The lines drawn between the disciplines of art and design have often been contested by many artists, designers, architects and teachers in the past. Unfortunately, this fluidity between disciplines is still not acknowledged by art and design students alike, with each side attempting to denigrate and criticise, rather than understand, the other. Adopting a confrontational approach is counterproductive and offers little room for innovation. Art and design history is testament to how artists and designers have traversed boundaries with great ease and contributed to both fields. After all, they both share a common basic visual vocabulary that is integral to the creative process.
For example, a line may be described “as a point in motion”, an important element of design that is introduced to all students in art schools. But the line also has a history that embraces both the realms of art and design. In the 1800s, Art Nouveau was born, an art and design movement characterised by the use of clear, sinuous lines. It influenced architecture, jewellery design, glass design, posters and interior design.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a French painter of the Post-Impressionist movement but used the distinct linear quality of Art Nouveau to create posters that celebrated the nightlife of Paris. In retrospect, their style and content can be interpreted as blurring the line between fine art and design and historical document and spectacle.
Revisiting the history of art and design uncovers the role of artists who traversed boundaries of both fields to contribute great art
A flurry of designers and artists followed, who adopted variants of this aesthetic. Scottish designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh produced many watercolour paintings in the latter half of his career, but is most famously known for his Art Nouveau-inspired chair and settee designs as well as other interiors in the 1900s.
Rene Lalique, a glass and jewellery designer, used the undulating lines of Art Nouveau to fuse natural forms in nature with functionality. His brand and signature style still survives today — the glassmaker’s official website thanks “the talent of Lalique artists.” Therefore, credit goes to both fields, and functionality and aesthetics are combined to solve a problem.
Czech artist and mural painter Alphonse Mucha designed jewellery, theatre sets and did illustrations for various periodicals/magazines in the initial stage of his career. Dutch painter Piet Mondrian was a key member of the De Stijl Movement, an art movement advocating pure abstraction and simplicity. He eschewed pictorial representation and instead adopted abstract geometrical forms and lines for his paintings that are, to date, reproduced on dresses and furniture because of their pared-down forms and shapes that experiment with elements of design.
The aesthetics of early Soviet graphic design can be traced back to movements such as Constructivism and Suprematism which called for the use of simple geometric forms.
Massive mechanisation called for a new way of life and aesthetics that embodied the spirit of a new age. The Bauhaus School of Design, Architecture and Applied Arts in Germany embraced the belief that all disciplines of the arts are related. Rather than simply focusing on technical aspects of paint application and pigment-making, students were taught everything from costume design to photography. The objective was to introduce them to many mediums and disciplines. This approach has had a profound impact on both art and design education.
Bauhaus teacher and artist Joseph Albers’ seminal handbook for artists, designers and art educators, Interaction of Colour, is relevant even today for the way it explains colour theory. Jewish Hungarian artist, photographer and designer László Maholy-Nagy explained Bauhaus theory and design, which was reliant on an observation of form, function and theory in his book The New Vision, from Material to Architecture. He also produced theatre sets, made films and wrote articles.
Today, designers and architects use words like ‘sustainability’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘resilience’ as they engage with their surroundings to find viable design solutions, yet many art installations draw attention to similar themes. For example ,‘The Van Gogh Path’ by — Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde — features painted rocks that absorb energy from the sun all day and light up at night, much like the stars in Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’. Could this concept pave the way for designing roads that offer a more sustainable alternative in the future?
Installation artist Olafur Elliason’s studio team consists of art historians, designers, architects and craftsmen who work together to make his grand artistic visions a reality. In a world characterised by such multidisciplinary practices and collaborations, it is better to embrace rather than limit creative possibilities.
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 11th, 2019