Winter 2008

Ceci n’est pas une exposition

On Purpose: Design Concepts

Arnolfini, Bristol 13 September – 9 November 2008

Constraints, Charles Eames was once quoted as saying, are the factors that shape design more than any other. Can purpose be seen as the ultimate constraint within design, and does this differentiate design from art? The ‘On Purpose’ exhibition explores these questions, and challenges the contention that design even has a specific purpose.

Books, their use and presumably purpose, are high on the show’s agenda. Common Knowledge, by Will Holder, is a set of shelves replicating his own set-up, containing his own books, which can be picked up, read and borrowed for two weeks. Daniel Eatock’s Counter Balance Shelves have only single brackets, so are held up by objects from the Arnolfini collection; his Book Circle is a spiral sculpture made by standing books up by the spine and allowing the pages to fan out around a central core.

Other exhibits include Yuri Suzuki’s Soundchaser, which investigates the generation and playback of sound, by ‘playing’ repurposed vinyl record, and Sound Jewellery, a collaboration between Linda Brothwell and Caren Hartley, that translates sound into etched formats on bracelets which can be made and purchased as part of the installation. Droog Design’s Do Hit Chair is a seating design by Marijn van der Poll: a steel cube that initially resembles a minimalist sculpture, until hit with a mallet (supplied) to create ‘the preferred shape for sitting on’.

There are 26 works exploring themes of purpose over two floors of the gallery, including an article within Frieze magazine and adverts in other magazines, all available to view in the bookshop; crockery in the café bar; a film, screened behind the front desk every 30 minutes; and pieces within the Reading Room, plus the show’s website.

The gallery blurb explains that many of the designs are anti-aesthetic, experimenting with function as opposed to form, and therefore the results are often unglamorous and with little function. It is now 91 years since Duchamp put a urinal on display as a ‘Fountain’, and the concept of what is and what isn’t what – which Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (‘Ceci n’est pas un pipe’) questioned 80 years ago – is pushed to the limit on a daily basis, through almost every media format. The idea that pieces can combine different functions or create new functions is also a ‘ready-made’ concept and hardly pushing either visual or intellectual boundaries.

An audience discovering these themes for the first time may find the exhibition interesting, if not necessarily convincing. However, the definition of the show is more contentious than the work on display, so maybe the idea of the show is the show itself, the design purpose in question the exhibition’s own.

Top: Visitors to ‘On Purpose’ bash Droog Design’s 2000 Do Hit Chair with a mallet to create the shape of seating they prefer. Photograph of Carl Newland.

Robin Richmond, designer, Bath

First published in Eye no. 70 vol. 18, 2008

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.