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14 Feb 2019 / by Ellen Oredsson

What’s the Difference Between Art and Design?

Chair standing in a gallery space with white walls, viewed through a hole in in a stone sculpture. The chair has a rounded seat and backrest made out of wood and bamboo woven in a basket technique. The armature and legs are made out of elegantly bent iron rods.

Noguchi’s Bamboo Basket Chair in the M+ Pavilion. Photo © M+, Hong Kong

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

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows a sculpture consisting of a large, vertical, curved piece of blue aluminium. Three small square shapes and a half-moon shape are cut into it. In front of the blue aluminium is a smaller piece of flat black aluminium shaped like a low stool, but held up by being bent straight downward rather than having legs. A small circle is cut into its top. The image on the right shows this sculpture in a gallery space, silhouetted against a large window with white curtains. In the foreground are two tables shaped like footstools, with three triangular legs each.

Left: Isamu Noguchi, Black and Blue (Interior Landscape), 1958–59 (fabricated 1979–80), aluminium, electrostatic paint, polyurethane paint. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photo by Kevin Noble

Right: the Prismatic Tables in the M+ Pavilion. Photo © South Ho

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.

Two black tables standing on the floor shaped like footstools, each composed by three pieces of folded aluminum sheets with three triangular legs.

Noguchi's Prismatic Tables in the M+ Pavilion. Photo © South Ho

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.

Akari lamps

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows a small paper lamp hanging from the ceiling. It is a slightly asymmetrical oval shape. It hangs above a round wooden plinth carrying a tall bronze sculpture shaped like an abstracted animal with two heads and three legs, and a smaller rock-like sculpture. The image on the right shows a large, lit, rounded paper lamp on four narrow iron legs standing in a gallery space.

Left: Installation view of Noguchi’s Akari 16A, 1952, paper, bamboo, metal. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photo © South Ho

Right: Installation view of Noguchi’s Akari 21N, 1968, paper, bamboo, metal. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS

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.

A large, lit, rounded paper lamp on four narrow iron legs stands in a gallery space, surrounded by a small crowd of people.

Installation view of Akari 21N in the M+ Pavilion. Photo © M+, Hong Kong

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

Chair with a rounded seat and backrest made out of wood and bamboo woven in a basket technique. The armature and legs are made out of  elegantly bent iron rods.

Isamu Noguchi, Bamboo Basket Chair, designed 1950, made 2010, Shioji wood, bamboo, and iron, M+, Hong Kong. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum

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

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows an abstract white sculpture made out of smooth, twister alabaster. It sits on a round wooden plinth covered in orange fabric. The image on the right shows a small sculpture made out of a narrow piece of stone sitting on a small metal plinth, which in turn sits on a larger, round wooden plinth. The top of the wooden plinth is covered in yellow fabric.

Two of Danh Vo’s plinths inspired by Enzo Mari in the exhibition. Photographs: © South Ho

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.

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