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.