Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

Where Art Meets Design
Lisa Marshall

“Today design rules.”1 So begins a recent review in Artforum. What happens when design rules? The collection of texts in Design and Art presents a variety of viewpoints. Alex Coles, the volume’s editor, explains that his strategy was to run practitioners’ texts alongside those by critics and historians. One of the most productive juxtapositions is Dan Graham’s “Art as Design/Design as Art” (1986) and Hal Foster’s “Design and Crime” (2002).

Graham’s essay was first published in conjunction with a 1987 exhibition of his Three Linked Cubes/Interior Design for Space Showing Videotapes (1986). His strategy of shifting works between traditional categorical boundaries is key to Graham’s long-standing investigation into the psychosocial effects of structures and systems in order to produce a Brechtian truth-telling effect. Graham’s own sculpture/furniture projects demonstrate how signification and valuation of an object depends its positioning within framing systems. Influential since the late 1960s, Graham has long implied that the autonomy of art is a conservative myth. He backs a strategy of shifting the boundaries between cultural fields to reveal a hidden truth about how culture operates.

With Claes Oldenburg’s Bedroom Ensemble (1963), Graham notes how the inclusion of mass-produced “Pollock-esque” prints within an installation resembling a furniture showroom demonstrates the reduction of abstract expressionist painting to decor. The gallery itself becomes a main focus of the work, and the staging of art is likened to the staging of products. As such, Bedroom Ensemble implies an equivalency not only between the subject as consumer of mass-produced objects and the subject as consumer of art, but also between subject and object, revealing mythical aspects of autonomy at a time when Greenbergian modernism was still dominant.

If there is any sort of utopian thread in Graham’s essay, it is in his discussion of Minimal art, where he implies that the subject might be returned to some pure, uncorrupted state through a reversal of illusions on the one hand and an awareness of an embodied phenomenological experience on the other. But overall, Graham’s position comes close to pessimism—a critical method that deconstructs art and everyday life unveiling a network of determining systems leaving no room for escape. There is truth to Graham’s revelations, but as Thierry de Duve has said, there remains a choice “the whole question being whether this is to be regretted or whether one should not instead look for the political where it actually is, where there is decisiveness without eschatology.”2

Foster argues in “Design and Crime” that some form of semi-autonomy might be a useful fiction as a mode of resistance against the spectacular dimensions of advanced capitalist society. Since a situation where there are no objective limits makes a critical position impossible, he suggests that now the separation of disciplines should be provisionally reestablished to counter the loss of disciplinary distinctions under contemporary conditions. A crucial aspect of Foster’s argument is the transformation of design with the rise of postindustrial technologies. He rightly argues that the digitization of the professions of design and architecture has profoundly changed the underlying logic of the design process. Design, once anchored in material limitations, is now easily manipulated and endlessly reiterated. As digital code, design has become an infinitely flexible system in a culture where the surface value of signs is already enormously inflated. This powerful, invasive new force is what Foster means by design. He wonders how recent changes have affected subjectivity, asking the reader, “Might this ‘designed subject’ be the unintended offspring of the ‘constructed subject’ so vaunted in postmodern culture?”

To counter such trends, Foster proposes a semi-autonomous subject who would be able to achieve some critical distance from contemporary surroundings through the meaningful discourse made possible by the “running-rooms” of disciplines. He sees the contemporary situation as a global threat affecting nearly all culture with an expansive leveling force that could dissolve any possibility of a meaningful public sphere. Foster contends that whatever has been gained through disciplinary transgression has been turned against its original political goals. Filtered through Foster, the critical effects of Graham’s disciplinary crossings lose their force.

It is tempting to place Andrea Zittel’s model of “critical optimism” in the impasse between Graham’s de-mythification of autonomy and Foster’s argument for the return of some kind of provisional autonomy. Zittel’s mid-career retrospective, Critical Space, featured Sufficient Self, a DVD projection she produced in 2004 for the Whitney Biennial. It is a diary of life at A–Z West, Zittel’s home and studio, located on her 25-acre property in Joshua Tree, California. A series of still images of desert scenes, unusual shelters and Zittel’s various quasi-functional objects are interspersed with text screens. The presentation ranges from local historical anecdotes to visits with eccentric desert dwellers and outsider artists. The result is a sort of PowerPoint presentation of American frontier individualism. Zittel introduces her “intimate universe theory,” here, suggesting that self-prescribed limitations can become empowering.

