What exactly is the difference between art and design?
The M+ Collections are separated into three categories: visual art, design and architecture, and moving image. These categorisations can be useful; however, often, the boundaries between them are blurred. How, then, can we define whether something is an ‘artwork’ or a ‘design object’?
First of all, let’s quickly go over some of the traditional differences between art and design:
- Design is functional, art is not.
- Design solves a problem, art expresses a feeling or idea.
- Design objects are mass-produced, artworks are unique.
- Design is objective, art is subjective.
Think of some of the artworks or design objects you’re familiar with. You’ll probably find that you can slot many of them neatly into these two categories—but you might also find examples that poke holes in this art/design boundary.
The exhibition Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint, currently on display at the M+ Pavilion, is an excellent space for exploring the art/design boundary. Isamu Noguchi was one of the leading artists and designers of the twentieth century. He created an extremely wide range of works, including industrial design objects and sculptures in stone, metal, and other materials. He easily moved across the boundaries of artistic disciplines, and many of his works on display in the exhibition play with this blurred boundary between art and design.
Let’s look at some examples from the exhibition to better understand this boundary, and how Noguchi played with or subverted it.
Black and Blue (Interior Landscape) vs Prismatic Table
Let’s start with a juxtaposition between an object that can perhaps unambiguously be seen as an artwork, versus one that can unambiguously be seen as a design object.
There’s no doubt that Black and Blue (Interior Landscape), seen on the left, is a sculpture. It can be interpreted in multiple ways: as Dakin Hart writes in the Counterpoint exhibition booklet, it is ‘figure and table, column and base, sculpture and pedestal, building and foundation, tree and rock, mountain and plain’. Meanwhile, on the right, there are a couple of Noguchi’s black Prismatic Tables, which can be bought from the furniture company Vitra, and which are clearly design objects with their primarily functional role.
The interesting link between these two, however, is that they are made out of the same materials under the instructions of Noguchi. In fact, Noguchi was inspired to create Black and Blue (Interior Landscape) after he created the Prismatic Table.
While the two objects were created for different purposes, the similarities in their materials and designs make them more ambiguous than we might previously have thought.
Noguchi saw his collapsible paper-and-bamboo Akari lamps as sculptures that anyone can own. Straight away, from this intention, the line between sculpture and furniture is blurred. Noguchi designed more than two hundred unique Akari designs, not counting the possible combinations of bases and shades, with the basic theory of turning a lamp into a fully autonomous sculpture.
The different models of Akari lamps on view in the Counterpoint exhibition space also demonstrate different levels of ambiguity. The hanging lamp on the left, Akari 16A, is a lantern that can easily be used as a piece of furniture. In contrast, the larger lamp on the right, Akari 21N, is very large, and, due to its size and shape, not actually that functional, acting more like a sculpture than a floor lamp.
Bamboo Basket Chair
Bamboo Basket Chair never went into production. It was made to promote old technologies and Japanese crafts, designed by Noguchi together with industrial designer Kenmochi Isamu, who worked with promoting and improving Japanese craft. Chairs made of bamboo and rattan, often in combination with iron, were commonplace in mid-1900s design; this chair, however, really stretches the material capabilities of bamboo in its design.
Given that it never became a model of mass-produced furniture (beyond the examples fabricated for exhibitions), and was made to express an idea and reinvent an aesthetic tradition, we can once again question whether this seemingly obvious design object can in fact be separated from the realm of ‘artwork’.
Enzo Mari’s self-design
Let’s end on a different approach to the question of what design is, also found in the exhibition: the influence of Italian artist and furniture designer Enzo Mari.
Enzo Mari, who was both an artist and designer, created a book in 1974 called Autoprogettazione, meaning ‘self-design’. The book encouraged people to make their own furniture using readily available timber and equipment. The word ‘design’ here is misleading: instead of creating functional objects, Mari intended the self-design to be an exercise carried out to individually improve one’s own personal understanding of the object. The end result was functional, but it was only important because of the educational value of the process.
Artist Danh Vo was inspired by Mari when creating the colourful plinths that many of the objects in the Counterpoint exhibition sit on. While gallery plinths are usually white and wooden, made to disappear beneath the objects, Vo uses Mari’s approach to create his own plinths that turn them from simply functional objects into visual objects in their own right.
So, what is the difference between art and design? While we can make a list of differences and understand the connotations of the categories, it’s perhaps more interesting to embrace that there are no characteristics that can fully separate artworks from design objects.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories.