Alex Coles on art’s romance with design
Imagine a front room in a townhouse with a large fireplace, its contours snugly followed by an overmantel conceived for it in the late 1930s by Henri Matissse. The room is brimming with Art Deco trappings: plushly upholstered sofas and chairs set against thick pile rugs, whilst ornately patterned drapes caress the windows. Even the modular wood panelling which encases the room wears a sensual curve.
But despite the pervading air of tranquillity, entropy has entirely taken over in the form of a disciplinary slippage. Such is the extent to which fine art’s romance with design reaches a peak in this room, it can be appreciated as an early case of the vogue for design art.
A priceless insight can be gleaned from this little episode. So valuable is it, in fact, that the story of the Avant Garde can be rewritten in the light of it in terms of either a perpetual defence against, or romance with, that much feared bedfellow of design – décor. Still today, contemporary art’s fascination with design – in practices such as Jorge Pardo’s, Pae White’s, Richard Artschwager’s and Andrea Zittel’s – can be split down the middle according to the respective artist’s reading of this imaginary episode. By entering through this split we can arrive at the debate’s effective genealogy, the better to grasp the contemporary production.
From the beginning, De Stijl, the Bauhaus and even the Russian Constructivists shrewdly incorporated design, craft and architecture within their remit. Once there, the threat these disciplines posed to fine art could be controlled – which was crucial given how the flamboyance that such affects bespoke was the very antithesis of avant-garde seriousness. It therefore follows that rather than being perceived as a revolutionary struggle to set various disciplines in dialogue, the Bauhaus et al can instead be reinterpreted as the first of many attempts made by the Avant Garde to alleviate the threat of décor.
Matisse responded to the danger décor posed to art by nonchalantly trading licks with its associated disciplines; not surprisingly, he was often invited to submit designs to Parisian design houses known for their Deco leanings. What is most noticeable is how Matisse’s casual attitude towards design was far more speculative in nature than the Bauhaus’ striving for mastery over it. Matisse’s work was flexible enough to take inspiration from border disciplines and yet strong enough to stimulate it, too. To be sure, Matisse always ensured that, rather than disappear, borders between disciplines were only momentarily overcome. And it is this emphasis on the transitory – that is, on the permeable, over the solidly defined or conversely the completely erased, border – which gives Matisse’s work its potency today. By comparison, most design-artists paradoxically attempt to erase boundaries, while at the same time flaunting their works’ conceptual underpinnings to ensure its safe distance from mere design. Such a gambit is a knee-jerk reaction to design-artists growing awareness of how the fate of the Avant Garde is outside their remit and is instead in the arms of the companies many designers work in tandem with: the likes of Habitat peddling budget furniture; the trendier downtown stores such as SCP turning out mutated versions of Breuer chairs, and the upmarket boutiques unabashedly merchandising the original thing. To whatever extent their roles appear to differ, both design-artists and designers share this attempt to hold the threat of décor at bay by clinging to an outmoded concept of functionalist chic.
Joe Scanlan remains by far the shrewdest commentator on design art. His essay, ‘Please, Eat the Daisies’, 2001, is a wry polemic on the differences between design art and other dominant contemporary art trends. In particular, Scanlan is captivated by the dissonance between design art and its béte noire, institutional critique: ‘where institutional critique hopes to disrupt the illusion of cultural authority by revealing the mechanisms that buttress it, design art hopes to democratise that authority by providing mood lighting and comfortable chairs’. Within design art itself, Scanlan perceives two distinct trends. The first is associated with artists having an output with only the semblance of use value, such as Andrea Zittel (see review AM252) and Tobias Rehberger. The second trend is represented by the likes of Artschwager and early Claes Oldenburg, artists whose work blatantly shuns utility. There is, however, a third one that Scanlan shies away from mentioning. This trend, evidenced in his practice, perpetually tests the precise nature of function. Scanlan’s most current shelving unit, appropriately titled This Year’s Model, 2001, is exemplary here; in exhibiting the piece next to photographs of earlier versions of it, taken in their owners’ homes, Scanlan successfully tracks the various uses they are put to.
Out of the contemporary artists currently practising design art – which in addition to those mentioned above also includes Angela Bulloch, Jim Isermann, N55, Liam Gillick, Joep van Lieshout and Kathrin Böhm – only those avoiding the Bauhaus cul-de-sac truly continue to trade with different disciplines, so maintaining the permeability of the boundaries between them. In transforming the traditional function of a bookshop or bar by serving it up as a superlatively designed installation, it is Pardo who undertakes the most apposite of exchanges. The most compelling of his installations co-ordinate optical sensation with tactile association so deftly that to experience them is to pass through a lived rather than a virtual world of colour. In such cases, it is as if the beholder walks through one of Matisse’s paintings from the 30s. So it is not surprising that often Pardo also cannily updates Matisse’s desire to comfort the tired worker by offering a real armchair upon which to rest their tired limbs. In 2000, Pardo refashioned both the entrance and the bookshop to the DIA Center in New York, offering the browser many such comforts. The floors and pillars of the space were coated with tiles that dazzled through their riotous candy colours, the only let-up being provided by a backdrop of soothing pastoral hues. To experience the installation was to be catapulted into a vertiginous world that enveloped both the art gazer and the book buyer alike, Even so, at every turn the installation launched a retinal assault powerful enough momentarily to push the beholder out, back into their own space, while it seemingly folded up into the two-dimensional plane occupied by painting. It was therefore fortuitous that upstairs a small selection of Bridget Riley’s paintings ran concurrent with Pardo’s installation. Such a pairing became even more felicitous when considering that, if Riley’s 60s paintings, together with their iniquitous appropriation by fashion and poster designers, were placed alongside Continuum, her too often overlooked environment from the same period, the result would be something like a Pardo. Recently at the CCA in Glasgow – unfortunately without a Riley in sight – Pardo designed the café and bar area. A deep blue now predominates the walls, with waves of yellow and green optically floating just above its surface, together providing a backdrop to the furniture and floor cut from American Walnut. Pleasant to take in over a drink, certainly, but nothing to inspire a wave of conviction so powerful that the viewer is carried beyond the shores of a well designed bar.
