Art and Design at the Eclectica Gallery
Opinions as to the values and points of crossover in the art and design worlds have been contested and debated for years, from high end critics to amateur creative’s trying to eek out a living and find their place in either or both of the two worlds. The value of debate is that it gives rise to new opinions and the sharing of knowledge and, at Eclectica, we aim to promote further investigation and thinking around what this means. What does it mean to appreciate art and design on one platform? Following the success of the two galleries opened in Chelsea, Wynberg and in Claremont, each with a slightly different focus, Eclectica Design and Art, which is centrally located in town, leans toward finding a new rhetoric for the traditional gallery space. In doing so, the understanding around what ‘art’ truly is and what ‘design’ truly is has been integral to moving forward with this latest venture. The biases around whether art and design can be held at the same level, on the same status, seems to be highly disputed and as such, critical unpacking of such opinions is necessary in forming our own true understanding and position on the matter.
Art history has been extensive and academic, while design history and the importance of objects is largely based on use and efficiency, and measured according to product success. The expressiveness of artworks have been seen to reflect the experiences of the times and the artists, while design seems to have been understood as purely functional with aesthetics as an added bonus and, “as art has sought (or been driven to) a closer connection with design, design, itself, has moved in other directions”(Buchanan 2007). The critical question is whether there can truly be a cross over and whether the two worlds have points of overlap. When it comes to the basic principles of both art and design appreciation and analysis, the focus points to look at are: form, space, texture, mood, line and tone. With these basic pillars as a starting point for establishing an opinion, it is a curious thing that few people are willing to acknowledge the blurry lines between the two worlds of art and design. Whether the wallpaper design of a hotel lobby is looked at or the painting that hangs on the opposite wall is extensively analyzed, these basic tools of looking are employed and can thus show an overlap of understanding and a meeting of ideas, right from the outset.
The move toward Modernism after the Age of Enlightenment and the early stages of the Industrial Revolution after the 1700s affected the direction of what was seen to be High Art and created an opening for design to find its place. Art started to move away from patrons and religious commission and more toward self-expression, individual representation and became a cathartic means of understanding the changing times. Therefore, as the art world was becoming more introspective, and more people were gaining access to art, industrial works and household pieces had to be made appealing to the new consumer of the developing middle class, the bourgeoisie who had learnt to appreciate beauty and fine aesthetics.
As Industrialization came into effect as a growing force throughout the world, Imperialism and Colonialism began to reach away from Europe into other cultures. Following this, new concepts of design and new means of creation became accessible to artists such as Picasso and Gauguin, who were able to incur change in ‘Western’ notions of style and beauty. With art galleries, salons and museums opening to the general public, the rush of bright colours, rich patterning and expressive imagery bled into the general psyche of society. The possibility of collecting beautiful objects and the status that this brought was integral to the success of the beginnings of what can be called the art market. Understanding value in relation to appreciation of an object thus lead to the growing possibility to create with a conscious agenda of aesthetic beauty and product marketing in mind. This began to exponentially accelerate with the industrial revolution creating things faster and increasing the pace of daily life, while the World Wars and the use and extension of propaganda techniques called on the need for workable design and products that could move quickly.
After the World Wars but particularly after World War One because nothing like it had been experienced previously, the need for goods outweighed the access to resources. In the design world, the challenge became how best to make what was needed with whatever could be found. The work of creatives in the postwar years tended toward a kind of searching and questioning of the world around them. Artists looked to DADAism as a negation of established art practice and a need to question boundaries, while others chose to lean more toward Futurism or even early conceptual art, as a way to escape the harshness of a world that was shattered. In architecture and furniture design, the structures became rigid and practical and aesthetic appreciation could be found in simplicity and clean lines, which was a break from the chaos of the rest of the world. As Fascism looked back at neoclassical art and the architecture of antiquity, the modern world was being shaped into a place where appearance highly constructed.
The construction of appearances had to be designed and created by particular specialists; it can be said that in this case, artists and designers began to separate. The importance of artists and their role was to provide an alternative place to think and to look – to shift the mind of the weary factory worker or returning soldier or lawyer to another world and space, where either the horrors of the real world would not find them or the realities were reinterpreted in such a way that was more palatable to create awareness and promote action. Designers were tasked with rebuilding cities and creating commodities that could generate wealth to collapsing economies. Architects needed to fulfill housing demands in their design and furniture designers needed to create objects that were of necessity and want. A good chair had to be a beautiful one and one that could improve household appearances. The same principles began applying to all aspects of daily living, from cereal boxes and cutlery to window frames and roof shapes. As the concept of design became more established, its part in history as well as its function in society has become invaluable.
Designers, trained in architecture and industrial design, were able to create solutions to problems that were part of daily life while approaching the process with an aesthetic awareness and an eye for pleasing details. The influence of art principles is undeniable when looking at a classic Le Corbusier chair or a Philippe Starck lampshade. The understanding of form and colour comes from an education and a vocabulary of artistic practice. The notion of design being a form of functional beauty was perfected in Modernist furniture, from the influences of modern artists and moving through the work of design icons like Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen into the innovative and progressive work of Warren Platner and Verner Panton.
