Design Art London Review
written by Ashley Eldridge-Ford

To describe this fair that supposedly merges the worlds of art and design together as bringing 'London to the forefront of the international art and design scene' is a slight exaggeration.  It is, more precisely, a fair that promotes excellence in modern and contemporary design furniture and the decorative arts.  The pieces that are displayed in each of the galleries showing are not unexpected pieces; they are iconic works or those of historical importance and rarity.  

I walked around the fair with two designers whose careers are already well on the rise, Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay of Raw-Edges Design Studio.  Already picked up by Established & Sons, showing currently at the Aram Gallery in Covent Garden and with Arts Co at the Biscuit Building in Shoreditch, as well as participating at the end of the month at the Tokyo's design week, DesignTide Tokyo, I thought that Yael and Shay would be the perfect duo to reflect on the fair that heralds itself as merging the two worlds of art and design.  Shay and Yael's work is playful, beautifully and concientiously made and their hopes to see London recognised as a capital for innovative design are high.

The entrance at Mayfair's Berkeley Square is understated and spacious and the striking exhibition by the David Gill Gallery the summation of everything that design has become known for in typical Zaha Hadid style - flashy silver modules, large-scale works with slick curves, sci-fi looking functional pods and hard frames with soft lighting.  

Yael and Shay tell me after a few minutes of walking around that so far, the most interesting thing for them are that the trees stationary in the park have been included within the marquee and utilised by the exhibitors throughout the fair.  They are quirky and in their respective locations seem to be part of the exhibiting stands.  We stop at the Carpenters Workshop, London, where their eyes are instantly drawn to the work of a friend of theirs from the RCA, Florian Ortkrass, from Random International, the London-based design collective.  His piece, Study of Three Mirrors, is based on an earlier full-length work.  The three 'mirrors' that are approximately 40cm x 20cm have been created using a creative tool that prints the digital information reflected in the white matt surface of the mirror onto itself.  It takes a few minutes for the 'printer' to eke out the image but when it has, a pixellated purple image of yourself is captured on the surface of the mirrors for a few minutes more before it continues in this vein.  

The second eye-catching work for Yael and Shay at Carpenters Workshop is French/Swiss designer, Ingrid Donat's Commode Engrenage II, 2004, the second version of what is deemed to be her most important work.  It is made from cast bronze and has seamlessly incoporated the cogs on each side that spin and twist around each other whenever one of the drawers is opened or closed.

At Mouvements Modernes, Paris, was a perfectly chosen designer called Pablo Reinoso whose work, Thonet 04, 2005, was the epitome of where Design Art are mutually recognisable.  The piece is comprised of one Thonet chair that had been manufactured at the beginning of the 19th Century - pine wooden frame and circular rattan seat - that discourses directly with the collage works of Braque and Picasso during their late - Synthetic - Cubist phase in the early 20th Century.  In this phase Braque and Picasso incorporated various materials, such as rattan or oilcloth, within their collaged paintings.  This Thonet chair reminds me of this work.  There are four seats, each in an advancing stage of weave, the earliest stage the first from the chair and the completed the fourth seat from the chair.  Reinoso created the works by creating a version of each chair in the Thonet catalogue.  I like the way in which, even if unintentionally, art and design meet within these works.

At Demisch Danant Gallery, New York, the work of Maria Pergay caught my eye.  Pergay is a Russian artist now living and working in France who has been creating pieces of design since the 1960s.  She created a bespoke collection for the gallery after a ten year hiatus comprising of between twenty and thirty pieces, according to one of the gallerists.  Draped Cabinets, 2005 (edition of 8), where striated macassar wood pulls back like a curl of silk fabric to reveal the stainless shiny steel skeleton of the cabinet.  A large steel safety pin adds a little rock'n'roll edge to the pulled back waved material that acts as a door handle.  The macassar door opens fully to 180 degrees to reveal shelving within.  Influenced strongly by fabrics and fashion, this and her second piece of note on the stand is Bracelet Pouf Color, 2007 (edition of 20).  This stool-looking piece is made from enameled stanless steel formulating a squared buckled belt.

Moving on, we stopped at the Clara Scremini Gallery, Paris, to look at the spiked sharded glass pieces that serve no function other than the decorative.  These two Cubes, 2008, reminded me of the work of David Altmejd (showing at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, from this week until 15 November) in its icy glued aggression.  They are the work of the German artist and designer Josepha Gasch-Muche.  The second piece that stopped Yael and Shay in their tracks was the work of Finish artist and designer Anu Pentinen.  There were a few of her rounded shallow moulded glass bowls that portray in bright colours against the black glass, the design of the streamlined anonymous streets of Paris.

