May 2, 2008

Signs of Design

Twenty-first century design seems impossible to define, not least because the word “design” covers such a wide variety of objects and practices. While the idea is daunting, I thought it worth attempting a preliminary mapping of twenty-first century design in an American context. What follows in an initial mapping of contemporary design via three loose categories: Design-Art, Design For All, and Undesign. For the purposes of brevity, I am focusing on product/industrial design objects – tangible, material objects that are created, consumed and understood to be design objects – although for my purposes, their image and context may be as important as their materiality. This brief survey is by no means intended to be comprehensive but is intended instead as a reconceptualization of contemporary design beyond conventional categorizations. As the entries were getting quite long, I will post this as three separate entries over the next few weeks rather than one long one. Comments are welcome.

Design-Art: Destined For A White Cube

In recent years, the term design-art (with or without the hyphen) has been used to describe limited-edition design objects which are ultimately destined for life in a museum or gallery. Recently, rarefied, limited-edition pieces of furniture have started appearing in contemporary art galleries where they are exhibited in the same neutral spaces as paintings, sculptures and installation art. In his classic essay on the white cube, Brian O’Doherty characterised the modernist art gallery as a supposedly neutral space, without impediments or distractions, a space emptied of everything but the artwork itself (see O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space, expanded edition by Uni of California Press, 2000; read the original 1976 essay here). Perhaps more than art, design is decontextualised by placing it in such a white space – a chair is taken from its place at the table, in the office or café, and becomes an object of reflection. In 2007, for example, Marc Newson exhibited tables, chairs and shelving cut from single marble blocks at Gagosian Gallery in New York (image below), while in the same year at the Albion Gallery in London, Fernando and Humberto Campana had two exhibitions of their limited-edition furniture, one of which featured their plush toy-upholstered Cartoon Chairs. What effect does this contemporary art context have on our understanding of 21st century design?

Newson’s association with Gagosian is worth further examination. At Gagosian, Newson’s furniture (yes, it’s design not art, we are assured in the publicity) is shown in a context with artists such as Jeff Koons, Richard Serra, Julian Schnabel and Richard Artschwager. In the same space the following year, Artschwager’s Minimalism-meets-Memphis sculptures posed as functional tables (yes, it’s art not design, we are assured in the publicity). Unfortunately, such comparisons inevitably lead to dead-end clichés such as “these objects display the blurring of boundaries between art and design”. We need to go further.

While Alessi’s sculptural household objects of the 1980s can be seen as recent forerunners of such design-art, with Newson’s furniture, the context has shifted from high-end department stores to contemporary art galleries. Within the white cube, design is understood as the creation of discrete, autonomous objects intended for contemplation, whose ultimate destination is inevitably a museum or a wealthy collector’s loft. Furthermore, the designer is characterized as a singular creative genius whose inspired and singular vision transcends everyday reality and whose creative products are worthy of prolonged contemplation. Rare objects of design-art are instantly collectable, and for this reason, there seems no difference between Marc Newson’s marble chair and a limited edition table sculpture by Richard Artschwager.

When I hear the word design, I get out my checkbook

With the rapid expansion of the market in contemporary design-art in the last decade, the prices of the Newson chair and the Artschwager sculpture may well be similar. Marc Newson’s limited edition Lockheed Lounge (or LC1 Chaise Longue, image below) is a case in point. First exhibited in Rosyln Oxley’s art gallery in Sydney in 1986, a Lockheed Lounge (one of the limited edition of 10) sold at auction in 2000 for just $105 000. It was then sold again at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $968 000, while another Lounge was sold in October 2007 at Christie’s (via London’s Frieze Art Fair) for $1.5 million. While such figures continue to grab headlines, design-art’s image certainly affects our understanding of what contemporary design is.

While the rare object of design-art remains an object of differentiation for cosmopolitan, design-saavy and market-saavy collectors, authentication by prominent museums is required to first elevate, then maintain, its value. Museums and galleries, as the other major collectors of design-art, also have a vested interest in maintaining the value of their investments, primarily through exhibitions, image reproduction and publications. As limited-editions, design-art objects increase their value through media reproduction. Indeed, if modern designers in the early 20th century were concerned with mass production, contemporary design-artists of the 21st century are concerned with mass media reproduction – the image of the design object needs to be repeated endlessly in design journals, books, websites and advertising. In this process of collection and image circulation, design-art is effectively stripped of any relationship with society, politics, or sustainability, to become overwhelmingly associated with aesthetics and/or technological experimentation.

Further connections to the mass media are established by events such as Design Miami and its attendant celebrity circus. Design-art and the cult of celebrity go hand-in-hand, as evidenced by Newson’s Lockheed Lounge rocketing to fame under Madonna in the film clip for her 1993 hit, Rain (see the film clip here). Finally, design-art operates in the same image world as recent iconic buildings by globe-trotting starchitects – in this context, 21st design-art and starchitecture function primarily as a means of distiction for a particular cosmopolitan class. By means of the sheer volume of reproductions in journals and books, its legitimation and promotion by major museums, and its celebrity magnetism, design-art has the potential to drown out all other conceptions of what contemporary design is.

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