VDW Dispatch explores issues and ideas across design specializations through the local lens.
Edition 1 explores the hazy line between art and design through two pieces. In the first, Heather Stoutenburg interviews artists and designers from their working perspectives. In the second, Tony Osborn examines the deployment of art to round out the intent of design.

Art vs Design in the City of Glass

By Heather Stoutenburg

Heather Stoutenburg is a writer and content strategist who lives, works, and pets dogs in East Vancouver.

While it seems clear-cut to almost anyone you ask, it's not so easy to find agreement on just what separates art from design. As Heather finds, one's opinion is as much a matter of personal experience and values as it is discipline.

For Japanese calligrapher Kisyuu, the line that divides art and design might be the Pacific Ocean. Born and raised in Japan, Kisyuu has studied calligraphy since the age of seven. But it was her move to Canada that brought with it a new artistic freedom.

“In Japan, everyone reads Japanese,” she said. “Here, the majority of people can’t read what I’m writing. So I get to be more creative and find other ways to express myself through my work.”

In Kisyuu’s case, that translates to bold brush strokes, ink splatters and flourishes that bear little resemblance to the two-thousand-year-old classical calligraphy discipline. Her final pieces are dreamy, ethereal explorations of language and colour.

“I consider myself an artist,” Kisyuu explained, “But because calligraphy is a written language, how people view [my work] depends whether I’m in Japan or Canada.

Within the art and design community (or communities, depending on your definition) the debate is a perennial one. There are a few points of agreement – design is generally understood as something that solves a problem; art poses a question. Art is open to interpretation, while good design certainly shouldn’t be. Design also has an intended target audience, and (at least in the case of design disciplines with professional bodies, like architecture) an obligation to that audience’s safety and wellbeing. Art has no obligation to anyone.

“Expression” is another word that comes up a lot in the debate. Kisyuu referred to art as a “tool of self-expression,” describing design instead as something that solves a problem.

Overlap and Friction

In a voicemail left on Vancouver Design Week’s call-in line, design professional and Creative Community Activist Mark Busse said the same. “There are artists who design, and designers who create art, but art is about expression and dialogue while design is about service.”

Chatting at a Mount Pleasant coffee shop, Nathan Lee largely agreed. “Design is utilitarian in nature; art is an expression.” But as both a public artist and a landscape designer at Hapa Collaborative, Nathan believes there are more similarities between art and design than there are differences. “The goals may be different but the process is very similar. Both start with a concept; both talk about materials and form. All of these things serve as bridges between the two.”

Perhaps due to his multidisciplinary background, Nathan is an advocate for breaking down barriers – not just between art and design, but within their sub-disciplines.

“I’d love to see art and design as a fluid back and forth, where you don’t have to define yourself as one or the other. You can be both. That’s maybe a bit flowery,” he laughed, “but it’s what I’d like to think we can achieve.”

Not everyone is convinced fluidity is something to aspire to. Nathan’s colleague Shelley Long, a fellow landscape designer and adjunct professor at UBC, disagreed. “I don’t think of myself as an artist and I think it’s important that boundaries are clear – so you know where your skills lie and how you can contribute.”

Many designers agree. As legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser told a rapt crowd at the Guggenheim in October, “Design has nothing to do with art.”

One’s opinions on art and design and the line that divides are heavily shaped by personal experience. Language, culture and geography all contribute to the nuanced ways we view both disciplines – which means we’re bound to disagree.

Common Ground

But Shelley, Nathan, Mark, and Kisyuu did find common ground on one thing: there’s room in Vancouver for both disciplines to grow. “We need to value both [the art and design communities] more, and celebrate art and design in the way we build our cities and neighbourhoods,” Mark emphasized in his voicemail.

Kisyuu expressed a similar sentiment. “Everyone makes art, but where are the companies that want to hire artists? Where are the people who are interested in art?”

It’s a valid question that circled back to familiar subjects for any Vancouverite: affordability and real estate. Both Shelley and Nathan expressed reservations about gentrification and its impact on art space, and the concentration of design decision making power in the hands of Vancouver’s real estate developers.

But with new projects, events and communities forming – the new Emily Carr campus; a potential new Vancouver Art Gallery; Vancouver Design Week; the Urbanarium – there’s cautious optimism for the future of Vancouver’s art and design scenes. “We’re working in an interesting time in this city,” Shelley conceded. Nathan agreed. “When we look back in 50 years we’ll either say ‘that was the beginning of something special,’ or ‘that could have been something special.’”

Art to the Rescue

By Tony Osborn

Tony Osborn is an architect and owner of TOAD, Tony Osborn Architecture + Design. He is an adjunct professor at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at UBC, and the founder of Turncoats Vancouver, a public debate series on architecture.

Early this year, the City of Vancouver inaugurated an innovative and cost-effective weapon in its battle against homelessness. The conventional approach to housing those in need is to build new, permanent structures, and this approach is still part of the City’s arsenal.

