What next for Design Art?

Bags that look like saddles, Persian tables with holes in the top and vacuum cleaner chairs might sound like the comedy products you would expect Del Boy and Rodney to be trying to flog out of the back of their yellow three-wheeler van in an episode of Only Fools and Horses, but apparently these pieces can be defined as ‘design art’ – or can they?

The future of the phrase was the topic of discussion at a debate at the Rabih Hage Gallery in London WC1, on 26 February, while the second annual Form show, which ran from 28 February to 2 March, at London’s Olympia, pitched design alongside contemporary art.

The debate, entitled Design Art: Commerce or Culture?, included Jurgen Bey, David Carlson, Alexander Payne, Judd Tully and Richard Woods, with chairman Max Fraser, and sought to expose why there has been so much attention paid to design art in recent months.

Alexander Payne, from auction house Phillips de Pury, claims he originally coined the phrase in 1999 to describe objects that possess the functionality of design, with the irony or extravagance of art. Payne says that, in recent months, Phillips de Pury – which was behind the walkthrough auction last year of architects Amanda Levete’s and Zaha Hadid’s Size & Matter installation commissioned by the London Design Festival – is no longer using the term and is calling everything it auctions in this category ‘design’. James Mair, managing director at London furniture showroom Viaduct, which is the agent for e15, Maarten Van Severen and MDF Italia, says that design art is a much-hyped phrase, and should be replaced by ‘design’ or ‘limited edition pieces’.

The panel at the forum was split about whether the ‘phenomenon’ is just a way for designers to make money selling ‘one-offs’, or whether working within the medium gives more opportunity to experiment.

Bey, who designs public spaces and interiors, working under the title Studio Makkink & Bey, and is currently a senior tutor at the Royal College of Art, says, ‘With cities getting bigger, private spaces where design art can be shown off is becoming less interesting to designers.’ He explains that what is exciting for designers now is the concept of public space and that designers should be focusing on how they can help people find their own personal moments in public areas. He says that design art and its prices actually detract from the issues that are important to design, such as sustainability and functionality, and members of the audience were expressing the view that the term is pretentious and damaging to exhibition design.

David Carlson, the founder of furniture brand David Design and the knowledge company Designboost, says that the movement is a shallow way of considering design. He claims that the movement has ties to vulgarism.

However, Woods, whose work is expressed through architecture, art and design and whose pieces have been commissioned by Murray Moss and Established & Sons, (DW Awards 2008, Furniture Design shortlist) says that the idea of art and design being used together is a good thing. His argument for design art revolves around the idea of being able to take the big questions of ‘life, death and sex’ asked by art and applying them to design. He explains that what he loves about design is that pieces, unlike works of traditional art, can bheld, touched, sat in and explored by the senses.

However, the panel suggested that some designers making products in the design art range are making their pieces so unique that the work loses its functionality. The panel collectively agreed that there is no point in chairs that cannot be sat in, or lamps that cannot be used.

There is an increase in students who are interested in being celebrity designers, and are ambitious to be acknowledged widely by the public, says Bey, who attributes this to design art and the publicity that surrounds it. A sub-set of the Form exhibition, entitled DNA,sponsors up-and-coming designers. The aim of the section being to ‘blur the boundaries between art and design’ cites Form’s creative director, Russell Sage. Showcasing as ‘designers of the future’ this year were recent Royal College of Art graduates and postgraduates Okay Studio, Stephen Graham, Michaela Nettell and Jordi Canudas.

Judd Tully, editor of Art & Auction magazine, acknowledges that we are living in an age obsessed with celebrity magazines, but Carlson argues that the ‘design art fluff’ presented in many editions is not representative of great design, and the panel agreed that there is more to a good design piece than being used as a ‘pretty picture’ in a magazine.

All this, of course, raises the questions of what expert design actually is, and if any individual has the right to hold themselves aloft as the arbiter of creative taste.


• Design Art London Fair
• Form Art and Design Fair
• Design Miami
• Covent Garden Super Design
• The Art, Craft and Design Show, Suffolk

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