Design and art have an uneasy relationship. In the eyes of some, design reduces art to lifestyle, if not a mere decorative accessory. Consider the criticisms of the design elements that are part of art works associated with Relational Aesthetics – whether the beanbag chairs in a reading area or the bowls used to serve Pad Thai.
But for others, design is one strand in the many crossovers of the 1990s, a decade that brought a definitive end to the purity of media and professions. Why shouldn’t artists design buildings, magazines, clothes, lamps, chairs or typefaces? Yet, however blurry, the distinction between art and design is still made – they are, after all, still separate professions. But there used to be a time when the two realms were even less discrete than they are today.
For many centuries God was considered the only creator, designer and artist. Cabinets of curiosities – the privately assembled Renaissance collections that preceded the public museum – reflected this divine totality by pairing, say, a portrait with a gilded chalice made from a seashell, among many other wondrous objects. While the difference between such collectibles was understood, from the 18th century on it took the stately public museum to separate them into fine art and decorative design collections.
The Italian word disegno – which means both ‘plan’ and ‘drawing’ – also reflected this divine totality during the Renaissance while suggesting that artists were part of the divine plan, if not collaborators with a God-given genius. That proximity can be heard in other languages, such as the French dessein (plan) and dessin (drawing). Or in the painter Pierre Monier’s remarkable treatise Histoire des arts qui ont un rapport au dessein (History of the arts that have a relation to design, 1698).
For Monier, God – ‘the author of the dessein of the human figure’ – was the first designer and artist. After God came Noah, who practised the arts of maritime architecture and geometry. Monier continues through the Bible, antiquity and French history up to his own time. While it’s difficult to distinguish between art and design in his treatise, it’s clear that art was not only about drawing or painting but also included practices such as architecture, which is associated today with design, and skills such as geometry, which is now considered a branch of mathematics.
Ironically, presenting art and design as a single continuum – the divine plan with the artistic sketch – was intended to elevate artists above craftsmen and manual labourers. Praising an artist’s designs was not only a compliment in the Renaissance but also a way to distinguish art from other trades. Even among artists, design was used to establish another hierarchy – namely, in the great debate that pitted disegno against colorito (colouring).
In short, Michelangelo stood for the design of drawing with an inventive and intellectual side, while Titian stood for the colouring of painting through a direct imitation of nature. Proponents of disegno depicted colorito as a mere mimetic skill – not as a creative process akin to divine creation. Today we consider both Michelangelo and Titian to be great artists, not great designers or mere technicians.
Designing buildings – as Michelangelo did – would eventually require independent training in architecture, separate from the fine arts of drawing, painting and sculpture. Other creators – who fashioned furniture, carved violins or even gilded those seashell chalices – would begin to see their creations classified below art in the ‘lower’ realms of decorative design and crafts. Ultimately, design lost its status as the divine plan was overtaken by the force of secular history, as monarchs were replaced by governments and curiosity cabinets were turned into museums with distinct collections and histories. Of course, it’s easier to read history if objects of the same kind – or the same medium – are displayed together. The portrait and the seashell chalice tell a different story to a gallery filled with paintings from a single historical period.
The most profound distinction between design and art was articulated not by Italian Renaissance artists but by Immanuel Kant, who could be considered the father of modern design. If modern designers have long yearned to unite form and function – beauty and use – it’s because Kant split them apart. In his Kritik der Urteilskraft (Critique of Judgement, 1790) he argued that a presentation could be judged beautiful only if the judge’s pleasure was disinterested. By contrast, a presentation that satisfied a personal interest or fulfilled a practical use could not be deemed ‘beautiful’ but merely ‘agreeable’.
Kant’s hierarchy between the beautiful and the agreeable reflected the elevation of artists above other craftspeople, and the superiority of the portrait over the seashell chalice. Moreover, Kant split the practical object itself: between its beautiful decoration and its agreeable use. Every designer since has tried to put the parts back together again.
In light of this history, the resurgence of this uneasy pair – art and design – seems to manifest another shift: perhaps one away from history, governments and museums as we have understood them since the 19th century and towards another societal configuration of events, people and objects. Before this configuration can be named, it has to be created. And certainly creativity is what artists and designers share, whatever their differences.