Art or Industrial Design?

Collector Harald Falckenberg believes that “good design has to hurt to be noticed.” Bauhaus versus Memphis – the contrast could not be starker. Midcentury furniture is very popular with design enthusiasts today. At that time, exceptional pieces did not cost anywhere near the sums that are paid today at vintage furniture dealers and design auctions. Prices for rare design objects are approaching those of high-caliber works of art. Marc Newson’s “Lockheed Lounge,” a 1988 chaise longue from an edition of 10, fetched 2015 around £ 2.5 million at Phillips auction house in London. The leather “Dragon Chair” (1919) by Art Deco icon Eileen Gray even fetched an incredible 22 million euros at auction in 2009. When such prices turn a piece of furniture into a financial investment, it is not the designer who becomes an artist but a design object that becomes a status symbol.

In recent years, the two disciplines of art and design have steadily converged. Experimental “limited editions” have contributed to this. However, experts from both camps continue to debate their classification. Arguably, design objects of this kind could be described as applied art, referring to their artistic form of expression. In 2009, the NRW-Forum in Düsseldorf showed an exhibition entitled “UFO: Border Crossings between Art and Design.” There, art and design presented themselves democratically side by side, deliberately without classification. In between, quotes from protagonists of the respective disciplines respond to the question: “What is your definition of design?” The designer Konstantin Grcic answered: “An artist sees himself as an artist who produces art. We are, I think, all designers and see ourselves as designers, and what we produce is ‘design,’ whether it’s produced just once, like a one-off, or ten thousand times.”

Design in the classical sense has always moved between technical and artistic design. If you move the design object, a chair sculpture, for example, from the “white cube” into the living room, you can sit on it. In contrast, art does not fulfill a concrete task but has a purely decorative or intellectual claim. The art theorist and critic Ad Reinhardt, who died in 1976, held the opinion: “art is art. Everything else is everything else.” One could leave it up to experts, journalists, and collectors to decide how they want to classify a particular work or object. So there is no clear-cut answer to the question “art or design?”