Is Design Art?

Lately I have been pondering the relationship between design – such as object design, fashion design and architecture – and plain old straight up art for art’s sake. Last week’s opening of Portraits & Architecture at the National Portrait Gallery pushed this dormant concern back into the forefront of my mind. Are art and design simply variations on a theme, or are they two completely separate facets of human creativity?

I myself subscribe to the latter view, believing that although design is undeniably an art, it is not art. This is because I believe that what makes art such a strange and wonderous phenomenon is the fact that artwork in itself serves no actual purpose.

Yes it occupies space and invites contemplation, yes it plays to our emotions and encourages thought and debate, but when all is said and done it doesn’t actually do anything. By this I mean it isn’t intended to be eaten, lived in, used for transport, worn or wielded. This is where design comes into play, bringing beauty and interest to that which is practical and directed towards a designated purpose.

Take for example a unique, handcrafted chair – the only one of its kind constructed by its maker. Although its form may be challenging and inventive, probably pleasing to the eye, it is ultimately fixed to its intended purpose, ie: that it could conceivably be sat on (even if no-one ever does). Being that art knows no such bounds, can a chair, or any other useful object, ever really share that definition?

Inherently I believe art is useless, and design is useful. To say art is useless is not in fact negative – its very uselessness is what makes it so amazing that it exists at all, let alone commands a massive global industry.

Can art and design ever reconcile in an exhibition such as that at the NPG? I’m not yet convinced, but would love to hear if you believe otherwise.



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  1. Hey, I found your blog while fixing Talbets, he links to you for the review of his show.
    I was waiting to run into you to share these thoughts, but they’re slipping from my mind…

    This article in particular caught my eye because I do a lot of design work and I’m influenced by a lot of art, I like to think I have an artistic perspective in my design, but I wouldn’t call myself an artist. I don’t know if its clearly because design ‘does stuff’ that its not art, there’s also an intention for design to be pleasing, its more focused on the consumer than being an expression of the creator – if the two come together, its good design, but if it has the expressive qualities but is not accepted by the intended audience, its just bad design.
    Design is rarely made to insult or provoke people, if it did people might call it art.

    Generally I agree though its a contradictory equation but:
    art does not equal design, design = art + use, yet art > design.

    I saw this on the wall of the MCA Chicago, its a Richard Buckminster Fuller quote. Ironically this was while the Olafur Eliasson show was there too. I saw it in Sydney on the weekend and was more whelmed than you, but it was much bigger in Chicago, more space and no lego.

    A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.

    I think that sums it up for me too.

    Also wanted to mention that I really appreciated the stuff you wrote about Talbet, it was a great work but I had seen it at various stages of development and knew too much about it technically to see it the way you did. Its nice to be reminded how wonderful things are when you’re too familiar to notice.


  2. Ah so many interesting questions raised here TK!! Particularly when you say ‘Design is rarely made to insult or provoke people, if it did people might call it art.’ because I feel that provocative design is far more readily accepted by the mainstream than provocative art.
    My brain is running on overtime… 🙂


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