Can design be art? What if no one knows the difference?

  
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A Thomas Struth photography and Studio Olgoj Chorchoj’s Illuminated Cross as seen at Independent 2010. 

Those that represent designers and their objects often find themselves talking about intention, concept and context as if the works are indeed art, though functional.  That said, it is seldom the case that outsiders view those works thru the lens of art as a default, where the conventional hierarchy of objects is completely ignored.

We recently exhibited at Independent, the “anti-fair” staged in the former-Dia building in Chelsea during Armory Week in early March.  As the only “design” gallery to do so, we didn’t know what to expect from our first formal foray into the art world.  We presented a curated exhibition of art and design pairings via a collaboration by our gallery and Westrich-Wagner.  The pairings of objects, both arbitrary and subjective, were thoughtfully chosen to accentuate a dialogue between objects, as it often happens in the home of a collector, ie: boy does that Calder mobile look great over the Nakashima!  A monumental Gaetano Pesce vase stood next to a Josh Smith palette painting on an easel.  A large Sterling Ruby towered over a Julia Lohman table.  A Nymphenburg raven stood watch over Larry Clark’s Tulsa (the artist was appreciative of the juxtaposition!).

Yes, our goal was to exhibit objects nicely so we could make some sales; but we had ulterior motives-to officially ignore the categorization of objects.   There were no wall labels, no signs, no stickers.  To ascertain the identity of a work, one needed to speak to a gallerist.  Otherwise, everyone was on their own; and the results were surprising. The conversations that took place throughout the days of the fair were, with few exceptions, completely open to the possibility that all the objects in the room were works of art. Collectors, curators, advisors, students and various civilians engaged with us in a process of exploration-of working through the collision of ideas.  The word “design” was rarely spoken, and even less so, “function”; instead words like process, material, surface, form, identity and transformation were overheard from all corners of the booth.

But the most interesting interaction that took place was with a couple that had come into Manhattan on the Sunday, for a day on the town.  Somehow they ended up in Chelsea and wandered wide-eyed into our space.  Eventually, their question, of course, was, “Why is that art?”  But they weren’t referring to the Ruby or Smith, or even the Christopher Wool or Robert Gober.  They were scratching their heads at a Campana Brothers Multidao Banquete.  And the response to their question? “I’m glad you asked.”
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