Included in Artschwager’s extensive Serpentine Gallery exhibition is the now classic Table With Pink Tablecloth from 1964. Artschwager’s objects have become increasingly complex, to such an extent that by the late 70s and early 80s they appear loaded, overburdened even, with iconographic detail. Works such as Book III (Laocoon), 1981, are so cumbersome they forget to do what his work does so well: to defamiliarise the most vernacular of furniture designs. Experiencing a work from this period is akin to having an uninvited commentator on your shoulder while beholding one of his relatively simple pieces of the 60s, eagerly pointing out the fusillade of signifieds taking place. In turn, this is something like watching Rear Window with a film-theorist lecturing over the top, reminding us just how many different meanings Jimmy Stewart’s zoom might have. Both are equally undesirable. The work from the early 90s, which is represented here by Journal II, 1991, forms a more interesting chapter in Artschwager’s development. Principally, this is because overt iconography is jettisoned in favour of an imminent commentary on his own practice to date, the humour and play in the earlier work now being taken to new heights through cartoon-like carpentry which crushes overt iconography. Concurrent with this series, editions of the earlier works were exhibited in Mies van der Rohe’s Esters House in Krefeld, Germany. In this exhibition, Artschwager’s objects were thrown into bold relief by the Bauhaus master’s dark, brooding interiors – as a mirror playfully replied to the viewer with a blank, a wall cabinet stubbornly resisted even the most forceful of hands, and everywhere the ersatz Formica separated itself from the camouflage initially offered by Mies’ lush wood panelling. With this example in mind, a neat analogy can be made between Artschwager and on account of the way both re-route Art Deco’s rich tastes via 50s and 70s populist design and its associated materials.
White tackles the art and design issue from quite a different angle altogether. While objects and installations in their own right, she often counterpoints them with subtle interventions that delicately bracket the particular context in which they are exhibited. Most often this includes taking over catalogue, book, invite and advertising design. Each one of these quite disparate areas of activity is cleverly run together by White’s tendency to privilege quasi-biomorphous shapes throughout. By sharp comparison, the warped rhetoric of Bauhaus functionalism bubbling away in Zittel’s A-Z Living Units, 2001, is so overbearing as to render experiencing them near impossible. Even though the viewer is permitted to enter the units, access to them is actually denied and only the individual clients they are purpose-built for are granted the true privilege of engaging with them on the required level. To make things worse, the viewer is too often involuntarily subjected to the stories wafting about their place of exhibition. Usually, these stories turn on how particular collectors are currently roughing it by camping out in their purpose-built Zittel, pressing their artwork to utilitarian ends. But isn’t there something perverse about spending all that money on living as if you had almost none?
For these reasons, artworks fashioned in the spirit of Deco, as opposed to De Stijl or the Bauhaus, appear more vital today. Their flamboyance harbours a comparative freedom for their beholder. Then, too, Deco is the only tendency in design, contemporaneous with the likes of the Bauhaus, not to impose rigid principles on its practitioners. Indeed, Johannes Itten’s preference that all Bauhaus students both shave their heads and maintain a rigorous garlic diet while following his syllabus square for square forms a striking contrast to the free-flowing cosmopolitan perfumery of Deco. But the final word is not ‘let all art be decorative’. Rather, that the notion of the decorative and the ornamental shouldn’t be pejoratively applied today; with the understanding that there is a discreet difference between décor and the fluff that often collects on it. Dan Flavin, who along with Donald Judd is key to this entire debate, made a number of comments in corroboration of this line of reasoning. A year after fabricating Untitled (to Henri Matisse), 1964, he surmised: ‘I believe that art is shedding its vaunted mystery for a common sense of keenly realised decoration’. So, given the above trajectory, it goes without saying that it would be a shame if Matisse’s overmantel were to be exhibited in the Matisse/Picasso exhibition at Tate Modern forthcoming this summer. For its keen realisation of the entropic potential of décor would most surely be frozen by the Tate’s functionalist design. Instead, it is much more productive to think of the work still sitting there in the townhouse, making no big fuss about the romance between art and design the way we do today.
Alex Coles is an art critic, editor and lecturer.
First published in Art Monthly 253: February 2002.