The Art Of The Everyday: Susan Collis As A Lifeline For Future Design

Art and design; two things that are repeatedly and dangerously expressed to us as distinct entities. 

As design students it is more than inferred that we should distance ourselves from the notion of art. It has been drilled into our collective mind that art serves a different purpose, that it has no client, and that it has no effective place in our economy. But this is perhaps, and almost certainly, an outdated and narrow minded view. It is a limitation on our conceptual practices as designers, and is perhaps the singular view that is impeding the current development of design. As a refreshing break from this tide of artistic negativity, is the voice of visual designer, Stefan Sagmeister. In Made You Look,  on the subject of art and design, he draws on a relationship between the two as being significant through their shared capacity to trigger an experience. The work of Susan Collis, 100% Cotton in particular, is a prime example of the explicit power of the experiential potential of a designed object. Whilst her work resides in the realm of the arts, her practice bridges associations between both art and design, unifying them by the resonance of her concepts.

Susan Collis, 100% Cotton, 2004 Overalls, embroidery threads 155 x 25 x 17 cm
Susan Collis, 100% Cotton, 2004
Overalls, embroidery threads
155 x 25 x 17 cm
Detail of: Susan Collis, 100% Cotton, 2004
Detail of: Susan Collis, 100% Cotton, 2004

Collis reminds us of our ignorance of the everyday, provoking her audience to reconsider what we place value on, what we disregard and the origins of these behaviours. Her works, profoundly site specific, rely on the the users awareness of a gallery space, questioning our understanding of both art objects and design objects, blurring the distinction between the two with an intent that is self described as an act of almost magical deception. On initial consideration of her work, there is nothing designed, crafted or made. What appears immediately are the ephemeral objects or remains of a gallery clean up. They appear shabby, used, and fundamentally lacking in value in the scale of the designed objects at our command. In reality, these objects, and in particular their deformities, are rendered with precious materials spanning mother-of-pearl, to diamonds and gold. In the case of 100% Cotton, the illusion of smeared paint on a smock is created through painstaking embroidering. The intensity of labour and detail involved in the deliberately de-valued aesthetic of the object in question, on a quick reading registers as subtle irony – perhaps tongue and cheek at the notion of value in art. On a deeper level, the effect of this subtle manipulation of material and association breaks down norms on a macro level, challenging our expectations and associations with ‘value’ as an much broader ideal. Collins reminds us of our inability to place value in the everyday, creating a sense of guilt as a result of understanding the invisibility of that which does not have direct economic value. Consequently we are forced into reconsideration of what we consider to be valuable, and how and why our perceptions can change based on material value.

Susan Collis, Installation View at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2010
Susan Collis, Installation View at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2010

Collis is not, however, the only voice reminding us of the unseen value in that which is not directly valuable. Artist, Goar Rong, offers a quieter perspective to the issue, bringing similar painstaking techniques of embroidery to pay respect to objects of her memory and childhood, showing us that value need not come from the aesthetic of an object, but rather through the experience of it; here the experience of memory and how these define our everyday being come to view. Whether from an Eastern or Western perspective, we are shown that the value of the everyday persists and is reminded through the experience created by such artists. They are small voices in the call for a realigning of our perception of value, something that can be achieved almost certainly through our input as designers.

Goa Rong Installation at White Rabbit Gallery, Embroidered House Setting, 2010
Goa Rong Installation at White Rabbit Gallery, Embroidered House Setting, 2010

Design, as it currently stands, appears to exist with the soul purpose of completing a function: whether of consumption, convenience, marketability and so on and yet, unlike this, the art of Collis  manages to create a more profound and receptive experience by focusing on emotive qualities associated with value. The mere fact that we are forced to reconsider the value of the everyday through the value of expense and labour shows a current disregard for what we surround ourselves with on a basic level – the very things that we, as designers, are responsible for creating.  As Sagmeister reflects, the future of design is sure to to be governed by the advances made in technology. Whilst meaningless design is currently permitted by an over saturation of technical skill, this is sure to be replaced by the evolution of technology – leaving only those with conceptual ability to remain as valid and working designers. Perhaps a despotic view on the future of design and our potential careers, it is at the very least good incentive to take a (gold) leaf out of Collis’ book and consider the everyday object from a more valuable conceptual light –  to inject life and emotive value into every orifice of what we design, and to allow what we make to avoid the invisibility of the mundane, reminding both ourselves and our users of its significance amongst the everyday.

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