are da vinci and panamarenko colleagues?

on the difference between art and design


There is a difference between creating real objects or a real environment and conjuring up a world (mimesis). Architecture and design are creating a real environment to live in and real objects to manipulate, art is conjuring up an imaginary world. Design is often coupled with art and art is often coupled with design. Both design and art oppose such hybridisation. In sharp contrast with such purism is a totally opposite tendency whereby design comes to pose as art or art is approached as if it were design. The disguise of design as art is facilitated through a partial similarity of both activities.


Meanwhile, the fame of Panamarenko has spread far outside the confines of his native country Belgium. Whoever has seen his vehicles, cannot but be charmed by their utter poetic and slightly ironic charm. Which does not prevent that his creations cannot possibly be compared with the paintings of da Vinci, with whom Panamarenko is readily compared.

Let us try to find a rational foundation for such intuition.


Rather than of paintings, Panamarenko’s vehicles remind us of those other magnificent examples of design such as the Concorde or a Ferrari. It is stating the obvious when we point to the fact that the difference between a Concorde and Panamarenko’s vehicles is that the latter only pretend to be able to fly. These are ‘useless’ planes that rather seem to ridicule functionality altogether. Therewith, any attempt to refer Panamarenko to the world of the designers, seems to be nipped in the bud.

But there is something like ‘useless’, non-functional design. Think of Greek or Chinese vases, that have been designed not so much in view of the conservation of oil or wine, but for the sole purpose of embodying beauty. They only pretend to be vases, just like Panamarenko’s vehicles only pretend to be planes. We could speak of ‘aestheticising design’. Other examples are chess boards that are only meant to look at or clothes that one can only wear on the catwalk.

But we surely would do Panamarenko wrong when equalling his vehicles with decorative vases. No doubt, Panamarenko’s vehicles are beautiful, but we cannot possibly maintain that here is a designer that is so mesmerised by beauty, that he forgets about the utilitarian aspect of his creations. Whereas with decorative vases the utilitarian aspect is inconspicuously swept under the carpet, Panamarenko is deliberately out at making vehicles that cannot fly. But also therein, Panamarenko’s vehicles are not unique. Many a design openly questions functionality: think of the nail bed of the fakir, of stilts or bicycles with oval wheels, of Man Ray’s iron with nails, of Dali’s melting watches, or of Tinguely’s machines that are working without producing anything or are destructing themselves. One could easily figure out other playful designs: think of very high or very low, oblique or wobbling tables, and so on.

We could subsume all those kinds of ‘aestheticising’, ‘playful’ or ‘ironic’ design under the general category of ‘free design’ (or, by analogy with ‘fine arts’: ‘fine design’) as opposed to design that is functional in the first place.


Design is not confined to the creation of utensils in the strict sense of the word: furniture, instruments, vehicles, clothes and so on. Also the space wherein man is moving pertains to the world of design. And what has been said above about design of utensils goes equally for such ‘spatial’ design.

As a rule, man creates environments that provide a feeling of security through organising a space structured around a centre from which emanate three dimensions: there is a solid ground with the open sky or a dome or vault above it, there is a central point where all the movements come together, there are several entrance ways and the whole space is bordered with trees, columns, walls of hills. Roads are structured around a central axis with symmetric rows of trees, columns or gates. Often roads and spaces converge in one single point, as in a gothic church or a mosque.

Other spaces have a quite opposite effect because they violate one of the above mentioned rules: think of ‘English parks’, labyrinths, mirror halls, artificial caves, slides and trampolines, fairground attractions with rising, falling, turning or wobbling floors, and what have you. Or we could fancy spaces with steps leading nowhere (like on Piranesi’s etchings) or ending up in themselves (like on Esher’s prints).

As a rule spatial design tends to escape our attention. A mirror hall is not so easily associated with a mosque. But there is no reason to discriminate between a gallery and a labyrinth on the sole ground that they produce a totally different effect.

As a rule, architecture tends to be decorated. Sometimes it is festively illuminated as in shopping streets. In Las Vegas the entire architecture seems to be born out of light. Sometimes buildings are decorated with marble, or they may be painted or cleaned. On festive occasions they are decorated with carpets, flags and flowers. It suffices to replace the ‘festive’ effect with another - be it ironic, estranging, funny - and we have landed up in Christo’s ‘emballages’ or Fabre’s covering of buildings with (bluebic) paper or slices of ham. There is no fundamental difference between the decorating of the Eiffel tower as if it were a Christmas tree and Christo’s wrapping of the Pont-Neuf in Paris.


We might ask whether Piranesi with his ‘Carceri’, Esher with his stairs ending up in themselves or Dali with his melting watches, are not equally designers? Everybody will instinctively answer: no, these are artists! And that certainty is founded in an obvious difference: Piranesi is only conjuring up imaginary spaces by using ink on paper. A genuine architect on the other hand is building real spaces in steel and concrete.

