There is possibly no greater challenge for functional art than standardization. For most makers, you’d sware it was a four letter, get-your-mouth-washed-out-with-soap, filthy, word. If you dare to utter “standardize” in your college art class, you are sure to receive an F on your next project. The world of art does not square with having to work inside set parameters. However, like it or not, it’s a fact that those of us that make things that are to actually be used must accept and deal with.
You’ve seen her. That pure gal down at the office that has the plaster ”barouche” pin that her son made in 2nd grade art class pinned to her blouse. Not only does it not resemble “a rose” but it’s also so heavy that it looks as if that rose pin will take a piece o f her blouse with it if she jostles it to hard. The plaster rose is 6 inches in diameter, weighs a good 1.5 lb., and has a 3/4 inch brass pin holding it on her. The thing is a safety hazard as it knocks stuff off the shelf as she walks by, but she promised her son “I’ll wear it all day long” and she will not lie to the little guy.
Standards are established for a few reasons. Pretty much all of them can be summed by the concept that we are lazy and or cheap. Basically, we want things to be done the same, over and over with as little effort and training as possible. Better yet, let’s get a task lowered to such a level of mundaneness that a machine can do it for us. So we, the makers, are left with this constant quandary; do we conform to prefab factory-made standards, or do we blow off the parameters and risk making something that has no place in a standardized society? If you build a chair, throw a clay mug, knit a sweater, construct a guitar, design a room layout, or any other form and function task, the function must be present. It’s the ability to flourish creatively inside those standards that make us artisans.
I recently got the wild hair to build a casket. I had always wanted to give it a try and besides, “It couldn’t be that hard.” How many great men have died for uttering those words? I conceived a nice box that was person-sized, four walls and a lid, right? Wrong. The burial industry has formed their own set of standards that must be adhered to. Unless, that is, I want to buy my own cemetary, pour my own vault, and wait ’til someone dies whose family doesn’t care that they are burried in my backyard. The interesting thing about standards is that they describe a whole world, and to design a casket I had to become a part of this world. There was so much to learn about how things are done, why they are done that way, and who came up with it. There is a rich history that can be learned just by studying standards.
When I worked as a patinur at a bronze foundry, the artists were the worst part of the job. They sat for hours and hours sculpting their clay. All the while envisioning the final piece and what they wanted it to look like. Yet when they brought their piece in to be molded and cast, they had on idea of what could be done, or how to do it. It was like pulling teeth to get these folks to understand the limitations and standard of casting a bronze sculpture. Artists can be the hardest people to live with, just ask their spouses. It was those few sculptors who had taken the time to understand the casting process that made the finest work. They knew what could be done, therefore they knew what should be done. One of my favorite of these artists said to me once, “Don’t call me an artist, I prefer to be call a Designer.”
I think design is the key to this conundrum. An artist pushes boundaries, but a designer asks why the boundaries are there. An artist seeks to break though establishments; a designer seeks to establish break-throughs. An artist shows people art for art’s sake but a designer creates art for people’s sake.