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Disegno, Design and DIY: A story of entanglement

With NYC Design Week in full swing, we wanted to revisit how the history of art and design’s evolving entanglement has influenced design genes on The Art Genome Project (see our earlier posts on the subject here). 

Art and design cannot be told apart according to formalist criteria. A chair does not necessarily design make, and a bas-relief in molded resin that looks like abstract expressionism could actually be the germ of a new mass-produced design for a building façade. To find a subtle principle of distinction, one has to transcend aesthetics and fly into the sphere of ethics: While an artist can choose whether or not to be responsive and responsible towards other human beings, by definition a designer must be. In good design, ethics are as important as aesthetics.”  - Paola Antonelli

Humans have always made objects for some use, and yet it was not until the 1950s that the loan-word “Design,” adapted from Italian disegno,  gained traction in the English language. Some have argued that it was only with the growing institutionalization of art - the artwork made by an artist for the sole purpose of being art - that design proper became a meaningful category; before then useful objects were simply objects made by craftsmen or, in the wake of the industrial revolution, those manufactured for a mass public. The histories of art and decorative art - itself a problematic term - have long been entangled. This makes for a fascinating story, but a headache for classification. 

So how did we get here? In 1673, Louis XIV visited the Gobelins Factory, the producer of some of the finest tapestries in Europe. It is not everyday that the most powerful man in the world visits a site for the production of decorative art, but Louis XIV was not your everyday monarch. He not only outfitted his palace in unprecedented decadence, he centralized the art education system in France, in the process bringing decorative arts under the aegis of the prestigious new Academie. This momentous occasion is fittingly commemorated in a tapestry in the collection of the Musée National du Château, Versailles - a mise-en-abime (painting-within-a-painting) depicting another tapestry designed by LeBrun himself of Alexander the Great. The overall composition was modeled on monumental history paintings, and thus art and design were united in a cycle of references.

It did not take long for the two to be disentangled by one influential intellectual; in his 1751–1752 Encyclopédie, Diderot divvied up the sum of human knowledge into three branches: Memory, Reason, and Imagination. The “Use of Nature”, i.e. the trades (everything from glass-blowers to tapestry makers were part of Memory) were not covered in the same branch as the Arts (the latter relegated to Imagination). Diderot’s lavish illustrations of the processes and tools of each craft may shed light on this division, as they bring to the fore the highly specialized training and practice of the trades. Thus while the Rococo, at the time called the “Modern International Style” is often seen as one of the first international movements in which art and design were so closely entwined, the division between “fine art” and the “decorative arts” grew.

The Industrial Revolution, of course, forever changed the possibilities of decorative art; production moved away from the apprenticeship-based workshops of master craftsmen and into the factories. In a quick backlash, design reform throughout Europe and the United States responded to the depersonalized and, often, de-aestheticized objects coming out of the plants in the 19th century. The Arts & Crafts Movement in England (1860-1910) inspired several other notable organized groups including the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna (1903-1932) and The Deutscher Werkbund in Munich (1907-1934). Are these movements direct predecessors of today’s DIY ethos? We'll cover this question in our next post on more recent design history, where the tensions between machine and man, between craft and mass production come to a head.

Alex Gilbert, Design Specialist at Artsy; and Jessica Backus, Researcher on The Art Genome Project

Louis XIV Visiting the Gobelins Factory, 1673 (Charles Le Brun [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons); Plates from Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie, Paris: 1751-2.