That does not prevent anyone from trying to build real ‘Carceri’ of real ‘Esher stairs’ as if the prints of Piranesi and Esher were mere plans. He would then be a ‘spatial designer’, an architect, albeit a ‘free designer’ just like the good old Facteur Cheval.

It would immediately appear that there is a difference between merely conjuring up an environment and really building one. Of course, on the canvas we can afford many ‘artistic licences’. But, suppose the designs on the canvas were realisable, there would remain an important difference between the Carceri as they were etched by Piranesi and the real building in the ‘Piranesi Park’. That Piranesi uses black ink and etched lines lends his Carceri an inalienable flavour. What a work of art evokes is inherently determined by the means of evocation.

Thus, an architect like Corbusier is a designer, not an artist. Just like a gothic cathedral or the Hagia Sophia, his constructions are real, not imaginary like Piranesi’s carceri. And for the same obvious reason, Panamarenko is not an artist, but a designer. His vehicles are as real as the Concorde. And this holds equally for Long, who walks a path in a field of flowers, for Man Ray who fixes nails on an iron, Tinguely who constructs useless or self-destructive machines, Christo who wraps buildings.

Designer is also Rauschenberg when he makes ‘soft toilets’. That he thereby ‘refers’ to Dali and Duchamp might be of interest for art critics, but it does not turn his designs into works of art. One could argue that Rauschenberg replaces the porcelain with plastic, just like Praxiteles replaces the flesh of Venus with the marble of his sculpture. But that is a mere sophism. It is not Rauschenberg’s intention that his plastic would look like porcelain, whereas Praxiteles succeeds in transforming stone in a body of flesh and blood.


That does not prevent art and design from joining hands. Architecture used to be decorated with works of art: columns in the shape of papyrus or pillars in the shape of branched trees, sculptures, paintings, frescoes and mosaics. A lot of furniture used to be so worked out as to resemble imaginary beings: think of the ‘legs’ of a chair or of Dali’s sofa in the shape of a mouth. The surfaces of utensils are often decorated with works of art: paintings on dishes, cloth, carpets and curtains. Vases often take the shape of an animal. Also vehicles often remind of imaginary beings: the Concorde of an insect, the Jumbo jet of a swan. The similarity is often enhanced by adding some painted details. Also clothes often imitate what they conceal.

Nevertheless, in all these cases were are dealing with a mixture of two essentially different things. The painted sky in the dome is a conjured up sky that is totally distinct from the real hemisphere of the dome and even tends to obliterate it. And when we admire a painting on a Greek vase, the surface of the vase disappears behind the scene we are watching – however much the decorative aspect of the painting may be integrated in the decoration of the vase itself.

Another source of confusion is the fact that design, especially architecture, often carries a symbolic freight. The floor plan of a temple may measure a double square as a symbol of divine perfection, a dome may symbolise the sky, or pillars may refer to the apostles and so on. Also the colour may function symbolically: the Taj Mahal was intended to have a black counterpart on the other side of the river. The same goes for the material: there is a difference between a wooden house and a brick house, between a brick church and a marble temple. In all those cases architecture begins to ’speak’. The cross of the cathedral refers to the Holy Cross. Gold on a dome is not only beautiful, it equally tells us that we are dealing with an important building. And Fabre’s rotting slices of ham on the columns of the Aula of the University of Ghent are intended to tell something about the academic world. Therein, Fabre’s slices of ham do not differ from the calligraphic panels that the Turks had hanged in the Hagia Sophia – no to mention the stucco with which they covered the whole interior – of from graffiti. But – as we have already demonstrated in ‘Are Rubens and Beuys colleagues? – it is not because something has a meaning, that it is art, even when the meaning is conveyed through icons (iconic signs). That we can conceive Tinguely’s machines as non-verbal statements about the industrial society, does not turn them into works of art.


Conversely, many an artwork is embedded in design.

That already goes for the subject that is conjured up. As a rule a work of art stages people in diverse clothes, using utensils in man-made environments ranging from interiors, over public places to man-made landscapes. All these designs may be borrowed from the real world, but in most cases it is the artist himself that has created them. On Botticelli’s Primavera we see an alley with orange trees, Brueghel has designed his imaginary ‘Tower of Babel’, Piranesi conjures up imaginary spaces with stairs leading to nowhere, and in his ‘Trial’ Kafka conjures up a room where the public has to stand stooped. But that does no turn Botticelli, Brueghel, Piranesi or Kafka into designers. Not for nothing are artists often accused of thinking themselves Gods: they not only create objects and environments, but living being and nature as well. But, otherwise than the real creator that saddled us with a real world, artist only create only imaginary beings in a imaginary world.

In addition, works of arts are not seldom objects that call for a becoming design and a becoming environment. A novel is a book that has to be printed and put on shelves. A piece of music has to played on instruments and in a given space. A fresco is conceived in view of the wall on which it is painted and a painting is surrounded by an often intricate frame. A sculpture calls for a pedestal or a niche and for an appropriate square or space, and so on.

