Do objects speak to you? No, I’m serious – please bear with me. Years ago, when I was studying Italian Renaissance painting I found myself drawn to Iconography. This is the interpretation of symbolic objects, gestures, colours etc., the keys that unlock the meanings of such religious paintings and point to the fascinating stories that lie behind them. Portraits of the Madonna and Child sometimes include a goldfinch or a pomegranate. The blood-red face of the bird, which was believed to nest in thorn bushes, prefigured the Passion of Christ, when he wore a Crown of Thorns. The fruit, which opens to reveal its miraculous be-jewelled interior, symbolised the Resurrection. Even the choice of blue for the cloak of the Virgin Mary is not accidental. The colour, made from ground lapis lazuli, was the most expensive pigment in the paint box and a fitting tribute to Christ’s Mother.
Hundreds of years later Fine Art carries a multiplicity of complex messages. It can flatter; consider the ever-controversial series of portraits of the Queen. And what about the fatherly smiles and friendly waves of the monstrous, state-sponsored sculptures erected to totalitarian leaders (and mass-murderers) such as Stalin, Mao and the Kim dynasty of North Korea? Art can also express support for or condemnation of political events and ideologies. Is there a more eloquent cry of pain and protest than the tortured horror of Picasso’s painting, Guernica, the artist’s impassioned gut-reaction to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War?
But what about the Decorative Arts, the humble, useful objects designed for everyday domestic use, rather than to reflect love, death and power? The urge to make things and decorate them is hard-wired into the human brain. In fact, from earliest times humans painted rock walls and embellished their garments, their food vessels and weapons with signs and symbols of cultural significance. Industrial methods of manufacture, pioneered in the 18th and 19th centuries, helped to expunge symbolic forms and decoration from furniture, textiles and ceramics. Mass production of goods removed not only significant symbols but all traces of the quirky individualism of the designer or maker.
By the later 19th century theorists began to pronounce on design. The American architect, Louis Sullivan, wrote in 1896, ‘Form ever follows function’, since objects are supposed, primarily, to be ‘fit for purpose’ (that omnipresent phrase that derives from consumer protection). But, as William Morris had advised in a lecture of 1880, ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. Surely that doesn’t prevent makers and manufacturers from imbuing their products with aesthetic values and appropriate decoration? But no, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos declared in 1910 that ‘Ornament is Crime’ and the designers who subscribed to Modernism, the dominant architectural and design creed for much of the 20th century, avoided it. Of course, fashion has always projected personal style and beliefs and mass-produced home wares continued to be decorated with patterns, though few could be considered significant. Then in the 70s and 80s, Postmodernism broke out, like a rash. Architects, designers and makers felt free to raid historic building styles for details and to combine them in new ways, to reference popular culture, to play with language in order to tell stories and voice opinions with wit and humour. They felt free to use their imaginations once again, to give objects meaning and attitude.
Subversive Design brings together a wide variety of objects, designed and manufactured and also hand-made. They are grouped according to themes that address global topics, social issues and individual pre-occupations. They have been deliberately selected to blur those hackneyed distinctions between Fine Art, Design and Craft. The majority of pieces are new but in many cases they are shown with historic objects with similar messages. We hope that bringing these pieces together will stimulate new dialogues, both between objects and visitors!
Subversive Design opens on 12th October.