Rose­mary Sorensen on the de­lights of de­sign

Art and com­merce be­come blurred when de­signer goods en­ter mu­se­ums, writes Rose­mary Sorensen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

IT’S not about the out­come, it’s about the process. If that sounds like some­thing a mo­ti­va­tional speaker may of­fer at a man­age­ment sem­i­nar, it has also be­come part of the think­ing be­hind the present bur­geon­ing of de­sign. Ac­cord­ing to Cana­dian de­sign com­men­ta­tor Bruce Mau, ‘‘ When the out­come drives the process we will only go to where we’ve al­ready been. If process drives out­come, we may not know where we’re go­ing, but we will know we want to be there.’’

Mau’s ‘‘ in­com­plete man­i­festo’’ of de­sign prin­ci­ples, in his book Mas­sive Change, is re­garded as one of the most in­flu­en­tial ar­tic­u­la­tions of the shift tak­ing place in the way we eval­u­ate our so­ci­ety and our lives.

‘‘ For­get about good,’’ Mau says, be­cause ‘‘ good is a known quan­tity’’; it’s the dis­cov­ery of some­thing valu­able and new that de­sign­ers should be aiming for.

Steven Pozel, di­rec­tor of Ob­ject: Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Craft and De­sign in Syd­ney, says Mau’s op­ti­mistic dis­cus­sion about the po­ten­tial for de­sign to in­flu­ence fu­ture liv­ing is help­ful. Ob­ject was for­merly the Craft Coun­cil of NSW. From 1998 to 2003, it was housed in Cus­toms House at Cir­cu­lar Quay, but when it was forced out of there by ren­o­va­tions, it found a new home in Surry Hills. That year, 2004, it re­ceived a sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing boost as a re­sult of the Con­tem­po­rary Vis­ual Arts and Crafts In­quiry.

Pozel and as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor Brian Parkes re­cently sent forth an evan­gel­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tion that is in­tended to gain con­verts to the new aes­thetic re­li­gion of de­sign. For­get man­i­festos: com­mand­ments are more the or­der of the day. Thou shalt go forth and in­no­vate ( or at least ac­quire some­one else’s in­no­va­tion).

The ex­hi­bi­tion, called Freestyle, is set up in the lovely art mu­seum at Queens­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy. Heaven knows what the tra­di­tion­al­ist may think of it, for here are Man­ingrida dilly­bags along­side a moulded plas­tic stool in pil­lar- box red that looks like some­thing from a cafe where the cof­fee costs more than a pa­per­back. Fold- up chairs jos­tle for space with cheese knives shaped like dor­sal fins. The thick and sump­tu­ous folds of an Akira Iso­gawa dress rub shoul­ders with the printed con­fu­sions of an Eas­ton Pear­son cre­ation.

Parkes spent two years trav­el­ling the coun­try and talk­ing to de­sign­ers while cu­rat­ing Freestyle. He says he has grad­u­ally be­come at­tracted to de­sign ob­jects, as dis­tinct from art ob­jects. ‘‘ The com­merce that sur­rounds con­tem­po­rary vis­ual arts is very so­phis­ti­cated,’’ he says. ‘‘ To set val­ues to in­tan­gi­bles, it has to be so­phis­ti­cated. De­sign com­merce is a slightly more demo­cratic process. The de­signed ob­ject can im­prove life, it can add joy, but you might still be able to pick it up at Tar­get.’’

At the same time, he says, the line be­tween art ob­ject and de­sign ob­ject is in­creas­ingly blurred. ‘‘ There’s this grow­ing phe­nom­e­non of the one­off de­sign ob­ject that is sold in gal­leries, and that looks and feels and smells like an art ob­ject. The dis­tinc­tions are harder to make and if you do make a dis­tinc­tion, then some clever creative per­son will find a way to fly in the face of it.’’

Parkes is so en­gaged by the dis­cus­sion on what makes good de­sign that he finds him­self a lit­tle jaded by con­tem­po­rary art.

‘‘ A lot of con­tem­po­rary art any­where in the world sat­is­fies a cer­tain num­ber of cri­te­ria in or­der to main­tain it­self and so much of it can look the same,’’ he says. ‘‘ In de­sign, there are fresher ideas emerg­ing. Of course, not all of them are good, but that’s why there’s a role here for the univer­si­ties and the gal­leries and for cu­ra­tors, sort­ing out which stuff is im­por­tant.’’

