The Semantic Rift

On the false dichotomy between design and art

Historically, there was never a distinction between design and art. There was no “design” as such, but rather, each form of design was simply its own craft: pottery, carpentry, architecture, and so on. Every craft involved an element of basic construction, e.g. the design of a pot, and art, its decoration. This was in large part due to hand-craft having no defining line between the construction of the body and the decorating of it – one’s hands decorate a good as naturally as they build it.

Purely ornamental crafts like painting and sculpture were not done for their own sake, but rather, they were extensions of other crafts, such as architecture. Painters and sculptors created art to adorn a specific wall, not to stand at an undetermined location. As such, the distinction between art and design did not exist, what existed was a distinction between the ornamental and the constructive elements of a craft.

With the advent of modern design, a rift formed between the world of art and the world of design. For various reasons – efficiency, cost, aesthetics – modern design shed the ornament of earlier times, resulting the modern aesthetic defined by its plain textures and clean forms. Aesthetic expression is still possible, but it is done primarily through form, color and texture rather than ornament. As such, the purely expressive forms of decoration, such as sculpture and painting, were completely banished from the field of design, made to stand on their own as separate works of art. The objects of design, in turn, began to be evaluated primarily on the way they perform their primary function. Art was thus defined by expression, design by utility.

This semantic difference is not necessary, nor should it constrain our thought and define our work. In framing a work as either that of art or design, we artificially limit it, forcing it to conform to a needless dichotomy.

I wrote previously that art is a form of transmission of human values. If design is to also be a carrier of our values, as I believe it should, then it must not be thought separate from art. The semantic difference between a work of design and a work of art should not exist, that is, art should not be deemed useless and design should not pursue purely utilitarian ends.

Until the semantic rift is overcome it is difficult to even talk about design as a carrier of values, much less make it so, and, for as long as the false dichotomy remains, the values our work projects will be embodied subconsciously or accidentally rather than intentionally and with care.

Published March 2015