Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

The friends of Eddie Russia


By Alex Coles, Tate, £18.99

When I was a fine art student, one of the worst things you could say about a person’s work was that it was – horror of horrors – decorative. Aiming simply for harmony or beauty was a no-no. Design in all its forms – apart from architecture – was seen as an alien pursuit and really rather superficial.

Alex Coles’s useful, well written book examines the roots of this attitude, celebrating the work of artists who move from one camp to the other or who play with the disciplinary boundaries. The Austrian architect, Adolf Loos, he tells us, has a lot to answer for by declaring war in 1908 against the degenerate effects of decoration on art, architecture and design in reaction against the running together of disciplines by the exponents of Art Nouveau. Recently Hal Foster called for the separation of media in art, approving the ‘puritanical propriety’ of Loos’ words (see Eye no. 49 vol. 13). In the opposing camp were the likes of William Morris who wanted to break down the barriers between the arts, and John Ruskin who said ‘there is no existing highest-order for art but is decorative.’ The separation of arts and sciences, and the myth of the tormented genius are also to blame.

Coles writes amusingly on the lengths artists have gone to keep their design work in the closet: Ed Ruscha adopted the name Eddie Russia for his graphics work while Don Judd played down his activities as the designer of extremely uncomfortable furniture. Andy Warhol, of course, had no such qualms.

The book focuses on four areas: pattern, interiors, furniture and architecture. Typography, graphic and book design don’t get a look in, but there is plenty of interesting discussion of, among others, the fabulous colourist Sonia Delaunay (who invented the term ‘designart’ in the 1920s); Russian Constructivist Varvara Stepanova who designed utilitarian textiles and clothes that still look fresh and funky; Bridget Riley, who Coles believes was in denial about her involvement with design; Ray Eames, who started out as a painter; and De Stijl painter Theo van Doesburg. Not surprisingly, Matisse looms large in the pattern and interiors section, while contemporary German artist Tobias Rehberger features in the furniture section with his playful (presumably unusable) furniture art pieces.

And there’s the rub. The work of most of the contemporary artists in the book – Liam Gillick, Andrea Zittel, Sylvie fleury, Sam Durant, to name but a few – is not usable in a practical sense. Few seem genuinely to be working in both camps: Takashi Murakami, who recently designed textiles for Louis Vuitton, and sculptor Jorge Pardo, who has designed houses, a pier and a gallery, are more exceptions than the rule.

Coles’s conclusion is that crossing over makes an artist’s work racier, more exciting. This may or may not be true. Is Delaunay more exciting and less limited than Riley? Perhaps it is down to something more banal, which Coles does touch upon. It is hard enough for someone to make it as an artist without then trying to become a designer as well. And vice versa. It’s a rare bird that can flit from one field to another.