There’s a puzzling distinction made between art and design. It seems to be based on the often unstated assumptions that: 1) Artists and designers do different things; 2) both the processes and the outputs of each are inherently different; 3) beauty of form and utility of function cannot exist equally in a single object, which means that one must always eclipse the other (so when beauty is dominant, the object is art, and when utility is dominant, the object is design). But fundamentally, both artists and designers are responsible for an object’s creation; both utility and beauty are equally present in most everything around us—and are mutually reinforcing, at that.
If we accept the distinction, we might walk into 516 ARTS’ upcoming Form & Function exhibit and say that Joan Weissman is a rug designer. And we might say it without realizing what it, however subtly, subverts—how it obscures the artistry of Weissman’s work, removes her from the process of creation, and minimizes the aesthetic value of the very useful objects she creates. But the thing is, Weissman begins each one-of-a-kind piece as a black-and-white drawing in her Albuquerque studio. Then it becomes a color gouache painting (a blueprint of sorts), then a miniature woven mockup, then a full-scale rug. She enlists the skills of master weavers from small family shops throughout the United States, Tibet and Pakistan, and she collaborates with them throughout the production process. So we might call this an “applied art,” but that seems to imply that “art” itself is without application.
Let’s think of Weissman’s rugs not as art or design, but as having both form and function.
So let’s take a cue from 516 ARTS, even if the gallery didn’t intend for us to take it exactly this way; let’s think of Weissman’s rugs not as art or design, but as having both form and function—a phrase that can be used to describe all of the works in the show, without subverting anything of the 14 contributors’ exceptional creativity. Washington D.C.’s Sonya Cramer makes her felted cashmere scarves in the aesthetic tradition of the Gee’s Bend Quilters, and they look fabulous while keeping necks warm. Santa Fe’s Roger Atkins designed and crafted the modern four-poster bamboo bed that would easily make a bedroom a masterpiece, and it just happens to look like it could support a twelve-ton mattress. Altogether, Form & Function blurs those arbitrary lines of distinction and invites us to reconsider the relationship between beauty and utility—which you can ponder as you buy one of the objects and simultaneously benefit 516’s educational programming; the very beautiful show is a very useful fundraiser. Go figure.