What Happens When Art and Design Collide?

Something striking stands in the leafy courtyard at the centre of Rossana Orlandi’s eponymous art and design gallery in Milan. It is a frame of handwoven banana and pineapple fibres and Lurex, flanked by a pair of elaborate columns and capped with a canopy of woven cane, with a curved edge of moulded waste eggshell. It sets the scene for an intriguing contemporary digital work of art showing 24 hours in the life of an enormous banyan tree in Rajasthan, India, filmed by Milanese collective Anotherview during the monsoon season. 

Nearby, a couple visiting the gallery during Milan Design Week 2022 perch on a 2.8-metre-wide curved bench that is also part of the installation, featuring an extravagant starburst pattern made from strips of bamboo cut from waste scaffolding used in construction sites in Asia. Each is painstakingly inlaid by hand. 

The couple are nibbling on a colourful concoction of cinnamon shortbread, nutmeg, pepper and clove spice bread, and Bavarian creamed rice with turmeric and saffron. The vegan dessert was inspired by this pavilion-like setting and created by two Michelin-starred chefs from the famed Milanese restaurant II Luogo di Aimo e Nadia, which has taken up a temporary home in the courtyard, which sees several thousand visitors a day during the annual city-wide celebration of creativity.

The whole project is called VIEW 20. Is it art? Is it design? Where do they begin and end? For many purists, this is a simple binary distinction: design is not art because it serves a function, while art is valued for its aesthetic quality. But this does not mean that the two shouldn’t engage in a creative conversation or that the boundaries between the two can’t be blurred. Hong Kong-based British-Chinese textile weaver and designer Elaine Yan Ling Ng, who was responsible for designing the frame and bench for the digital nomad window, believes it is at this intersection of the two disciplines where innovation is most likely to take place.

“I think it’s dangerous for us to think that art and design are so different that they can’t be in dialogue,” she says. “Creativity is not restrained, creativity brings imagination, communication and problem solving together and this is where art and design intersect.”

VIEW20 combines Anotherview’s 24-hour video artwork and Nature Squared’s handmade sustainable surfaces.

Creativity at the intersection

Rossana Orlandi says that Fuorisalone, the constellation of exhibitions and installations across central Milan during the Salone del Mobile, the illustrious trade show held in early June 2022, is particularly well suited to creating opportunities to experiment across boundaries. Her own career shows the benefits of disrupting fixed boundaries. In 2002, after 30 years in the fashion industry, Orlandi opened an art and design gallery and immediately made a name for herself showing thought-provoking, eclectic works. These range from Nacho Carbonell’s striking animalesque desks and chairs, bristling with thousands of wire spines, to ephemeral collage-like room divider screens made with objects encased in layers of epoxy resin by Italian designer Manu Crotti – work that straddles the gap between the worlds of art and design.

In addition to her own studio, Ng acts as Swiss-based Nature Squared’s chief material innovator, where she is responsible for developing new materials and designs made of waste natural materials like bark and shell for architects and interior designers. The new frame for Anotherview is a collaboration between the two companies who share a passion for art, design, sustainability, craftsmanship and culture. 

Ng recalls how, in 2021, she was planning to show her design of Nature Squared’s new eggshell waste wall tile—a world first—in an installation of screens and stools at the same gallery. “I showed the concept to Rossana, and she immediately grasped the artistic potential of a completely immersive environment,” she says. “So we used around 150,000 eggshells to build a modernist barn that people could walk into and touch, where they sat on eggshell furniture, and walked on floors made out of eggshell tiles. It was that imaginative freedom which allowed us to move forward and fashion a new way of creating complex architectural forms like sculptural columns by spraying waste eggshell, and also moulding eggshell.”

This year, the designer took her vision even further in a collaboration between Nature Squared and Anotherview that allowed her to think beyond the traditional frame around an artwork, and to communicate the significance of Indian architecture, rituals, and its extraordinary landscape and people. “Our new installation was born out of the desire to reinvent, rethink and reimagine materials – and to offer a completely new perspective,” she says.

The creative collaboration marks an evolution for Nature Squared, which was founded by former accounting executives Lay Koon Tan and Paul Hoeve. For the past two decades, the company has focused on combining its material innovation and artisanal skills to transform abundant natural materials that would normally be considered waste into handcrafted and sustainable products and surfaces for yachts, hotels and homes. Until 2021, much of their work had been bespoke, but the introduction of the eggshell wall and floor tiles, called CArrelé, and moulded and sprayed surfaces called TERRAMIQUE, have extended their offerings to a much wider audience.