Zittel’s model of independence is said to begin with the development of a set rules, as a means of coping with the limitlessness of contemporary culture. Her own guiding principles come to set her project parameters, taking the form of an evolving list of points titled These things I know for sure. Zittel’s flexible convictions are very different from the kind of creative brief a typical market-driven design model. For example, one of Zittel’s principles reads, “All materials ultimately deteriorate and show signs of wear. It is therefore important to create designs that will look better after years of distress.” When combined with another principle promoting the practicality of surfaces that camouflage dirt, the result is Zittel’s A–Z Raugh Furniture (1998), which includes furniture-sculpture hybrids custom carved from dark-grey, high-density foam to resemble natural rock formations.

Like Graham, Zittel uses a strategy whereby objects flip between abstraction and functional purpose. She also brings underlying cultural conditions to light, but unlike Graham, Zittel’s projects often propose an alternative logic. In Coles’ Design and Art, Zittel remarks, “What we as consumers must do is to redefine our objects within the context of our own needs.” Trevor Smith, co-curator of Critical Space, suggests that the construction of limitations and ordering systems is the critical core of Zittel’s project. What art offers Zittel is a provisional space to continually remake the rules that dictate our lives. On the other hand, Zittel offers the art world a resolution of the most intractable contradictions of art production. The project appeals to its audience with an art model that allows us to have it both ways, often with a knowing wink and a dose of self-deprecating humour.

The contradictions that have emerged between mass production and custom design have led Zittel to an odd form of collaboration where she devises the structuring premise and designs the physical exterior of an object, but then she turns aesthetic control over to the owner for customization of the interior. With A–Z Escape Vehicles (1996), the metallic, minimal, clean-lined surfaces of the railer-like give way to 100 cubic feet of interior space. As a “refuge from public interaction,” the escape offered by Zittel’s wheelless vehicles is directed nowhere but inward. Since each vehicle is designed in close collaboration between producer and owner, the project caters to lingering desires for personal attention and customized luxury that were eventually displaced by industrialization.

Like Oldenburg’s Bedroom Ensemble (1963), Zittel’s installations set up a relationship between the display of art and the showroom, but with one major difference: Zittel’s critique is presented under conditions where art institutions are more often conflated with commercial space. The display of Escape Vehicles calls attention to this condition, while offering the fantasy of escape from the homogeneous terrain of business, technology, and fast-paced lifestyles. Zittel writes of the vehicles as having a “transformative function” at once physical and involving a transition from one social or psychological condition to another. She assigns a therapeutic role to her work that allows the subject to grasp autonomy—the irony is in the debased form autonomy takes here, amounting to the decoration of a 100 cubic feet of space.

Zittel’s “do-it-yourself” tone offers the possibility of constructing an identity through a more active, creative, and critical form of consumption. But Zittel’s hand-made garments seem at least as likely to be encountered in a trendy designer boutique. The once-edgy pieces have come to resemble fashion clichés where a semblance of one-of-a-kind authenticity is used to entice jaded customers back into the store. The values of originality and authenticity linger as important criteria for consumers of both designer fashion and art, but Foster’s remark that “the constructed subject so vaunted in postmodern culture” might have become the consumerist subject of fashion could serve as a timely warning against Zittel’s mode of resistance

While Zittel reveals aspects of contemporary conditions where the subject suffers a loss of coordinates, her project is questionable in terms of its promise of providing a model of a sufficient level of autonomy to resist. Her model of strong-willed independence is often reminiscent of the foundational myths of the American frontier. The A–Z fantasy of freedom is pre- sented as if it is within reach of anyone. Is A–Z West merely the supplementary flipside to Los Angeles? Might Zittel’s project ultimately contribute to the inflation of design? Or could it perform a critical function in its revelation the sets of rules undergirding art and design?

In Design and Art, Coles begins his introduction, “Anthologies on art and visual culture customarily embrace subjects or themes that are already recognized and legitimated in academic circles....Design and Art differs in that practices which are centred on the interface between design and art have not yet been afforded this legitimacy.” What could be the effects of legitimizing the trend of merging design and art? Crossing disciplines offers different possibilities, depending on timing and context. Does the contemporary exchange between art and design contribute to an overvaluation of design that feeds the fashionable obsession with self-styling? Design seems poised to attain all the surface cachet of art, but the cost of blending the two might be an overall loss of depth.

  1. Josiah McElheny. Review of the exhibition Josef Hoffmann: Interiors, 1902–1913, Neue Galerie, New York, 2007, Artforum (February 2007).
  2. Thierry De Duve, “Dan Graham and the Critique of Artistic Autonomy,” in Marianne Brouwer, ed., Dan Graham Works: 1965–2000 (Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2001).

Image: Andrea Zittel, A–Z Deserted Island, 1997. Fiberglass, wood, plastic, flotation tank, vinyl seat, and vinyl logo. One of an edition of ten. Courtesy of the Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

About the Author

Lisa Marshall is a cultural practitioner living in Vancouver. For this issue, she took on the role of art critic.

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