Form before function

In what dream does a bed collide with the freeway? Or when is a chair or a ceiling colonised by a spider’s web? Concrete reinforcement bar with a coat hook? Each of these unlikely and unsettling moments occur not within a nightmare but when art meets interior. The New Décor exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery grasps a theme that has insinuated itself into the history of modern art: the idea of the transformation of the everyday object, the familiar backdrop to our lives, through imagination.

It arrives at the same time as the Barbican’s Surreal House reveals the dark underbelly of the domestic subconscious and a new exhibition at the Timothy Taylor Gallery, The Tightrope Walker, explores the parallels between art and design in the 1950s Paris – and it appears to illuminate a particular concern in contemporary art, design and architecture; an idea that the images with the power to affect us most are those that tamper with the familiar. Even London’s design riposte to the Frieze art fair has now been named the Pavilion of Art and Design, as if the symbiosis between the two were somehow unavoidable – or perhaps that design is too weak to stand alone in the face of the assault from art.

From Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to Meret Oppenheim’s bird-legged occasional table and Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tube, light sculptures to Tracey Emin’s soiled bed, interior furnishings have provided both the inspiration and the raw material for some of modern art’s most momentous, most controversial and, occasionally, most risible moments.

But what has happened recently is that designers have looked more to art and the practices of art for inspiration than they have to a modernist tradition of the expression of function. This has led to a decreasing distance between the disciplines, which can create compelling conditions.

The Tightrope Walker (which borrows its name from an essay by Jean Genet, itself inspired by a passionate and tragic love affair with a circus artist) displays the avant-garde art and design of Paris at a moment of existential crisis. These are works that emerged in a postwar, post-occupation consensus that saw both artists and designers pointedly abandon the decorative excesses of art deco. In art this shift expressed itself in a fascination with the primitive and the naive, the child-like. The surfaces of Jean Dubuffet’s paintings are built up in a knobbly landscape of grit and string imitating a child’s indiscriminate found-material collage and the existential angst of Bernard Buffet’s cartoonish Miserablism displaying an uncertainty, a bleak world to be redeemed.

The furniture designers, meanwhile, started anew in their material palette. Abandoning the gold, the rich veneers and surface gloss of art deco, they adopted with aplomb the materials of industry: perforated steel, plywood, aluminium and painted steel creating a stripped-back language that strove neither for the decorative effect of traditional design nor for the functional glamour of early modernism. It was, instead, happy to be ugly, ascetic and useful, furniture with which to rebuild a more equitable world.

The very vocabulary of design as sold in the auction rooms tells a story of uncertainty about its relationship to art. First it was marketed as “applied art”, then as “decorative art” (as if a modernist functionalist chair might be more decorative than, say, a Mondrian); then came design-art and now it has reverted back to plain old “design”. That reversion is perhaps a signal that designers and their commercial representatives (and, of course, the buyers) are more comfortable with the idea of design as something of artistic value in its own right, and designers have begun to appropriate the mechanics of the art market in the making of editions and the use of techniques more usually associated with art – the Campana Brother’s cuddly-toy-covered chairs, Mooi’s horse-shaped lamp or Piet Hein Eek’s furniture made of dredged timber. Designers are also marking the territory of the artist in commissioned private installations in homes and institutions. But what happens when artists begin to bite back? To impinge on the world of objects?

That is what is explored in The New Décor and the results are intriguing. First, it should be made clear that this is not about artists “doing design”. Few of the objects here are practical; they are instead aberrations, subversions and surreal tics. In fact one of the most striking pieces is Thea Djordjazde’s “Deaf and dumb universe”, two slabs of badly painted Styrofoam stuck together in a loose approximation of a modernist chair on wiry legs. Both structurally useless and aesthetically hideous, it nevertheless belongs to a recognisable aesthetic tradition, mocking the minimalist luxury of the modernist antique. Then there is “Cama” by Cuban artists, Los Carpinteros, a bed that loops and bridges like a freeway junction with its sliproads. This striking confluence of the seemingly irreconcilable images of the bed and the freeway, the visual symbols of both stasis and movement creates a wonderfully dream-like effect.

Another bed appears in the finest work in the show, Mona Hatoum’s “Interior Landscape”. Here, the battered bedframe is sprung with barbed wire and what at first glance appears to be a stain on the pillow turns out to be a map of pre-1948 Palestine woven from strands of the artist’s own hair. That same shape is vaguely repeated in a distorted coat-hanger and a conspicuously empty shopping bag suspended from a coat rack. A chair is netted with a spider’s web and has no cushion. The work associates the bed and furniture with the homeland but one from which the resident is excluded, for which it is helpful to know of Hatoum’s Palestinian roots. It is one of the few pieces that seem to indicate the narrative limits of design; it is a work that says so much with so relatively little, in a way what design should be able to do but rarely can.

The work of Elmgreen and Dragset builds on very different, more playful traditions. Their best work is not in the galleries but in the gents’ toilet: “Marriage” is a pair of wash-basins tied and knotted together by their waste pipes.

Almost every one of the pieces here is treated as some kind of theatrical event. “Everything that was directly lived,” wrote Guy Debord in 1967, “has receded into a representation ... in a world that is really upside down, the true in the moment of the false.” Hayward director Ralph Rugoff makes the point in his catalogue essay that the French use the word “décor” for both interior and theatrical set design. The interior is not necessarily what it once was. It may appear as if it were the ultimate symbol of the private and domestic but, in fact, boundaries have been blurring.

It seems incredible to us now that kings once received guests in their chambers, their bedrooms, yet today’s increasingly wired interior is less private than we might imagine. Webcams, reality TV shows, the impingement of the outside world through TV and work through the web pumped into every room have changed the nature of privacy. The home today is as much a stage for performance as it once was in the palaces of the nobility and when artists are allowed to interpret the everyday; it is these notions of the spectacular and the theatrical that emerge.

It is an irony that artists, who strip the décor back to its subconscious, dream-like elements, can be more honest about use and meaning than can the designers who have been brought up in a tradition of the expression of function and utility. But this show also explains the need for the two parallel traditions of interpretation. The art is in the artifice and, as Debord said, it is the false that gives us the true picture. Art, design and interior are coming together, not because they are getting closer as disciplines but because they need each other to communicate the full range of meaning in the home.

‘The New Décor’, Hayward Gallery, London, until September 5

‘The Tightrope Walker’, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, July 10 until August 27

‘Pavilion of Art and Design’, Berkeley Square, London, October 13–17

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