Damon Taylor completed his BA in The History of Design and the Visual Arts in 1993 at Staffordshire University and received a Master’s Degree in Cultural Studies from Leeds University in 1995. He is an active writer, performer and teacher and his research interests include the study of commodity aesthetics, the cultural history of pub interiors, the interplay between art and design in consumer culture and the development of Design Art in contemporary furniture practice.
Damon Taylor is currently engaged in a doctoral research project at iRes where he investigates why contemporary designers are creating functional objects which aspire to the condition of art.
This research aims to ask questions about our relationship to objects and the way in which we experience things as elements in a network of memory and meaning. It questions the nature of the art object and seeks to understand how it can exist within the practices, protocols and inter-relationships of everyday life.
This research project takes as its central subject of study developments in European furniture design since the early 1990’s. The suggestion is that the work of designers such as Jurgen Bey, Jan Konings, Maarten Baas and Dunne and Raby represent a new approach to furniture design which sees the production of ‘proposals’ and numbered limited editions which are effectively presented as art pieces. These then can be considered ‘functional’ objects the primary function of which is to communicate, critique and stimulate dialogue rather than seat diners or support tea cups.
That this trend has developed concurrently with the rapid expansion of consumer capitalism as a condition of modernity would not seem to be a coincidence. Central to the investigation is an examination of the way in which material culture, from everyday things to art objects, constitute and depend upon particular constructions of subjectivity.
The idea that functional everyday objects communicate is of course not new, nor is the suggestion that design or the applied arts can be the equal of the fine arts. It must also be recognised that avant-garde designers have often created pieces which were meant to operate primarily as pieces to illustrate an idea or suggest a direction. What is of interest is the convergence of art and design practice through what may be described as conceptual design, relational aesthetics and DesignArt (1), in a period of consumerist materialism when even everyday things appear as objects with ‘attitude’(2).
The objective of this study is to attempt to understand the practice of producing design as a form of art, set in a cultural and political context in which designed objects are perceived to already posses a form of auratic power.
Direct discussion of the interplay between art and design has tended to centre upon DesignArt, the extent to which art relies upon design and absorbs its approaches and usages in the construction of that which is self consciously presented as art to an art world(3). Bourriard’s attempts to write what he has designates as ‘relational aesthetics’ into art history depends upon the importance of everyday objects but does little to explicitly consider where these might come from or how their significance is coded and constructed before they are appropriated and co-opted into art’s totalising vocabulary (4). In the work of critics such as Gareth Williams and certainly in the writings and statements of the designers themselves there can be seen a developing discourse of the designed object as art object, but this is yet to attacked head on as a direct theoretical question.
It seems clear that such an investigation will depend upon an examination of the nature and functioning of the disciplinary boundaries of art and design. When Maarten Baas produces numbered editions of his work and claims he does not ‘recognise boundaries’ he is clearly positioning series such as Where there’s smoke into the discourse of art, even though they may then go into batch production. Art, however, tends to function in very particular contexts, that of the gallery, the sale room and the museum. Much contemporary art would be difficult to install in a domestic setting, yet design which is created to function as art makes certain implicit claims as to its place in life as it is lived. By creating works which insist on their status as furniture (that is to say by retaining a certain discourse of functionality) this approach resolutely positions itself in a setting of the everyday and on the level of day to day living. Dunne and Raby are producing conceptual pieces that relate to the possible ways that we interact with the world, in this way their practice can be seen as a commentary on the many possible interactions we have with objects – taking objects, behaviour and context as dynamic elements that interact in the formation of everyday life(5). Therefore we may ask the extent to which design that aspires to the conditions of art without renouncing its status as design can give insights into material forms that shape our lives and the physical residues of being? Is it that by insisting on these pieces being seen as operating as design we begin to see the development of an art which demands its place in everyday life, or is this simply another exclusive and excluding approach to art and design?
Functional objects, at their most basic level can be said to represent the physical manifestation of behaviours. Any study of functional objects must be a study of their functioning, how and why they are used and what they are believed to mean. This is because these objects and proposals which are created as a form of ‘design-art’ are distinctive because of their claims to use – they become political in their suggestions about how we may live. Such lines of enquiry will then lead on to a discussion of the relationship between theory and practice in the production of work which makes claims to be design whilst operating in contexts traditionally ascribed to art.
(1) This is a term coined by Alex Coles in his book DesignArt to describe art which depends upon the usages and discourses of design. See: Coles, A. DesignArt , Tate Publishing ( London , 2005)
(2) Gareth Williams in his survey of furniture design since 1990 designates Judy Attfield's concept of ‘things with attitude' as a key methodological tool in understanding ‘design-heavy, highly visible' and charged objects that stand out against the sea of ‘everyday things'. The suggestion here is that everyday objects can actually be seen to have this perceived power and weight. Williams, G. The Furniture Machine: Furniture Design Since 1990 , V&A Publications ( London , 2006) p. 6
(3) See Coles, A. DesignArt , Tate Publishing ( London , 2005)
(4)See Bourriard, P. Relational Aesthetics, Les Press du reel ( Paris , 2002)
(5)Marco Susani, Director Domus Academy Research Centre, said of one Dunne and Raby project: "The objects from Weeds, Aliens and other Stories are really dealing with life. The life of the objects themselves, the life that they collect (sounds, smells, growth), and the life that we can easily imagine around them." ( www.dunneandandraby.com Accessed 02.12.07)