Art, architecture and design have always been seen as distant relatives, but now they are kissing cousins, says Anthony Haden-Guest
IN THE OLDEN times, let’s say back in the Fifties and Sixties, artists, designers and architects would be likely to eye what each other were doing avidly, sometimes swapping or stealing ideas. That was when just about anybody with visual inclinations — which is to say engaged in art, fashion, advertising, whatever — would be aware of the hives of radical architects who might as well have been dreamed up by the New Science Fiction of JG Ballard, groupuscules like London’s Archigram and the two hot outfits from Florence, Superstudio and Archizoom. Indeed, the Independent Group which godfathered Pop art included the architects Peter and Alison Smithson, along with Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, as founding members.
On-the-edge design was very much part of the mix, so interested parties would be aware of the Memphis group in Milan and were also likely to have a few bits and pieces of classic Modernismo, a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair, say, or something by Charles Eames, a reconditioned movie studio lamp, and perhaps a chunk of industrial archaeology, such as an old-fashioned aeroplane propeller on the wall.
And then there was an odd shift. It was as if the lines between the new art and the more functional practices more or less went dead. Both in the UK and especially the US, the art world of the later Sixties and the Seventies had become intense, inventive, self-regarding. It was also tiny and disconnected. The Pop embrace of the commercial world had vanished in a cloud of late-Warholesque stardust. It was, you might say, somewhat hoity-toity.
Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Dennis Oppenheim, the New York artist whose Land works were on an architectural scale and who sometimes uses the vocabulary of architecture, says that ‘sculptors had very little rapport with architecture. Because architecture was an applied art. It was a shelter.’
Interest in Contemporary design faded, too. ‘It became very unfashionable,’ says Janice Blackburn, who started collecting such design in the mid-Eighties. ‘You virtually couldn’t give it away. Nobody wanted to know. It all became Contemporary art. And everybody went nuts and berserk.’
Well, that was then. Things have changed. In architecture the initial agent of this change was Frank Gehry, the Los Angeles-based Canadian architect whose titanium-sheathed Guggenheim in Bilbão was applauded by almost all, from the austerest critics to the public to which it was opened in 1997, and which proved a massive boost to the economy of the Basque city. The era of the ‘Starchitect’ was upon us — indeed, in the eyes of some it’s just beginning. Rem Koolhaas, one of the starriest of them, has observed that he wished architects marketed themselves half as well as artists. Koolhaas, of all people, said that!
And design? Well, design bounced back to life in New York with galleries such as Rick Kaufmann’s Art et Industrie, followed by designers such as Ron Arad and Marc Newson. Australian Newson, who has clients such as Nike, Ford and Samsonite, is perhaps best-known for the Lockheed Lounge chair (pictured left), a riveted piece fashioned from aluminium and fibreglass which he designed in 1986. In 1993 it appeared in the video for a Madonna single, Rain, and in 2006 it sold at Christie’s for just under $1 million. That same month, Newson was taken on by the Gagosian Gallery, and in 2008 the chair was put up at Phillips de Pury. Kenny Schachter, the London-based American dealer who is heavily into design, said the entire design market was measured against this piece. It fetched £1 million, and Design Art had its equivalent of the Bilbão Guggenheim.
There is, of course, more going on here than business, though. It was prefigured by Art et Industrie’s 1989 show of Michele Oka Doner, an artist who makes sculpture as well as jewellery, hand-made books and whatever else she needs (‘If I want somethng, I’ll make it’) — as well as such tremendously effective public installations as the concourses in Miami Airport (A Walk on the Beach) and New York’s Hayden Planetarium. In this regard, she sees herself as the successor to one of the art world’s historically handiest handymen, Alexander Calder.
Barry Friedman, a partner in Friedman Benda, one of New York’s premier Design art galleries, began 43 years ago selling Art Nouveau prints and glass. He prospered and moved early into Art Deco, selling to clients such as Andy Warhol and Barbra Streisand. In the mid-Nineties his eye was caught by a piece of Contemporary glass at another dealer’s home in Basel, Switzerland.
‘I said, “What is that?”’ Friedman recalls. ‘He said, “How can you not know? He’s American.”’
Friedman spent the weekend with the glass artist, Michael Glancy, in Massachusetts and gave him a show in the Manhattan town house he shared with Didier Aaron. ‘Twenty pieces. And he was only doing twelve pieces a year,’ Friedman says. ‘It’s time-consuming.’
This was 1997, and Design was exploding in the art world. What brought it back?
‘Great artists brought it back,’ Friedman says. ‘Ron Arad, Marc Newson, some of the Dutch artists,
like the whole Droog movement. Joris Laarman is a genius.’
The exterior of the new Evelyn Grace Academy building in Lambeth, designed by Zaha Hadid
Then there is the one-woman multidiscipline, Zaha Hadid, whose work includes architecture, sculpture, furniture and a motorcar that was enabled by Schachter but has yet to put rubber to tarmac. The scale of Hadid’s ambitions was on view at Zurich’s Gmurzynska Gallery earlier this year in the exhibition she curated, which paired her own exemplary futurismo with that of the Russian Constructivists who inspired her.
‘It’s all about the cosmos,’ she told me in the gallery. ‘And the constellations of the stars. How you can achieve dynamic organisation through a different kind of equilibrium, you know. And for that I have been making these forms that could be any scale. What is interesting about the whole fabrication process is that you can work on a changing scale. You refine it. And go to a larger scale.’
She added: ‘It’s no longer just a private domain; you can change everything. The climate can also change.’
For some the art world has become a zone where art, architecture and design are in a state of continuous melt. Throw in artificial intelligence and communications technology and… well, let’s just
say it’s looking interesting. And interesting-looking.