The Shape of Things to Come
Aldersey-Williams, Hugh, New Statesman (1996)
Untitled (1998), the dominant presence in last year's exhibition of the work of Anish Kapoor at the Hayward Gallery, is a fibreglass shape like a voluminous white kidney but with a rectangular void let into its concave face. The void and its enveloping form are meant, no doubt, to induce contemplations of sublimity. But to the profane eye it looks just like the space where a wide screen should go to complete what's obviously meant to be a giant television, the sort you'd have in your sprawling Manhattan-style loft.
It is one of the self-imposed tasks of the sculptor to help us make sense of the materials around us. But shouldn't the designer be doing this too? If a sculptor like Kapoor is able to make blank fibreglass mean more, it can only be because designers are failing to make the stuff strut.
Graphic and textile designers happily plunder Riley's wiggles and Damien's dots. But three-dimensional designers seem to have little truck with sculpture. How so? After all, artists have found inspiration in product design. It was in 1912 that Duchamp famously exhibited a porcelain urinal and a metal bottle-rack - and purported to be dismayed when they were instantly embraced as art. "When I discovered ready-mades I thought to discourage aesthetics," he wrote. "I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty."
Richard Hamilton raised the stakes by paying homage not to anonymous commonplaces but to branded goods. Ford, Chrysler and Ricard were among his subjects. "My admiration for the work of Dieter Rams is intense," Hamilton has said. Dieter Rams? Some new Nat Tate figure? No, Rams was for 40 years the design director at the electrical products manufacturer Braun.
This much is flattering for designers, but of no practical help to them. In minimalism, however, sculptors had something designers might learn from. Their interest was no longer in products themselves but in the essence of "productness". John McCracken's fibreglass slabs and Donald Judd's crisp chrome rectangles had the smooth lines and polished perfection of industrial production- but somehow smoother and more polished. At the same time, the technology of manufacturing advanced to allow products to be moulded with precisely right-angled corners and parallel sides, something that had previously been as difficult as building a sandcastle with truly vertical walls. Minimalism in art was well timed to influence a new generation of products.
Kapoor's work seems to have little bearing at first. But that would be to discount the eruption of "organic" forms among previously rectilinear products, their complicated lines made possible above all by computer-aided design (CAD). But Kapoor slightly post-dates this technological revolution, which is why his sculpture looks like a television housing. If minimalist sculpture usefully coincided with refinements in manufacturing, here a connection has been missed. How much more of an influence Brancusi or Arp or Hepworth might have had if CAD had come along earlier to enable designers to follow their curves. …