Re: Design

In the current field of cultural production exists certain divisions between the categories of Art, Craft, and Design. While historically, these tensions have been prevalent in the discussion of aesthetics and division of “High” and “Low” art(ie. Art Nouveau, Jugendstil) , in our contemporary context, these relationships are rendered increasingly complicated. With the introduction of new technologies and increasingly interdisciplinary art practices, are historically hierarchical categories of “applied arts” and “fine arts” still relevant in contemporary art practices?

The reputation of craft and design in our contemporary moment has closely been associated with capitalistic impulses and the marketplace. Synthesizing propositions by Austrian architect Adolf Loos and critic Hal Foster, theorist Boris Groys writes, “the function of design has often enough been described using the old metaphysical opposition between appearance and essence. Design in this view, is responsible only for the appearance of things, and thus it seems predestined to conceal the essence of things, to deceive the viewer’s understanding of the true nature of reality. Thus, design has been repeatedly interpreted as an epiphany of the omnipresent market, of exchange value, of fetishism of the commodity, of the society of the spectacle-as the creation of a seductive surface behind which things themselves not only become invisible, but disappear entirely.” Furthermore, skepticism towards commodification and the use of objects as ornamentation of our surroundings produces an added suspicion towards the integrity of design and craft-aestheticism.

However, these prepositions call into question, whether we, as consumers, are infact “prisoners of total design” easily tempted . And furthermore, is all design as insidious, filled with mal intentions, and only superficial?

“Not Impressed” : Aesthetics of Active Engagement

The works by artists such as Evelyn Tao in collaboration with Jacqueline Jing Lin, as well as that of Ahna Hughes do not shy away from acknowledging the heavy handed use of aestheticization. As producers of their work, they actively reject the existing conditions set forth by the hegemonic hierarchy of genres and its interpretation of craft and design. Instead, they view the field of craft and design as an alternative practice that is self-sustaining in an oversaturated market, while their work acts as a response to their disillusionment towards the realities of working in the creative industry.

On the other hand, aware of the ability of design to draw in the attention of its viewer, works by Maggie Dunlap, Jess Wu-Ohlson, and John Belknap, further push the boundaries of design through its engagement of social experiences of identity, sexuality, and gender. Employing mediums that fall into familiar parameters of design, their work reconsiders the subversive implications of contemporary commodification and the dissemination of ideas through a consciousness of its medium.


On Form and Pervasive Design

In The Toilet Seat Project the group Hello Velocity states, “Design is a process that makes more objects; for better or for worse. And when the discipline defines and validates itself through problem solving, the end result is a vast multiplicity of objects trying desperately to distinguish themselves via functionality.” 

Perhaps, more intuitively, we think about the formal qualities of design in its association to the many objects and gadget that we interface with on a daily basis. The interaction between Don’t Be Sad (a furniture collection by Pinkhouse) and Ride the Caterpillar (a virtual reality experience by Hello VelocityPinkhouse, James Orlando and Prashat Trapanstraddles the line between gameplay and IRL, making us aware of the things that populate the background of both environments. 

Moreover, this installation brings to the forefront the current culture of trendy-ness and its disposability, bringing into question the dichotomy of utility and aesthetics present in design practices. Alicia Valencia is similarly mindful of prescribing responses in users interacting with her work. With a background in psychology, her work examines the relationship between cognitive development and play. 

In the Age of Mechanical Production

As Koji Yamamoto states “production values are very clearly defined in video and animation.  Animation in particular closely follows technology and for that reason in entertainment it is judged according to its level of execution based on the current state of technology. Working with animation craft is an important and obvious attribute that society is particularly attuned to evaluating based on constant media exposure.” The fabric of the contemporary marketplace driven by an obsessive demand for generating new products with design as cog in the process of commodification.  Naturally this spurs technological advancements in various fields not limited to artistic production. However, the pace of this trajectory calls into question the sisyphean banality of “progress.” Prompting the question: progress for the sake of what?


Historically development of machines as technology was to give man an advantage in conquering the natural world. The unproductive machine that appears in her work instead holds up a mirror that reflects our own desire and our socially constructed systems of value. As artist Charlotte Beckett states “the mechanization in these pieces works in opposition to what we demand of the mechanized world around us. It seeks to offer something else, something that is slow and inefficient but more closely aligned with our selves.” Furthermore, in the collapse and inflation of her sculptures she questions and reframes the idea of development as a cycle of progression and regression.

Curated by Minna Son & Nicole Shaub