This combination is not only external. That a sculpture is conceived for a niche determines its very composition from within: think of the sculptures in the portal of Chartres that take the shape of the pillars. And paintings not only have an often intricate frame, as a rule the geometry of the rectangle is affecting the inmost composition of the painting. And that holds not only of the composition: before conjuring up a world, a stained-glass window is a decorative composition of coloured planes that has to be integrated in its architectural context.


However much some designers and artists may delight in such promiscuity, others are totally allergic to it. Since Adolf Loos’ ‘Ornament ist Verbrechen’ many architects try to clear architecture from any artistic frill: away with caryatids and sculptures, frescoes and mosaics. A similar tendency was apparent in ‘functional’ design.

Conversely, from the Renaissance onward many an artists was striving for the liberation of the painting from its subordination to architecture. The autonomous painting should retire within the confines of its own rectangular frame. It suffices to compare a stained-glass window in Chartres with a painting of Titian. A similar strive can be observed in sculpture, where the statue was to be liberated from the straitjacket of architecture. Here, it suffices to compare a statue from the portal in Chartres with a sculpture of Bernini or Rodin.


There is also a totally opposite evolution, whereby design is posing as art or whereby art is approached as if it were design. Especially in the plastic arts, the idea of art as mimesis, as evocation of a world, has become increasingly suspect. The narrative - or ‘literary’- aspect of art had to be replaced with the ‘decorative’ or ‘the musical’.

No wonder that art was inconspicuously transformed into design. Both design and art use the same colours, forms and compositions and even the same materials. Also colours, forms and compositions have an effect of their own. A painting is in the first place a plane with a given composition of forms and colours. As long as we make abstraction of the world evoked, these colours, forms and compositions have the same effects as those of furniture, tapestry, interiors or clothes. In these effects of colours and forms are interested both those who approach the painting as a purely formal composition, and those who are asking themselves whether the painting will harmonise with their interior. But there are also the colours and forms of the imaginary world. There, red is no longer red as such, but the red of lips or a blush, of a garment or of flowers. These colours are not ‘real’ in the sense that they always are colours of imaginary things.

Now, a painting may be regarded as a mere composition of colours and forms. Whoever adheres to such pure formalism – whoever forgets that the painting also conjures up a world – reduces the painting to a mere tiled floor, a carpet or a flower bed: the opposite move as the one that was out at liberating the painting from its function as a ‘carpet’. Such was the program of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ and - on an industrial level - of the constructivists in Moscou that wanted art to dissolve in life. They paved the way for a more playful design like that of Panamarenko. In its endeavour to clear architecture from art, ‘De Stijl’ laid the foundations for a further dissolution of art into design. ‘De Stijl’ not only wanted to integrate exterior and interior, also the paintings – i.e. the painted walls and doors – and all the objects in the interior – clothes included – had to be conceived in one and the same style. Thus, art was swallowed by design and reduced to a mere play of colours and forms.

It is obvious then that a beautiful composition of forms and colours is not necessarily a work of art. The same goes for beautiful objects of design. These may be beautiful, just like flowers or women, but that does not turn them into art.


Because both design and art are using the same materials and techniques, it is often the same persons that produce them. It is well known that in Van Eyck’s studio also signboards were painted, that Dürer designed triumphal arches and that da Vinci not only designed clothes but also instruments and vehicles. But that should not induce designers like Panamarenko to regard themselves as colleagues of these painters. It is not because da Vinci also designed clothes, that fashion would be art. And it is not because da Vinci also designed fountains and squares and parks, that landscape architects would be artists. And for the same reason designers or engineers are not artists, because da Vinci also designed submarines, helicopters and other armaments. As opposed to da Vinci, who was not only an artist, but also a designer of fashion, gardens, submarines and helicopters, Panamarenko is merely a designer.

Which does not amount to say that Panamarenko does not have colleagues, but these are not Van Eyck, Dürer or da Vinci. The genuine colleagues of Panamarenko are designers like Coco Chanel or van Beirendock, Tatlin or Loewy.

That Panamarenko – just like the fashion designer van Beirendonck – knew how to conquer the museum that formerly used to be reserved for artists, does not make the difference. They – or the directors of the museums – are only mistaken about the nature of the museum in question. Man Ray’s iron and the vehicles of Panamarenko, should not be exhibited in a ‘museum of fine arts’, but in a museum of design, next to the designs of da Vinci and Coco Chanel, the triumphal arches of Dürer and Speer, and Mies van de Rohe’s chair. Perhaps there will be room then for what really belongs in the ‘Museum of Fine Arts’. At least, if meanwhile most artists have not completely forgotten what painting and sculpting were all about…

It will be superfluous to remind that the above does not mean that we should think low of a designer. It is not because a streamline design of Loewy or the surrealistic iron of Man Ray are not works of art, that they would be inferior objects. The cathedral of Chartres does something else than its stained-glass windows and its sculpture, but it is not less worth our admiration.

© Stefan Beyst, 2000.

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