At Christian Grajales Inc, New York, the work of Sebastian Errazuriz stood out.  Not only his now iconic Wing Chaise Longue, 2008, but more specifically his Piano Wall Shelf Unit, 2007, created from rauki wood painted white.  The shelf unit has four shelving platforms that look like like small white picket fences.  The segments of the shelves can be lifted vertically or placed horizontally to become functional.  One of my criticisms of the fair is that it would be more interesting if the galleries focused their curating abilities on one particular artist, which would avoid the House&Home stage-set feel of the entire fair and I applaud the news that Christian Grajales Inc. intends to do just that at Design Miami Beach in December.

This did become a real bug bear of mine, this and the fact that there was hardly any work that could be classified as innovative and exciting that warranted inclusion in a fair entitled DesignArt.  This fair defines itself as the home of DesignArt and yet the majority of works on display are defined as classics from the design world.  Are we reclassifying them?  Is that the purpose of this fair - to take these pieces from their previous classification as design icons and reclassify them as works of designart?  Does the fair intend to reclassify all design as art?  Or are they jumping on a newly popular bandwagon in the hope of making more sales?  If this is the case then it is the second bandwagon that DesignArt is hijaking; the other is that of a satellite fair to London's Frieze and its counterparts - each of which shows only contemporary art. 

Discussion over coffee with Yael and Shay

Yael and Shay seem despondent.  I asked them why. 

SHAY ALKALAY: The fair seems to be a market aimed solely at generating business.  The galleries are showing pieces that are very much expected to be shown in a fair like this without trying to push the boundaries in surprising new directions. And if DesignArt is the second name to experimental design, no such experiments where found.

(Is this not what all fairs are about, I ask myself rather cynically.)

SA: A lot of the pieces are neither design nor art, they are merely decoration.

YAEL MER: Many of the gallerists are preserving excellent qualities from past periods that are important to the history of design, even if they are not new.

SA: As designers coming here, we see that there is lots more for us to do.  Looking at the contemporary design being created around us every day, you see what you can do to add to what is being done around you.  Looking at the museum quality pieces here, you see how far design has come.  You also see how it has developed so little if this is what is classified as 'contemporary design'.

YM: Design art is mean to be experimental but this is just not.  There are these shiny three-dimensional pieces and the old familiar modernist pieces but they cater to two mainstream tastes.  This is a perfect platform where experimental design could be shown.

SA: It is interesting that the galleries, such as Gallery Creo and FAT Gallery both in Paris, Nilufar in Milan or Libby Sellers from London, that are specifically dealing with experimental design are not participating in this fair.  DesignArt seems to be merely a marketing name and not representative of what is being created by the merger of these two fields.

YM:  It would be so much more interesting if designers and artists were invited to collaborate together, or young designers invited, to create something different for the fair or if the gallerists focused their curated stands on singluar designers' work.

The final push for me - and I will not name galleries - was seeing traditional artworks - paintings and drawings - hanging on the walls behind the pieces of design filling the stands.  These galleries are not exhibiting works that merge design and art, they are exhibiting pieces for sale at an interior design fair.  On the Parisian scene the organisors of DesignArt London also host the Pavilion des Arts et du Design, which is testament to the history of the French decorative art tradition.  Bringing this established concept across the Channel to London raises the question: does this fit in with the London contemporary design scene?  It certainly doesn't fit in with the contemporary London art scene and I would argue, based on the comments od Yael and Shay that it doesn't fit in with the contemporary London design scene either.  As a fair for interior design and the decorative arts it is very beautifully curated and staged and the works are indeed expertly and carefully chosen for their quality and their history.  As a fair paying hommage to great iconic modernist pieces this fair excels itself.  However, it doesn't work as a contemporary design fair that claims to bring together the worlds of art and design.  Unless, of course, their intention is to reclassify design as art and if it is, then I think this raises some interesting questions about it's positioning.  If this is so, it might make more sense to host the fair at another time of year and give a more experimental design art fair the opportunity to use its platform.

Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay are currently showing in London at Under the Same Roof with the OKAYstudio at the Aram Gallery and From Now to Eternity with Arts Co at the Biscuit Building in Shoreditch  They are to show at DesignTide Tokyo : at the end of the month.