The en­thu­si­asm for de­sign is not lim­ited to spe­cial­ist spa­ces, such as the Pow­er­house Mu­seum in Syd­ney or the Jam Fac­tory craft and de­sign cen­tre in Ade­laide. In­creas­ingly, state art gal­leries, cu­ra­tors and aca­demics are re­think­ing the rel­a­tive val­ues of func­tional man­u­fac­tured ob­jects ( such as a cast- sil­ver ta­ble fork) and hand­crafted aes­thetic ob­jects ( a hand- blown glass or a wood- fired ce­ramic pot).

And if the dis­cus­sions are speed­ing up and be­com­ing more widely heard, it’s partly be­cause politi­cians, so stub­bornly re­sis­tant to the rhetoric of high cul­ture, ap­pear to be much more re­cep­tive to de­sign.

In the state bud­get last month, Queens­land Arts Min­is­ter Rod Welford an­nounced pre­lim­i­nary fund­ing of $ 1 mil­lion for a de­sign cen­tre. It’s in­tended the build­ing will be a model of sus­tain­abil­ity and in­no­va­tion ( two ubiq­ui­tous words in de­sign talk).

At the same time, Craft Queens­land an­nounced it had changed its name to Ar­ti­san, fol­low­ing the lead of other state or­gan­i­sa­tions that have ditched the ama­teur as­so­ci­a­tions evoked by the word craft to align them­selves more firmly with the mod­ern, even fu­tur­is­tic, and com­mer­cial as­pi­ra­tions of de­sign.

The new di­rec­tor of Ar­ti­san, Chetana Andary, is busily re­ori­ent­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tion to cap­i­talise on the ea­ger­ness of gov­ern­ment to get in­volved, and to broaden the scope of what the word ar­ti­san can en­com­pass.

‘‘ Ar­ti­sans, de­sign­ers, artists: they call them­selves by th­ese names ac­cord­ing to whom they’re talk­ing,’’ Andary says. ‘‘ But we know that ar­ti­sans are revered and it’s in­ter­est­ing that they are be­com­ing sought af­ter as de­sign­ers to­day.’’

De­sign­ers are be­com­ing more vis­i­ble than vis­ual artists, with their names, their ideas and their work prac­tices — some­times ex­pressed in ex­cru­ci­at­ing lan­guage — printed along­side arty pho­to­graphs of their prod­ucts.

In the Freestyle show, dis­play

ob­jects

are

ac­com­pa­nied by life- size pho­to­graphs of the de­sign­ers, which makes wan­der­ing through the ex­hi­bi­tion an al­most dis­ori­ent­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of meet­ing new faces at ev­ery turn.

The wall texts, much more clearly printed than the over- de­signed but ex­cel­lent book that ac­com­pa­nies the show, are low on art­s­peak but still prone to hy­per­bole and quasi- phi­los­o­phy. There is a great deal of ‘‘ chal­leng­ing of per­cep­tions’’, much ex­plor­ing and ‘‘ push­ing of bound­aries’’. It’s as though Parkes and his team, who so con­fi­dently ne­go­ti­ated the di­vide be­tween craft and art, at the last minute lost their nerve and fell back on cliche.

It may be that there’s a fun­da­men­tal dilemma at the heart of a de­sign show: when some­thing is for sale, it changes the con­tract be­tween the cre­ator and the viewer. Of course, it was ever thus with art: artists are al­ways in the mar­ket and the ob­scene ex­cite­ment to­day about the fan­tas­ti­cal price tags on art­works shows what an un­en­light­ened mar­ket it is.

The de­sign world is no more sus­pect and per­haps a lot less. But, even though Mau’s ‘‘ process be­fore prod­uct’’ claims oth­er­wise, it can seem that much of what is be­ing pre­sented comes down to ask­ing, or se­duc­tively sug­gest­ing, that you buy some­thing.

A de­signed ob­ject, as dis­tinct from the other kind, may help you achieve an ef­fi­cient, com­fort­able, pro­duc­tive lifestyle, but it will also cost you more hard cash to own. Take the ex­am­ple of De­sign Five , a well- de­signed pub­li­ca­tion ( which is, oddly, not al­ways the case with de­sign publi­ca­tions), funded by the Queens­land Gov­ern­ment and pro­duced by an en­ter­pris­ing group called Inde­sign.