Unfortunately, that process can be too slow to match the rate at which existing units are being demolished to make way for condos. To spare evictees from homelessness, the City needed a quick, flexible, cheap, and temporary place to house people while more permanent housing is built.

They borrowed a solution from the unlikeliest of places: the oil camps of Alberta.

The building that now sits at Main and Terminal is an assemblage of 40 modular housing units, manufactured by a company that provides similar units to labourers in the oil fields. By all accounts, they appear to provide more humane living accommodations than typical single residency hotels. The project’s purpose, to provide interim housing to low-income residents, is unimpeachable. Its manifestation, on the other hand, is the perfect foray into the discussion that is the topic of this newsletter: what is the line between art and design, and does it matter?

Every artifact in the industrial landscape of Alberta’s tar sands is judged by only one criterion: utility. Understandably, modular housing units manufactured for this environment look utilitarian. They are identical boxes with meagre windows and exposed ventilation grilles that, when stacked together, resemble the kind of roadside motel you’d find in a town too small to warrant one. The system isn’t designed for flexibility, and little can be done to transform it into anything besides what it is. In an effort to soften its edges a bit, a necklace of shrubs was planted, bright coloured paneling was applied to the exterior, and the project organizers brought in the big guns: art. Fixed to one side of the structure, and as tall as three modular units, a mural called Listening. On. Waking Terrain. by First Nations artist, Bracken Hanuse Corlett, dominates the view of the project from the street.

Stroll down Granville Street and you’ll see the same technique used on a different kind of utilitarian artifact: the utility boxes that dot the sidewalk. For the last several years, Emily Carr students have been invited to embellish these boxes using wrappers printed with their digital art and illustration work. It’s a clever solution to the conundrum of unsightly fixtures and –  for Granville Street at least –  preferable to the local standard of camouflaging utility boxes with photos of shrubs in summer. Art has been deployed here to do a job: to embellish, disguise, or maybe just distract attention from the thing behind it that’s a little too utilitarian to remain exposed. Like the interim housing project on Main and Terminal, art has been applied to improve things.

A Line Imagined

Using a technique to improve things sounds a lot like design. Milton Glaser is a graphic designer whose work isn’t easy to categorize as either design or art. For him, the distinction between the two is paramount, especially for those practising in the two disciplines. “Design,” according to Glaser, “is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one.” This elegant definition captures the problem-solving nature of design, gracefully avoiding all the contingencies that come up when one tries to capture its full spectrum. The art described in the two examples above fits neatly into Glaser’s definition of design, but not his definition of art. Glaser sees art’s purpose as a transformation of the viewer, specifically one that connects the viewer to the “real.” That’s not an easy goal to reach on the side of a high voltage electrical transformer, or on the grimy sidewalks of Terminal Avenue.

When trying to find the disciplinary boundaries between design and art, it’s easy to list examples, like the two above, that blur the line. This is not an argument for the staking out of territories so they can be defended by practitioners in each. Rather, it’s an argument for understanding why art is being used to solve problems in the place of design, and what this means for the future of both. If the future holds in store more murals to prevent graffiti, illustrated adhesive wraps to conceal utility boxes, and murals to soften the edges of utilitarian architecture, what does that mean for the value, appreciation, and quality of art? Conversely, if clients, bureaucrats, and politicians believe art can be easily deployed to spruce up, layer over, and camouflage every undesirable piece of the city, what does that mean for the value, appreciation, and quality of design?

In a laneway not far from Waterfront Station, an urban ailment was diagnosed and art was not prescribed as the cure. Given the limited supply of public space in the city, the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association wanted to reimagine its laneways as more than just utility corridors. They wanted to invite people in, and they reached out to HCMA Architecture + Design for a proposal that could do that.

What HCMA proposed and built was simple but effective: bright paint on every paintable surface, a basketball hoop, and some white lines (evocative of the markings on a gym floor) to playfully suggest activities that can happen in the space. From the minute the paint dried, this laneway has been almost continuously occupied by passersby snapping selfies and, occasionally, business men shooting hoops. Using essentially the same materials that could have produced a mural, this design reconfigures the way people inhabit laneways, and invites them all to be activated. That’s a powerful thing to accomplish with paint, and design is uniquely well suited to the job.

However, while design might be able to do some things better than art, the dichotomy is a false one. Also in the works is another laneway transformation project by HCMA that will feature an interactive art piece, luring the curious into the lane to connect with it. When it’s built, the project will demonstrate how the borders of art and design often overlap and can be used successfully to pursue similar ends. But these powerful collaborations require artists and designers to work together, charting out ways that each can be used to greatest effect, without straying into realms more appropriate to the other.

We, as designers and artists, should advocate for more of this. In the face of tight budgets, short deadlines, and demanding electorates, cities gravitate toward simple solutions with predictable outcomes. Murals and wraps are a popular go-to, but that doesn’t make them replacements for design. We need the best of both: design to transform the world, and art to transform the people in it.

This edition of VDW Dispatch is funded by Denim & Steel Interactive. To sponsor a future edition, write to info@vancouverdesignwk.com

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