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The DesignArt Phenomenon

Design’s interface with art practice – the paradigm currently referred to as ‘designart’ – has come a long way in recent years. From a generation of artists who came to prominence in the late 1990s, principally through the Munster sculpture exhibition in 1997, to exhibitions, books and anthologies devoted to the subject itself, designart has gathered momentum as a leading paradigm of practice. Firstly, what is designart? The term came into being in the late 1990s as a way of describing the work of contemporary practitioners as various as Studio van Lieshout, Superflex and Andrea Zittel, whose artifacts, installations and projects engage both art and design simultaneously. The American artist Joe Scanlan’s wry article ‘Please, Eat the Daisies’ (2001), co-authored with the economist Neal Jackson, provides a crisp definition of this new compound term: ‘Design art could be defined loosely as any artwork that attempts to play with the place, function and style of art by commingling it with architecture, furniture and graphic design.’ 1 This much is relatively straightforward. But add to these developments in art practice their inevitable counterpoints in the marketplace – witness the recent DesignArt fair in London, programmed to coincide with the Frieze Artfair, and the numerous DesignArt sales at Phillips auction house, as well as the tendency for leading commercial galleries such as Gagosian to exhibit work by designers – then you no longer have just a tendency in art practice but something of a phenomenon. You also have a problem.

The problem is that the very notion of designart, complex in its historical origins in the Bauhaus and De Stijl and full of recursive turns as it is played out in contemporary practice, has been seized upon as a stylistic device. Since they are surface thin, stylistic devices come and go like any trend. Unfortunately, when these trends are no longer in vogue there is the supposition that the theme itself has been dealt with to a sufficient degree. Clearly this is not the case here. The tendency to reduce design’s interface with art to a trend is reductive in nature and while the net result is a marketable phenomenon, the gross result, as it were, is that the interface between the two disciplines is never really considered or engaged with in anything other than a surface manner. This is unfortunate since there is much to glean from it: after all, it underpins so much of what is dynamic in contemporary practice.

For the notion of designart is only really engaging when it is part of a process of deeper questioning that pierces through the surface – a continual pushing back and forth of the boundaries between art and design. Any attempt to completely erase these boundaries is futile as it runs the risk of losing the historical tension between the two disciplines, a tension which is crucial because the very energy that drives design’s interface with art derives from it. The desire on behalf of designers to bring art into play – through its critical and conceptual methods and various site-specific and gallery bound contexts – cannot be downplayed in this debate, especially when considering a case such as the Bouroullec brothers or m/m. Likewise, the artists mentioned above engage design because it is a vehicle for questioning art by injecting it into utilitarian scenarios that affords the practitioner a critical purchase on autonomous forms of art. There is also the issue of collaboration: when the designer and architect Kjetil Thorsen works on a joint commission with the artist Olafur Eliasson, the resulting hybrid object and the experience that object triggers in the viewer is beyond anything either of them could have realized alone.

To avoid a simple repetition of this designart phenomenon in the future there is a need to establish a forum suitable to the sustained discussion of the subject. In part, this discussion needs to be generated by the museums and galleries that hold exhibitions of work of those involved, but it also needs to come from educational institutes as its ramifications on pedagogy will be crucial to the vitality of its future. In some places, this is already happening, but it must be extended. Imagine a curriculum kick-started by using the following quote, a quote I will conclude with here, from the graphic design team Experimental Jet Set:

‘We don’t see graphic design as art, but we do see art as a form of design. Although it’s hard to define art, it’s not difficult to define its context: there exists a clear infrastructure of exhibition spaces, galleries, museums, art magazines, art publishers, art history, art theory, etc. Art can be seen as the production of objects, concepts and activities intended to function within this specific infrastructure. In our view, this production can certainly be seen as a specific form of design.’ 2

Alex Coles is a critic and an editor. He is author of DesignArt (Tate Publishing, 2005) and editor of ‘Design and Art’ (MIT Press, 2007). Most recently he has also co-authored a book Project vitr a (Birkhauser, 2008). Currently he is Chair of Fine Art, Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles.

1Joe Scanlan, ‘Please, Eat the Daisies’, Design and Art, ed. Alex Coles, MIT Press/Whitechapel, 2007.
2Experimental Jet Set interview with Lucienne Roberts, Design and Art, ed. Alex Coles, MIT Press/Whitechapel, 2007.