Five de­sign­ers are pro­filed, and asked about their de­sign phi­los­o­phy. This is pre­sented along- side in­for­ma­tion about re­tail out­lets; Inde­sign’s web­site says it is aimed at ‘‘ top- end con­sumers’’. In other words, it’s a nice piece of ad­ver­tis­ing, less stri­dent than most brochures, but then it doesn’t need to shout.

As Andary says, top- end de­sign recog­nises that ‘‘ there’s a whole part of the pop­u­la­tion that doesn’t care [ about de­sign] so there’s no point to pitch to them’’. In the words of ‘‘ so­cial fu­tur­ist’’ Ross Honey­will, those peo­ple ( more than half the pop­u­la­tion) are the tra­di­tion­al­ists. There’s an­other group, the new con­sumers, or ‘‘ neos’’, that Honey­will says is made up of peo­ple who pre­fer in­di­vid­u­al­ism over iden­tity with the group, and they are the ones for whom the new de­sign­ers are cre­at­ing their wares. Neos make up only 24 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion but ac­count for more than half of our dis­cre­tionary spend­ing, ac­cord­ing to the sta­tis­tics on which Honey­will re­lies.

If this sounds like the mak­ings of neosnob­bery, bod­ies such as Ob­ject are against the kind of ex­hi­bi­tion that puts an ob­ject un­der glass and thus makes it more pre­cious and de­sir­able. The trav­el­ling Freestyle show uses dis­play tech­niques that counter the fetishis­tic ten­dency of the tra­di­tional art gallery.

‘‘ The approach is fairly muse­o­log­i­cal, a lot of fram­ing and con­text, and as much about peo­ple and projects as about the projects,’’ Parkes says. ‘‘ In fact, I hope an ex­hi­bi­tion like Freestyle sits a lit­tle awk­wardly in both the mu­seum and the art con­text; slightly more mu­seum- like, but sculp­tural too, work­ing in the art par­a­digm. We for­get that a great deal of fine arts is at the level of adornment, too.’’

For the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia, where Freestyle will go next, this happy state of con­fu­sion has been the norm for some time, not just be­cause of the dec­o­ra­tive arts back­ground of its di­rec­tor, Christo­pher Menz, but per­haps also be­cause its first hon­orary cu­ra­tor in 1882, Louis Tan­ner, had been mas­ter of the school of de­sign. Harry P. Gill took up that same po­si­tion in 1892 and stayed for 17 years, hav­ing a sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence on the col­lec­tion; he had been di­rec­tor of tech­ni­cal art pre­vi­ously.

Ac­cord­ing to cu­ra­tor Robert Rea­son, even be­fore the AGSA rethought its dis­plays in the 1980s, there was a lean­ing to­wards the dec­o­ra­tive arts. By the ’ 90s, it had es­tab­lished a de­sign col­lec­tion. ‘‘ It is cer­tainly now seen as de­sir­able and trendy, but that’s a pos­i­tive thing,’’ Rea­son says. ‘‘ De­sign is en­ter­ing the de­bate more fre­quently, and there’s an au­di­ence for de­sign ex­hi­bi­tions. We’ve taken on Freestyle to recog­nise it as a na­tion­ally im­por­tant ex­hi­bi­tion.’’

Rea­son ac­knowl­edges that it’s a shift in think­ing for a state art gallery to show hand­made ob­jects as well as man­u­fac­tured goods, work that is com­mer­cially avail­able.

‘‘ Ob­jects like the ones in Freestyle don’t in­crease in value from be­ing shown in the art gallery, but peo­ple ne­go­ti­ate them dif­fer­ently,’’ he says. ‘‘ When they’re on a pedestal, un­der lights, with a la­bel, you aren’t sup­posed to touch them. There’s only a cer­tain length we can go to in terms of col­lect­ing or dis­play­ing man­u­fac­tured ob­jects. The gallery has to make cer­tain pa­ram­e­ters, to col­lect ob­jects of high artis­tic value and in­tegrity.’’ Freestyle is at the Queens­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Art Mu­seum, Bris­bane, un­til July 22, then at the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia from Au­gust 17 to Oc­to­ber 14. The Aus­tralian De­sign Awards ex­hi­bi­tion is at the Pow­er­house Mu­seum in Syd­ney, which will also host Syd­ney De­sign 07, from Au­gust 4 to 19.

De­sign of the times: Clock­wise from top left, jew­ellery by Di­nosaur De­signs; seat­ing by Kor­ban/ Flaubert; Sun­beam ce­ramic ket­tle; clever peg; stool by Zuii; and Steven Pozel, right, and Brian Parkes

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