Design’s case of art failure

David Redhead focuses on the crossover of the design and art disciplines, and questions whether the practitioners should try to emulate one another’s craft

It set the alarm bells ringing when I read the Institute of Contemporary Arts director’s opinions on the fuzzying boundaries between art and design in Design Week (DW 24 April). ‘The notion that there is an essential difference (between art and design) is an historical fantasy…’ declared Philip Dodd. ‘The traditional definition that art isn’t functional and design is, doesn’t work. Everybody is a designer and the word ‘design’ should be rethought.’

I can see where Dodd is coming from. You don’t need to visit the ICA or the Royal College of Art to grasp how closely interwoven art and design have become in recent years. The crossover occurs daily in the homes and haunts of Hoxton and Clerkenwell. And if knocking about together leads different kinds of artists, designers and marketers to collaborate more it’s a good thing. In fact, in our multi-layered, multimedia world, cross-cultural alliances are not only desirable, they are likely to become essential.

My problem with Dodd’s view is the implication that somehow designers and artists do the same thing. In my experience, when designers think they’re artists it turns them into egotistic attention-seekers and usually leads to self-indulgent design and second-rate art.

Many branches of design have fallen into the ‘look-at-us-we’re-artists’ trap down the years. I first encountered the syndrome in the late 1980s. Back then, the sudden stardom enjoyed by the likes of Ron Arad and Tom Dixon seemed to inspire every other furniture designer to position themself as a sort of counter-cultural warrior for the post-industrial age, turning out elaborate confections in rusting steel and buttoned-back velvet. The phenomenon ceased, thank God, when the bottom fell out of the retail market. London’s design and manufacturing scene is far stronger for the experience, its practitioners having acquired a welcome dose of real-life nous to supplement their experimental impulses.

It’s a pity the same shakeout didn’t happen to some of the attention-seekers who continue to populate the trendy fringes of graphic design. From David Carson, through Fuel and Tomato, to the current flavour of the moment Neasden Control Centre, the industry has always had a soft spot for its contingent of arty poseurs. Today there’s an established formula to making it big as a graphic ‘artiste’: acquire an attitude, matching suits and a provocative-sounding name; publish an enigmatic tome, or website, full of immaculate, incomprehensible images; look mean and moody, but befriend influential TV producers, arty photographers and groovy youth brands. With luck the Japanese will come knocking.

Trouble is, what most of these so-called ‘graphic authors’ have in common is their incoherence. If their art has a purpose or a meaning beyond its trendiness, few seem willing to explain it. But it doesn’t seem to matter whether this stuff makes any sense. When you’re an artist, talking like Tracey Emin just seems to add to the mystique.

The only designers who can aspire to the title ‘artist’ are those mould-breakers who, like Thomas Heatherwick, are so brilliant that their output transcends the traditions of their craft. Heatherwick trained as an interior designer, but since hitting the scene in the mid-1990s he’s found his sculptural interventions called art. Tord Boontje is treated the same, perhaps because the thought-provoking beauty of his Rough and Ready or Wednesday collections has caught the eye of curators at the Tate and other galleries.

But Heatherwick or Boontje wouldn’t thank me if I called them artists. ‘I don’t like art for its own sake so it’s irritating to be labelled an artist,’ Heatherwick once told me. ‘My work is about solving problems, not just aesthetics.’

Boontje can also always explain his intentions precisely, and, as the mass-market success of his his Wednesday light for Habitat shows, he’s never taken his eye off the grail of mass production. The thing about truly original work like Heatherwick’s or Boontje’s is that you haven’t seen it before. We may want to call it art for want of an easy category, but when we look back at this stuff in five years’ time we’ll recognise it as the great design it is.

So why not draw a line between art and design? After all, if designers usually make bad art, think of the awful results when artists make something functional. Who recalls Antony Gormley’s banal coat hook and Anish Kapoor’s tatty-looking light for Homebase? The only good reason to buy such bad design is that it’s a cheap way to buy overpriced art.

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