Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A designer, a maker and an artist walk into....

Furniture designer maker Armando Magnino attended an ILF Visioning workshop a few months ago. One exercise prompted some thoughts, which he explored on his Studio Sixteen blog. We thought it was well worth sharing here and thank Armando for permission to repost. (Latest Visioning workshop dates here)

I recently participated in a workshop organised by Interiors and Lifestyle Futures in Birmingham. One of the exercises asked us to discuss how we describe ourselves professionally. The facilitators shared a list they’ve been compiling from previous workshops: while the list was fairly long, it boiled down to combinations of designer, maker, artist, craftsperson. Within the context of the workshop, this exercise was little more than an icebreaker, but it resonated with me because, from the moment I started my business, I have been wondering about how I label my work and myself.

My standard answer is that I am a furniture designer maker. And I tend to say that I design and make bespoke furniture or fine furniture: I guess the first emphasises the uniqueness and customisation of my work, whereas the second hints more at the high level of technical skill in the making and the aesthetics of the pieces.

I have so far eschewed the term artist , when I haven’t actively rejected it. In fact when I was asked to write a profile piece for ArtSpace, the magazine of the LSA (Leamington Studio Artists) I titled it “Why I am not an artist”.

Joseph Campbell talks of true art as having the capacity to generate “aesthetic arrest”. As I understand it, what he means is that art can help us to “stop the world” (to borrow an expression from Carlos Castaneda), to interrupt our normal everyday perception of the world and open us to an experience of something “other”. Through the immanence of the artefact we can experience or at least glimpse the transcendent, the sublime, the transpersonal. I certainly cannot claim that quality for my work. But neither do many people that describe themselves as artists.

More down to earth, Alice Rawsthorn in “Hello World”, after a thorough discussion of the various features of art and design, concludes that the only identifiable and defining difference is in function. Design is about problem-solving. It has a practical application. Products that are designed have a use, art products do not. I agree with her reading, and in that sense I am not an artist. Yes, I want my work to be beautiful, original, intriguing but fundamentally useful.

And yet… When I make a commissioned piece I am indeed problem solving. I am designing and making something that is useful and needed. Usually when clients approach me to commission a piece, it’s because they haven’t found the solution to their problem. It might be that they need something that fits in an awkward space. Or that fulfils a particular function. Or it might be that the pieces they have found do not fit with the d├ęcor of the rest of the room…

But what about the speculative pieces? Something like the mirror and shelf combination that I call “This Thing of Darkness”. It is useful, yes, but the inspiration behind it was purely emotional and aesthetical. It started with the line from Shakespeare’s Tempest: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”. It comes right at the end of the play: all the spells have been broken or released, the games are over. Prospero is describing, acknowledging and prescribing the new order. As part of this process he takes responsibility for Caliban, the misshapen, villainous creature (“this thing of darkness”) that has been doing his bidding.

This Thing of Darkness – English Oak

But watching the play with my wife, it struck us that we could give a psychological reading of that line. Over the years we have both worked with a personal development approach called “Shadowwork” based on the work of C. J. Jung. Jung talked of a Shadow we carry within our psyche. This Shadow is made up of the aspects of our personality that we choose to hide, deny and repress and from there it can affect our behaviour in ways that go against our conscious intentions. The work of therapy is then that of bringing these aspects into the light, to acknowledge them as part of us, in order to become a more whole, integrated person but also to strip the shadow of its power.

Reflecting on this reading of the line, it struck me how appropriate it would be as the title for a mirror. A symbolically magic mirror. One that reflects the parts of us that we do not want to see, our shadow, forcing us to face them and acknowledge them as “mine”.

As soon as I had that thought, I had a clear idea of what it could look like. It took me some time, sketching and playing with it to find the right proportions but also to convince myself that it would work. Ideas don’t usually come to me that quickly and easily. And of course it would have to be framed in a dark wood.

Does this make me an artist? After all the process was not about problem solving. In my mind, the functional aspects of the piece are somehow secondary to the psychological connotations and realisations that it carries for me. That might not be the case at all for the people that have bought the mirror. I’ll share this story with them, but they have simply bought it because it’s a beautiful piece that fits in their house and has a practical and decorative function (I imagine).

Having actually written it all down, now I wonder. Why is it so important to describe myself as just one thing? I know that as human beings we are much more complex than that. In the words of Walt Whitman “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

Visit Armando's website here

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