When I’m not working, cleaning dishes, or yanking weeds, I like to kick back with a stiff drink and contemplate the differences between Art and Design. I’ll admit, before I began my study of landscape design five years ago, I really did not have much exposure to the world of design — certainly not visual design anyway. Except for one desktop publishing course, my college English courses were almost exclusively studies in poetry, fiction, and drama, all squarely in the “artsy” realm of language known as “literature.”
So which gardens (if any) are the equivalent of “literature”? When does garden making move from mere Design into the heralded world of Art? Certainly professional landscape designers and architects have to accommodate client requests and respond to a project’s “program” — do these constraints automatically preclude the designer’s work from being considered Art?
Well, yes, pretty much. If you go by some commonly accepted definitions of Art and Design, that is. This brief article, by North Carolina artist and designer Michael Brady, outlines some of the differences between the two, which I shall summarize and ruminate upon forthwith.
1. Purpose — Art is its own end; Design is utilitarian. In other words, if you’re working for a client, you’re not making art. So even though every fiber of your being might want to proclaim that the Highline, or the gardens of Villandry, or the rain garden you designed for your kid’s elementary school, is a work of art, according to this criterion it is not. The designers were merely fulfilling a set of needs outlined by clients. Doesn’t matter if the client is the City of New York, a French finance minister, or Runnynose Elementary School.
2. How they are Made — “Artists generally have assumed that the product is a work of their mind and spirit first, and only secondarily serves the purpose of the commission.” Seemingly, the inverse is true of designers, but I think this one is kind of fuzzy. For example, do you think Thomas Church was merely serving the desires of the Donnell family when he designed their iconic pool and gardens? Is this a work of Church’s “mind and spirit first” or does the fact that the design’s main feature is a swimming pool (presumably requested by the Donnells) disqualify it from the realm of art?
Another interesting statement made by Brady is that designers tend to just “arrange ingredients” whereas an artist is far less limited. He argues that many of the components of a design may already exist and that the designer’s job is to bring them together to best meet the needs of the job. For a landscape designer, I suppose the site itself would qualify as an inevitable “ingredient.” A landscape design cannot exist independently of its physical environment, which ties the hands of the designer. The designer’s creative vision is going to be limited by the site from the get-go. Okay, so LeNotre and Capability Brown were less limited, since they couldn’t steamroll the entire world to accommodate their designs, but you get my point.
3. How They are Judged: “Art is judged in terms of beauty and truth, of insight and revelation…” Of design, Brady says, “Ultimately, a design must fulfill its primary job of packaging or illustration or instruction, and no amount of aesthetic glamour will substitute for its failure to do so.”
Blech. I hate the sound of that last statement, but I suppose it’s true. If you don’t meet the client’s needs, your design will be unsuccessful. It reminds me of an episode of Landscaper’s Challenge I watched a long time ago. The client that week was a young family in California, and the homeowners expressly told the three designers who were competing for the job that they wanted this massive cactus removed so that their little girl would not be impaled while she was playing. One of the designers completely ignored that request, and in fact made the cactus a centerpiece of her design, saying how “special” it would be if their little girl grew up with “Grandfather Cactus” watching over her. Dumb! Of course she didn’t get picked.
(Now, that’s not to say that you should never try to change your client’s mind, but that is a topic for another post….)
4. Audience Expectations. I had some issues with this one. Brady quotes Beatrice Warde, who said, “at some point, the goblet of design must become transparent, allowing viewers to gather the intended information, rather than be absorbed by the designer’s layout.” Now, if we’re talking about the design of public spaces, I could see Warde’s point. A well-designed public space might offer an assortment of seating options, it might guide visitors to a certain location, it might hinder crime or accommodate foot traffic…in cases like this a good design often will be transparent; visitors will not be conscious that they are in a designed space at all.
Private gardens are different, though, aren’t they? I mean, the designer is still trying to create an experience for the visitor, but since it’s often an aesthetic experience, doesn’t that draw more attention to the design itself? For example, isn’t design on display here in this Jekyll-inspired perennial border:
Or here, in these sculptures at the Getty Center:
5. Materials. In this area I think that landscape design can certainly qualify as art. “A work of art,” Brady argues, “makes a point in reveling in its materials.” Nobody revels in their materials more than landscape designers. Whether its stone, water, leaf, or bark, landscape designers are passionate about the tangibles of their designs. In fact, many designers so revere plants that they bristle when people use the term “plant material,” horrified that plants could be perceived as the equivalent of bricks or CMUs. I can’t imagine this level of obsession to materials in any other visual artform. Paints? Come on! Marble? Steel? Wood? Maybe.
I will close with one of Brady’s more contentious statements:
The difference between art and design is in the way we look at them. Design is meant to be looked away from and art to be looked at and into. Design graces our lives with the aesthetic presentation of useful and beneficial things, and art graces us with representations of things to ponder and perceive. Art and design are closely related but nonetheless separate. It is a good thing to keep them straight.
Please comment! I would love to know what you all think!