Conversely, it can easily be understood that the work of artist in the Fine Art world of the white cube gallery was influenced by the experiments and discoveries of designers who were working at the same time, with “one feature of the complex relationship of art and design [is seen to be a] tendency of some artists to explicitly characterize their work as a form of design … work often becomes an expression of the artist's opinions about social or political life presented to provoke emotion and thought in its audience” (Buchanan 2007). The painter, Ed Ruscha is known for blurring the understanding of painting in relation to the growing practice of graphic design and working with wording and design techniques to create emotive statements. Ruscha was “restless and endlessly inventive, changing typefaces to suit the messages” (Bierut 2007) and this differentiates his work from design, into the artistic rhetoric. The work of minimalist artist Donald Judd is famous for having crossed artistic boundaries and challenged the notions of what could be functional as an art piece and what stood as a design piece, furniture and separate to the constructs of Fine Art. And yet, in an exhibition that was titled Art [is not] Design that featured some of his work, he is cited as stating “it’s impossible to go to the store to buy a chair”, reflecting on the way in which he as an artist felt contained in the insularity of art practice (Bierut 2007).
Crossovers of discipline is something that can reach back to the Italian Renaissance, where men were lauded as successful if they had mastered a variety of skills, from science to painting and mathematics and architecture. This understanding that in order to be fully able to create something worthwhile and be a functional member of society meant that there was a rich range of skills at hand. As Industrialization developed and skills became specified, allocated and defined, categories and titles were established that allowed less room for crossovers. Many artists however, have had to master a range of skills and place themselves across disciplines in order to find success, much like the Renaissance ideology. Artists work as designers and designers work as architects and interior decorators. The understanding of working across spectrums and harnessing skills in various fields has remained important to the creative, in today’s categorized society.
With the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements in the 1920s and 1930s, artists began reconsidering the function of architecture and design, believing that “Bauhaus design came to reconcile the artificial and the natural in a way that would both enhance human life potentials and create a harmonious environment” (Anker 2008). The understanding of aesthetics in the years that followed the two world wars largely shifted the impact and role of art and design in the world. The process of art discourse has allowed writers and creators to partake in deep analysis of the role of art within a society and how it can frame perceptions and reflect common trends. Modernism pushed the parameters of where art could function and functional design and applied arts resulted a space where aesthetics could result in usable products rather than emotive artworks. The dividing of concepts and purpose of creation began to differentiate between what is understood about art and the functions of design in contemporary society. Design in contrast to art works on creating solutions to situations or practical answers that encourage further action. Design from the 1950s became iconic in its accessibility and use in popular culture. The use of design in advertising, from propaganda to cereal boxes and car sales, particularly in the USA created a market of consumerism. Artists chose to respond to these developments by using the techniques to formulate a commentary by “incorporating the language of advertising, signage, publications, and package design in their work” (Bierut 2007), and so movements like Pop Art and Op Art became popular. The growing culture of art appreciation and creation found a home in Soho, New York where celeb-like artists and socialites like Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton were integral to the scene, as much as their art was. Here again was a mix and integration of artists, designers, musicians and businessmen collaborating on work and formulating unique answers through design and posing different questions through art.
With growing understanding around consumerism the focus of the art world began to need a different rhetoric of that offered by Modernism. The design world became established as a separate entity, often connected to the marketing of commodities. Post Modernism, as an art movement, is a complex and multilayered one that is hard to define and even more tricky to categorize. A crucial meeting-point for art and design came about in the means in which artists looked for alternate mediums of working. Because of this practice, “the uneasy relationship of art and design will not soon be overcome… the similarities and differences of art and design are increasingly blurred” (Buchanan 2007). Thus, through Post Modernism, artists could begin to problematize and negate the constructs of ‘art objects’ and the white cube gallery space. Artists such as Jenny Holzer began to utilize advertising techniques and design concepts and a new form of self-expression, while Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Maria Magdalena Compos-Pons reconsidered the understanding of the art object. By unpacking the concepts of design and art, “understanding of the development of these cultural strains has been seen in terms of parallel development, or convergence, rather than hierarchy” (Lees-Maffei and Sandino 2004). In this sense, 20th and 21st Century art can easily be crossed over into the categories of design and vice versa.
The artists represented in the collection at the Eclectica Art and Design each show a unique expressiveness and understanding of the versatility of how art functions in contemporary South Africa. The sculptural and glassware pieces hold an important place as works that transgress the boundaries of design and art and work as pieces of aesthetic and practical use. The notion of the art object and the reconsidering of art practice are represented as physical manifestations in the curation of furniture within the gallery space. Each piece is elevated to the status of Fine Art and understood as an iconic work within the vocabulary of furniture design history and as functional art.
Anker, P 2008. ‘Biology and the Bauhaus: László Moholy-Nagy’ in Tate Etc. issue 6: Spring 2006 [online] available: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/biology-and-bauhaus (2015.07.07)
Bierut, M 2007. ‘Ed Ruscha: When Art Rises to the Level of Graphic Design’ in Seventy-nine: Short Essays on Design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press
Buchanan, R 2007. ‘Anxiety, Wonder and Astonishment: The Communion of Art and Design’ in Design Issues, Vol. 23, No. 4. Massachusetts: The MIT Press
Lees-Maffei, G and Sandino, L 2004. ‘Dangerous Liaisons: Relationships between Design, Craft and Art’ in Journal of Design History, Vol. 17, No. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press