text jan hoet - zimmerhoftreffen 2003
Who's afraid of the interdisciplinary approach?

Nowadays the interdisciplinary approach seems to be de rigueur. Universities are interdisciplinary, exhibitions are interdisciplinary ... And yet, many people appear to confuse the notion of the interdisciplinary approach with a mish-mash of different elements, or benefiting from the elements of one discipline which are applied in another. In this way our world looks more and more like a collage, superficial solutions which affect our imagery. Comparisons are too easily made with Gesamtkunst, but it is forgotten that Hoffman never designed a piece of furniture which he subsequently described as a work of art.
Designers all too readily consider ideas in fashion, furniture and even houses to be a-commercial or even anti-consumerist, and see them as conceptual or artistic. Admittedly, these works can survive in the context of a museum, but when they are confronted with art, the borrowed process seems like an empty gimmick.

However, design as a collective term for designers in furniture, fashion ... the artefacts of our society, has a history of borrowing.
Since it emerged at the end of the twentieth century, design has been linked with the most popular disciplines of the time.

When furniture and all everyday objects were forcibly removed from the hands of craftsmen at the end of the nineteenth century, and surrendered to machinery, the inspiration, the artistic and unique character of artefacts, disappeared for ever. Engineers created machines with which the new artefacts for mankind could be produced as cheaply as possible, and in the largest possible numbers. After thousands of years of civilisation during which every object around us had been lovingly made by hand, the world suddenly changed into a place in which our actions are mechanised in a cool and calculated way.
The Englishman William Morris (together with moralists like Ruskin) thought that the new world governed by reason and engineers was repugnant. He founded the Arts and Crafts movement, where writers, painters and craftsmen came together and created a Utopia. They brought arts and crafts together on the basis of a common creative drive. Macintosh followed in their footsteps in Glasgow, Van de Velde in Brussels, Hoffman in Vienna. This was the start of "Gesamtkunst".

The avant-garde artist looked for a new language for a universal world, Braque and Picasso with Cubism, Kandinski, Piet Mondriaan and Gerrit Rietveld, who developed a universal language which could be used in painting, furniture, houses, etc. The Rietveld char, a three-dimensional Mondriaan, admittedly became the design icon of the twentieth century, but it was never am chair to sit on in comfort.

While art rewrote its own history at a fast tempo, the arts and crafts aspect remained stuck in unavoidable functionalism...

While Morris denounced engineers, De Velde, Muthesius and Peter Behrens started to train engineers in Germany to become designers. Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies van de Rohe followed in their footsteps. While Marcel Duchamps produced his first ready-made work, Le Corbusier launched his Equipment d'habitation as tools in his living machines.

Although Le Corbusier, as well as the Bauhaus movement, wanted to speak a universal language with the objects of the modern world, there was tremendous chasm between the world of art and the world of objects. Art aims for autonomy, design for functionality.

After the Second World War the US introduced a new social phenomenon. Mass production was followed by mass consumerism, and just as the engineers determined the new industrialises world, it was the principles of marketing which were dominant from the 1950s, and the marketing principle was sacred.

While Richard Hamilton adopted an autonomous view with regard to the new social model with his "Why modern houses are so appealing", design profited from the new marketing techniques to design products which no longer had to be primarily functional, but above all, had to seduce. The most popular designer at that time, the American Raymond Loewe, wrote a bestseller: Why design should in the first place be attractive.
Furthermore, as a result of the post-war reconstruction, designers were given free rein in their activities. The American Marshall Plan yielded fruit throughout the West. Purchasing power not only increased in America, but also in Europe and Japan, and companies started to manufacture products on the American model with a single goal in mind: to seduce consumers with marketing.

This reached a highpoint in the 1960s. Ettore Sottsass and Perry King designed for Olivetti de Valentine, Willie Landers for Zanotta de Saccho, Verner Panton produced his plastic chairs... During this flourishing economic period consumers believed that the popular modern furniture and objects, in combination with the sexual revolution, assured them a new freedom.

In Italy, companies also tried to put contemporary art before this horse. Olivetti commissioned contemporary artist to produce works of art for the company and commercial marketing. One group of artists opposed this and founded the arte povera movement.

Inspired by the anti-movement of arte povera and the Punk movement in Great Britain, designers also started to oppose blind consumerism. Mendini, Branzi and Sottass founded anti-design groups which launched grandiose theories, but were never able to rid themselves of the functionalism of Bauhaus or the temptations of the 1960s. The furniture of Memphis and Alchemia tried to compete with the imagination of contemporary art. However by using the language of postmodernism they did not survive long, although the first ambitions of designers to become an autonomous artists had been born.

It was not until the 1990s that the Dutch collective, Droogdesign, started to use both the language and the processes of contemporary art, without claiming to be artists. They questioned the mass consumerism in which design had gone as far as it could. They designed products full of irony an humour, but never called them works of art.
Jurgen Bey, probably the best known "droogdesigner", broke down the connections between historical and functional aspects. Sullivan's sologan, "Form follows function", was abandoned. The new values arc: Form follows emotion, Form follows concepts, and yet the bizarre objects are still usable.

While artists often alienate found objects from their origin, Bey tells his story in the language of design.

During this hayday of contemporary art when museums arc opening their doors to the general public, and every Tom, Dick and Harry tries to understand art, design is once again teaming up with the most popular discipline of the moment. At the end of the 1990s, creativity and artistic qualities have a central place in the economic model. Taylorism does not appear to be effective. The academic approach of economics and politics undermines itself, and both companies an politicians consider that creativity is of paramount importance. Once again design is confronted with a new task: to establish the identity and personality of companies and businesses. Design not only determines the artefacts in our lives, it also determines the exteriorisation of mechanisms. In addition, is wishes to be collected in the temples of artistic and autonomous creativity: the museums.

Today we see that design is better able translate the language of abstract ideas for the masses, than art. However, this means a loss of content and significance. Design will never acquire the autonomous status of art. That is why the dream and the fear of the disciplinary approach is unfounded. Designers such as, for example, the Dutchman Job Smeets, who do not have the courage to apply the production principles inherent in design and use the language of contemporary art as a technique, will not succeed. The result is a hybrid product which is not useful, does not engage the emotions and does not lead to deeper insights. Art accesses a metaphysical emotion, and design will never be able to achieve this.

In the 1940s, Achille Castiglione applied the ready-made concept to his furniture design. He turned a tractor seat into a rocking chair. Familiar and unfamiliar elements make an impression on us, not as a metaphysical image, but as an original chair. Matali Crasset and the Bouroullec brothers are young designers who criticise the commercial success of today's mass designed products. They produce critical designs which survive as a sculptural presence in the museum context. At the same time they design products for international furniture manufacturers such as Vitra, Edra, Sony, etc.. They remain loyal to the essence of functionalism.

Interdisciplinary art does not exist. Either we are concerned with an autonomous work of art, or it is a conceptual design object. They never merge. The challenge of the interdisciplinary approach does not lie in the way in which artists and designers work, but in the way in which curators put on exhibitions today, or editors produce books and magazines. The link between art and popular culture is once again very strong, and that is why it is logical that the museums should open their doors to designers, fashion designers and jewellery designers.

Nowadays, art and design coexist side by side, they communicate, they interact, but they can never essentially compete.

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