Design: just a flush in the pan?
Last month two very strange things happened: in a poll of 500 art experts, Marcel Duchamp’s famously displaced urinal was heralded as the most significant work of art of the twentieth century; while a week later, Philippe Starck succeeded in attracting over 500 international ‘VIPs’ to the unveiling of his latest monstrous work of markitecture: a new X-rated sanitary range and a three-storey lavatory pan embedded in the facade of Duravit’s new Starck-designed design centre in Hornberg. So, what’s going on? Are people taking design formalism too seriously? Has a pile of porcelain cubes and basins got anything in common with the work of Brancusi? Or, are Starck’s visual associations as precarious as the sculptor’s vertical totems?
Fortunately, even Philippe Starck is not pretentious enough to oversell his latest series of iconic dreams. Having designed the Duravit building in just half an hour, he has little to prove as a professional dreamer. His work is, he says, neither architecture or design, choosing instead to present his philosophy as part of a mission to kill the dark side of design: elitism. Unfortunately however, despite his own reluctance to overstate the significance of his work, the sycophantic questioning and posturing about the form of his latest sanitary range by members of the international design press would indicate that certain sections of the so-called elitist design world are very, very confused; design and style have always shared a thin boundary, however, over-popularizing design into something merely visual cheapens a discipline that at its best derives beauty from a rigorous and intellectually robust series of processes and decisions. The tendency to judge design purely on its immediate visual impact is, it seems, increasingly prevalent. As well as being ever-present in lifestyle catalogues and in shop windows, sexed-up designer crazed curators have more recently permeated some of our most respected art and cultural institutions. Public disputes at London’s Design Museum, for example, has led to speculation that Terence Conran will follow James Dyson by lodging his resignation due to internal curatorial disputes, while last year’s exhibition at the V & A, Zoomorphic, was a disappointing and ridiculous attempt to oversimplify similarities between architecture and nature. Norman Foster, I would contest, was not thinking about the flow of oxygen through coral when 30 St Mary Axe was conceived, any more than Will Alsop was thinking of Tunicates when designing the Rotterdam Central scheme; even the exhibition captions made a mockery of their thesis when describing Alsop’s faceted goblets, that ‘by chance these objects also resemble marine Invertebrates’–And? Your point is?
If institutions seek to increase public accessibility to previously so-called elitist subjects, the least they can do is give the popular-public credit for having more intelligence. Oversimplifying the discipline of design will not broaden the appeal of a subject. Instead ideas will be diluted, essential boundaries blurred, and greater confusion and scepticism of how design can really add quality and value will emerge.
Duchamp certainly changed the course of art, and challenged the way we view everyday objects. Formal beauty is now celebrated in even the most utilitarian objects. However, having obligations far beyond those of the pure arts (fine, abstract and installation art alike), architecture and design should never be judged on appearances alone. Two exhibitions are currently tackling this complex issue, questioning the relationship between design and art: ArchiSculpture–curated by the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, and Design [not equal to] Art, curated by the Cooper-Hewitt Design Musuem in New York. But, have they succeeded where others have failed to say something new?
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