Rosemary Sorensen on the delights of design
Art and commerce become blurred when designer goods enter museums, writes Rosemary Sorensen
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
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