divide art from design. After all, the history of architecture and design is full of utopian projects which ensured their visionary status by being unbuildable. The aim of Vladimir Tatlin in Soviet Russia in the 1920s or Superstudio in Italy at the end of the 1960s was not to reshape the material world but the imagination. El Ultimo Grito and Urban Salon in ‘Super Contemporary’ continue this tradition by joining forces to design a vertiginous ‘Skygarden’ above London’s Trafalgar Square, a city-centre landmark organised around Nelson’s Column. In a new green park fifty meters above the ground, visitors would be able to greet the lofty figure of Admiral Nelson face-to-face. The visitor in the Design Museum is asked to imagine life in the city from an entirely new perspective.

Impossible and unbuildable, is the skygarden ‘Design Art’ too? I don’t think so. It fits squarely within design’s social imagination. For at least a century, imaginative designers have seen their work not only as useful and beautiful things but also as social instruments. Things and ideas can change the way that people live, think and interact. Not just a commentary on the world, design aspires to be part of it. This social aspiration is not just a matter of mass production and mass sales. Even though it is produced in a limited edition of four, Jurgen Bey’s ‘Linen-Cupboard House’ taps deep and shared reserves of lived experience. Objects which withdraw into ironic contemplation or chase elite markets abandon the social aspirations which make design a compelling aspect of the modern commonwealth. This is not a matter of eschewing the gallery: but it is about deciding what design is for.

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