“We are constantly looking for new ways to repurpose and reinvent our relationship with natural waste materials, and our new collaboration shows how designers, craftspeople and creatives can find practical yet beautiful design solutions to the issue of waste,” says Tan.

Anotherview co-founder Marco Tabasso says he found the collaboration especially intriguing because, although they always make a frame for their video art, this was the first time they had worked hand in hand with another designer with the intention of creating a physical extension of the digital window. 

“I am not a big fan of putting things in a box,” he says. “I find the whole distinction between art and design based on the functionality of design fictitious. Art has always been functional, even if in different ways than design. If we look at its history, art has always played a role that was political, religious and social at the same time. It was a tool in the hand of the wealthiest and governments, not something pure and ideal in itself. At the same time, I always looked at design and its production and commercialisation as a key to understand contemporary art which is dominated by the market and mass production. This is why I find it perfectly legitimate for an artist to express his or her ideas using the vocabulary of design. Our installation shows exactly how different planes can mix and interact one with the other with no precise boundaries.”

A frame – not a box

Perhaps in this case, the successful blending of art and design was a result of how Ng conceived the idea of a frame. She first spent time with the artists to understand their personal experiences during the filming of the banyan tree: what they saw, and the colours, shapes and sounds not shown in the digital work of art. Each window they film tells the story of a day in the life of a specific place, captured from a specific point by continuously filming for 24 hours in very high resolution, reflecting on each landscape and its beauty at a fixed moment, but the surrounding context where the filming takes place is inevitably not visible. 

For this particular view, the artists travelled during the monsoon season to Rajasthan in northern India, where they found the enormous banyan tree. Their view, filmed from a nearby tent, shows children playing around the tree, local shepherds gathering with their sheep in the shade for lunch, and monkeys playing in the branches. Ng wanted to celebrate their journey as much as the local culture and textiles, so the temporary tent, which is made of local bamboo and a local textile with a repeated print of a temple entrance with pillars and curtains, became the initial inspiration for the design of the frame.

“When we first saw the frame installed at the gallery, we were amazed to find all the references to our trip,” says Tabasso. “It was almost like we were living it once again. And, during Milan Design Week, many visitors were unable to stop touching the finely crafted wall, so the tactile experience became one of the elements of the whole installation.” He describes the frame as “a portal” that expands on the subject of the videos, capturing everything that persuaded the Anotherview team to film the banyan on that particular day. 

For Ng, the discussions with Anotherview formed part of her inspiration, and were not an end in themselves. She sees that as a way to capture an idea or mood – part of the thoughtfulness that allows design to stimulate a personal, emotional connection, to represent a shared language and intense interest. The result is both arresting and original, and an excellent example of two worlds bouncing off one another.

Still, there are benefits to establishing a firm boundary between art and design. Hong Kong art advisor and consultant Alison Pickett thinks that, while each discipline is creative in its own right, the benefits of blurring the boundaries between artists and designers tend to work in favour of the latter. Nobody minds art that is functional, but a piece of design that sacrifices usability for the sake of aesthetic is less welcome. 

“Architects often think that they can design a piece of sculpture or public art, but the reality is that their education is about spatial awareness and not form without function,” says Pickett. “Sculptors would love to design a building, but don’t spend seven years studying architecture in order to be able to do so. For me, a piece of sculpture is something that has been created by an artist, in both concept and by their hand, solely for the objective of viewing pleasure or to tell their story. Artists will aim for the unique one-off, while designers tend to aim for production.”  

Ng agrees. “A designer has a mission to solve a problem or provide a solution. That is design,” she says. “It is defined and purposeful; it can be emotional or not. Art does not have a purpose, but it does have to have a narrative, and that is why art is more irrational and emotional, and links up with a different part of the brain. You don’t have to understand it to like it.”

But she sees the Indian-inspired dessert that formed part of the installation at Rossana Orlandi Gallery as design. “Even though it has been beautifully crafted, a recipe is design. It differs from the art video because one can’t replicate that moment in the life of the tree at that precise time of year, but we can re-engineer the dessert.”

Perhaps the lesson is that blurring the boundaries between art and functional design contributes to creating a new interdisciplinary model of experimentation and discourse that is better suited to today’s culture of disruption and change. The time might have come for artists to relinquish their dominant role as the ultimate arbiter of aesthetics and welcome a new hybrid that fuses functionality and conceptual thinking without labelling it as one or the other.

This story was produced with the support of bodw+. Zolima CityMag maintains editorial independence over its content. To read this story on bodw+, please click here.

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