Is design a form of art? At the 29th annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) this year at the Javits Convention Center, one might find themselves in a lengthy, equivocal discussion if they were to ask one of the 750 international exhibitors that very question. It’s not easy to define the boundaries between art and design, and this may be because both art and design are constantly being reinvented and reevaluated.
Design is usually more craft-oriented. Its foundation is dependent on a knowledge of fabrication, whether it be architecture, furniture or interior design. It often incorporates different materials and various elements, such as geometry and construction to create a utilitarian function. Some art (especially installations), although not necessary utilitarian, still utilize practical building techniques and fabrication skills. After all, when Marcel Duchamp decided to put a wheel on a stool so he could watch it spin, he had to know how to attach the two.
Throughout history design has coalesced with the mercurial changes of fine art, even converging at times into schools of thought which shaped and assessed the understanding of contemporary art. There’s no question that Toulouse-Lautrec was, and still is, an influential artist. Any half-conscious graphic designer has heard the name Alphonse Mucha; but at the ICFF, when mentioning Art Nouveau, one is more likely to hear the names Victor Horta or Hector Guimard. Innovative movements such as Bauhaus, De Stijl, Cubism, Dadaism, Wiener Werkstätte also openly embraced a coalition of designers and artists. Bauhaus, when literally translated, means building-house. Cubism may have never occurred if artists were not hanging out at cafés with mathematicians. At a glance one can see that De Stijl is focusing and extrapolating upon composition and ratios. Mid-century furniture was a product of the final throes of modernism.
Design can be seen as a style, an artistic concept involving applied mathematics and fabrication skills. Palo Samko, who runs a studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, is exhibiting some of his furniture at the ICFF this year. “This is functional art,” he explains, standing over one of his dining room tables. “People look and see another chair, another table… but of course craft is an art.” Like an artist has a quiver of brushes, a craftsman has a quiver of hand tools and Samko proudly displays his own tools in a custom case to show people what it takes to create the pieces he designs and builds. Samko is influenced by local street artists such as Elbow-Toe and Swoon but also takes inspiration from fellow craftsman/designers such as Sam Maloof.
Roman Heczko, who also works in Samko’s studio, has his own booth at the show where he is exhibiting a new line of furniture he’s been working on for the last few years. When I pressed him on a definition of art and design, he responded, “Art is more about inner expression. Design is more about mathematics, order, the rational…” Heczko studied as an architect but after the mortgage crisis of 2008 he became disenchanted with real estate and decided to delve into design and furniture-making. “Just look at the modular man,” he answered when I asked him about the relationship between art and design. Roman’s concepts are fixated on ratios. If you have a curiosity for mathematical numbers found in art and design he will be happy to talk for hours about sacred geometry, the golden mean and the Fibonacci sequence, which have had a vital influence on the design of his chairs. Some of these ratios date back to Greek architecture and can also be found everywhere from Da Vinci and early renaissance painters to modern photography.
Regardless of the technicalities behind design and the inexhaustible numbers which create some of these works of art, there is plenty to simply see and appreciate at this year’s ICFF. From colorful urinals to sex chairs to exuberant light fixtures, some of the most avant garde design can be seen at this year’s fair.
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