Art to go

Decadent trinkets, or classics on the cheap? Whatever your opinion, design art is alive and kicking, and the subject of a new exhibition. Dominic Lutyens looks at a sector that continues to grow in popularity worldwide

Achingly hip only a few years ago, the term ’design art’ has become somewhat tainted. ’Until recently, it was a hot media term, but no sooner had the media puffed it up, the start of the recession stigmatised it,’ says Gareth Williams, senior tutor of design products at the Royal College of Art. The economy was shaken up, auction markets began to quiver, the audacious prices once fetched by living artists began to dip, and design art was seen as embodying the worst excesses of the pre-recession boom years – as, according to Williams – ’decadent trinkets for oligarchs’.

The term ’design art’, usually describing deluxe, limited-edition, expressive and not necessarily functional pieces, was coined in about 2001 by design historians, claims Williams. Design proceeded to become further associated with its traditionally more exalted cousin, fine art, after Marc Newson was granted a show at London’s Gagosian Gallery in 2007 and, more recently, London’s Barbican mounted shows on Ron Arad and the Serpentine asked Konstantin Grcic to curate theDesign Real exhibition. The Design Miami fair has also raised its profile.

’Originally, art galleries were very snooty about design, but they’ve cottoned on to the idea that they can sell it, and recently we’ve seen prices of pieces by Ron Arad go through the roof,’ says writer and curator Janice Blackburn, who is co-curating the RCA’s architecture, ceramics, glass and design products graduates’ show at this week’s Pavilion of Art and Design London, along with architect, designer and Pad London exhibitor Nigel Coates. He describes a time when design art grabbed headlines because ’various auction houses pumped it up’. Now a victim of its own success, ’design art has come to be associated with exaggerated value, and that has given it a bad name,’ he says.

Even so, design art shows no signs of going away. It is showcased annually by Pad London, held this year at Berkeley Square from 13-17 October. Here, dealers from London, Milan, Geneva, Barcelona, Brussels, Zurich, Paris, Cologne and New York will present design, fine art and photography from 1860 to the present day.

Despite its catchiness, the term design art is considered by some to be a red herring – a hip, alternative tag for the field of decorative arts. ’Design art has always existed – William Morris made it,’ says Coates. And if some people think that design art is a new phenomenon because they have only recently heard of the likes of Arad, it’s because ’it’s been a struggle for a lot of these designers to get to where they are today,’ says Blackburn. She disagrees that their work is decadently overpriced. ’Much of it is labour-intensive, and its prices are still way behind those of contemporary art,’ she protests.

For all that Modernism championed simplicity, the decorative arts thrived in the 20th century and continue to do so into the 21st century. In 1980s Britain, designer-makers rose to prominence. ’A whole generation including Tom Dixon and Arad rebelled against the British tradition of having to work in industry,’ says Coates. Today, the RCA’s design products and ceramics departments ’pitch themselves between the worlds of art and design’, adds Coates, who has both designed for industry (including lighting for the company Slamp) and created limited-edition sofas for Poltronova. ’I believe that all design needs a mix of artistry and utility,’ he says.

While design art has attracted much criticism during the recession, Blackburn argues that it will inexorably grow because ’designers and artists are taking an increasingly multidisciplinary approach to it’. And design art isn’t alone in being afflicted by the economic downturn. ’All the arts are affected. Designers often do other things to make ends meet, such as teaching,’ says Blackburn.

In fact, art designers are not averse to creating mass-produced objects and, arguably, the polarisation between mass production and design art is greatly exaggerated. ’Many designers create pieces that are shown in galleries and collected by individuals and museums, and also pieces that are mass-produced. For example, Tord Boontje’s Blossom chandelier for Swarovski sold for a huge amount, yet he also produced a version for Habitat which sold for just £15. Likewise, Hella Jongerius creates high-end pieces and designs for Ikea,’ says Blackburn.

Design art’s longevity is also perhaps assured by a growing taste for it in countries like China, India and Japan. ’Collectors in the West might have less money now, but there are plenty of new ones elsewhere. They, too, want special things,’ says Coates. The kind of things, says Blackburn, which are all about exercising ’imagination, creativity and self-expression’.

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