The question whether (product) design is art or not is by no means new. Actually, it has preoccupied members of various professions since the birth of design already, that is a little over one hundred years ago.
The seemingly simple and obvious answer that everything that is created in view of serial production is to be subsumed as design, however, seems hasty on closer consideration – and certainly after Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”. In this article, we will contemplate how – or even whether – the initial question can be answered unequivocally.
Design as an established discipline is still relatively young compared to the classic arts. The influence of art (and of artists) on design has been noticeable since the beginning. Early on, a mutual exchange, an interdisciplinarity evolved, which also made an impact on the artists and craftsmen. To date, architects have designed furniture as well as other interior decoration products and – as was the case at the time of the New German Design in the 1980s – entire generations of sculptors have influenced design. Conversely, designers have recently called attention to themselves as artists with limited editions.
As mentioned already, almost all disciplines related to design – graphic art, architecture or artisan crafts – are considerably older. Amongst others, they have in common that they contain the word “art”, which in the eyes of some makes them more venerable – an issue that has eaten away at the self-confidence of design and designers.
It seems indeed that, even after more than one hundred years of existence, the design discipline is still not met with appropriate acceptance. If, for instance, you look up a design theme in the German National Library, you will inevitably fall on the subject groups “Drawings, Handicrafts,” “Architecture” or even “Management”. In short: the country’s most extensive library does not yet offer the subject group “Design”.
Now, this ignorance toward the design discipline as well as the traditional closeness to its neighbouring disciplines could be an indication that the products of design are indeed art. However, that answer would be hasty as well, as is demonstrated by Darmstadt’s history. The Darmstadt artist colony, namely – do not let the name mislead you – is a very early and good example of how art and design can be clearly differentiated.
Among the artists and architects of the Darmstadt artist colony (1899–1914), several members produced independent design accomplishments – free from any art attitude. Peter Behrens is but a single example. Originally a painter and graphic artist, Behrens later worked as an architect. His work for AEG in the fields of product design and communication design has earned Behrens the reputation, among others, of being one of the founders of industrial design as well as modern corporate design.
The works of Emanuel Josef Margold are no less superb. A pupil and assistant of Josef Hoffmann, he was also an architect and had been a member of the artist colony since 1911. With his work, Margold as well contributed considerably to the independence of design. His corporate design for the Hermann Bahlsen cookie factory in Hanover, for instance, generated a consistent business image, extending from packaging to window dressing to design and realization of the Bahlsen shop on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin.
Thus, the foundation for the emancipation of design vis-à-vis the arts was laid early on, and artists as well as designers do not seem to have a problem with the differentiation. The fact that nowadays it is still being debated how much artistic potential is contained in design has actually more to do with designers’ daily work, where they play a growing and vital interface role.
Designers see themselves as intermediaries or translators between engineering achievements and customer expectations. While an engineer’s responsibility in the development process is to make sure that this something, which often is not even a product yet, is developed to be technically flawless and to function, a designer ensures that it will eventually become an easy-to-understand product for the customer. It is apparent that this part of the process requires a considerable creative potential. However, this should not hide the fact that it differs fundamentally from the artistic creative process. For, despite all the creative closeness to the arts and artists: designers mostly work on behalf and for the purpose of companies and customers – a priority that hardly any independent artist would want to claim for themselves.
In conclusion, the answer to the initial question “Is product design art?” must be answered in the negative – maybe not unconditionally, but more and more confidently indeed.
Lutz Dietzold has been general and technical manager of Hessen Design in Darmstadt since 2007. He studied art history, classical archaeology and German philology in Frankfurt. After working independently in the field of design communication for national and international clients, he was general manager of the Hessian branch of the German commercial association Deutscher Werkbund e.V. in Frankfurt (on the Main) from 1999 to 2001. In 2002, he became general manager of the German Design Council in Frankfurt (on the Main). For the purpose of developing a strategic reorientation of the promotion of design in Hesse, he became general manager of Designzentrum Hessen in 2006. As a result of that process, the association Hessen Design e.V. was founded in 2007 as a central authority for the promotion of design in Hesse.