Art or Design Conundrum?

308Jen SpinnerPaper sculpture installation by Jen Spinner.

I’m all for experimentation and blurring the design/art boundary but I am still scratching my head after having seen Come Up To My Room (CUTMR) at the Gladstone Hotel on Saturday night.

The website describes it as: “an alternative design show focusing on the diverse practices that live outside the norms of “traditional” art and design: i.e. multidisciplinary, independent, and self-taught.” I am confused by this explanation. My question after seeing the exhibit is this: does alternative design mean art?

Some of the installations were quite spectacular, like the tiny fire escapes by Jen Spinner which were cut from paper and adhered to the wall. The light and shadow play was breathtaking and the precision of the work was truely incredible.

One wonderful room, by Amanda McCavour, housed all the usual suspects: backpack and runners tossed on the floor, chairs, desk… These typical, everyday items were delicately illustrated with a sewing machine and thread – almost like a spider had spun them.

There was one performance piece by Derek Liddington, where 2 men wearing jeans, white t-shirts and black and white photocopies of Andy Warhol’s face tied to their heads walked slowly into their room and moved 4 flimsy white frames and a book on post modern writing around the room. The frames were left precariously balanced together. Visitors to the room wondered how they were not falling over. The artist statement reads: A group of objects arranged by the artist while considering the aesthetic and compositional arguments of minimalism, formalism, postmodernism and conceptual art.

Are these pieces considered design? And if so can someone explain to me how?

R.M. Vaughan wrote the article entitled Don’t expect Decorating 101 at the Gladstone for the Globe and Mail and said “The line between what constitutes art and what is considered design has always been more of a wiggly noodle than a straight arrow. It’s a porous border, if a border at all. Each discipline feeds off the other, despite the
crowing of purists. The Gladstone Hotel’s annual Come Up to My Room exhibition, now in its eight year, has always been a challenge for both camps, a wonderfully bratty snubbing of conventions held too dear.” I wouldn’t call myself a purist and I agree that art and design feed off each other but I do not believe that this is an exhibition of alternative design. I went thinking that I would be seeing clever reinterpretations of functional objects. Instead I saw temporary art installations within a unique space with a few token pieces of design along the way such as the sunglass chandaliers.

There has always been some friction between the art and design worlds which I will not delve into now. I, personally, don’t have a favourite amongst the two. I love, appreciate and work with both forms of communication. Even with the design world there is the age old argument of form following function or function following form. But function is the key word in this argument. A stool or a light fixture, in contrast to a performance piece or a miniature paper fire escape, has a specific function beyond aesthetics and commentary. You may not be able to draw a straight arrow between art and design, as Vaughn said, but I think it is a bit more defined than a “wiggly noodle.”

– I wrote this blog post for SOS Design Inc.