Design & Shopping: Square pegs, round holes

The Tate's collaboration with Homebase in mass-producing art for the home isn't the first of its kind. And the project raises more questions than it answers.
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The Independent Culture
Back in 1934, Harrods organised an exhibition called Modern Art for the Table, featuring ceramics and glass designed by leading artists of the day, including Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and Eric Ravilious. Their creations, which consisted of jolly, hand-painted designs for pottery, and quirky, cut and engraved patterns on glass, were produced by leading tableware manufacturers such as Stuart Crystal and Clarice Cliff.

A year later the merits of this collaboration were vaunted once again, this time in a high-profile exhibition at the Royal Academy, called British Art in Industry. Critical response was fairly negative, though, and in commercial terms the venture was a flop. After the war a fresh attempt was made to promote the involvement of artists in industrial design.

This time the chosen medium was textiles, and the sponsor was a forward- looking trade magazine called The Ambassador. The project was launched at the ICA in 1953 with an exhibition called Painting into Textiles. Henry Moore and John Piper were two of the heavyweights who participated, along with several up-and-coming abstract artists, including the young Eduardo Paolozzi and William Gear. The initiative attracted the attention of leading manufacturers, notably the design-conscious David Whitehead and the firm Horrockses, who put several printed furnishing and dress fabrics into production.

Having spent my formative years in a house adorned with some bold painterly abstract curtains by the artist Donald Hamilton Fraser, I can vouch for the success of the Painting into Textiles initiative and its impact on everyday homes. Not that I realised that at the time, of course. It was only recently, on flicking through an old copy of The Ambassador, that I began to wonder why I was experiencing such a powerful sense of deja vu. Sadly, by the time the penny dropped the curtains themselves were long gone, replaced during the late Seventies by an insipid Laura Ashley design.

But all good things come round again. Here we are at the end of 1999 with a new exhibition about to open at the Tate, called At Home With Art. Sounds spookily familiar, doesn't it? That's because it's founded on the same basic premise of forging an alliance between fine art and domestic design. Except that now the moral fervour prompting the original initiatives has been abandoned, and instead, it would appear, the exercise is being undertaken as a sociological experiment. The cast list of nine top British sculptors - including Tony Cragg, Alison Wilding, Antony Gormley, Richard Wentworth, Richard Deacon, David Mach and Anish Kapoor - is just as starry as it was back in the Thirties when Modern Art for the Table was conceived. The present-day collaborator, Homebase, seems a sensible choice in this DIY-dominated age, while the imposition of a pounds 50 upper limit on the price of the finished objects demonstrates a genuine commitment to affordability to all. At Home With Art was dreamt up by Professor Colin Painter, an artist and curator with a long-standing interest in the way "ordinary people" relate to works of art in the home - be they original or repro. Contemporary art rarely finds its way into people's homes, he realised, yet people surround themselves with images and objects that perform aesthetic roles.

"The exciting thing about this project," says Painter, "is bringing leading contemporary sculptors together with householders, to generate mass-produced objects that people can live with and enjoy."

To kick-start the scheme, each artist was paired up with a surrogate family, which they visited and spent time with, a process recorded in a documentary shown recently on television. The idea was that this would provide them with inspiration, while encouraging them to keep their feet on the ground. At the start of the project Tony Cragg seemed quite enthusiastic, attracted by the idea of being able to express himself in a simple way.

"Art is for connoisseurs," he admits, "but the aim is to broaden the number of connoisseurs." However, after his initial proposal to create a breast-shaped baby's drinking-bottle was rejected by Homebase (not on aesthetic grounds, but because it didn't fit into their established product range), he struggled to come up with an alternative. Much as I admire his work as a sculptor, I have to admit that the fork-and-trowel- cum-garden-sculptures that eventually emerged from his studio in Germany seem disappointingly impractical and contrived. Each artist adopted a different take on the project. For Richard Wentworth, the challenge was to design a domestic object with some kind of resonance, but one that was expressed allusively rather than literally. He collaborated in the past with the potter Janice Tchalenko, so it was not surprising that Wentworth should plump for clay as his chosen material.

The end result was a plate impressed with fingerprints, intended to remind us that even mass-produced ceramic objects are frequently touched by human hands in the course of being made.

David Mach, the most down-to-earth of the participants, liked the idea of creating a work of art that slipped effortlessly into everyday life. "Artists should always be experimenting," he observed. "I like the idea of making thousands of things."

Mach started out by trying to create a textured rug that evoked the patterns left by sea water on sand. Production difficulties caused a change of plan, however, and eventually his rug ended up as a beach towel instead. Whereas Mach responded positively to the idea of creating an everyday object, some artists found it difficult to shift themselves on to what they clearly felt to be a "lower plane". Anish Kapoor was initially stumped. "This idea came out of desperation," he confessed, when presenting his proposal. But the process of transforming his sculpture into a lamp proved to be fraught with difficulties. "I have high standards in what I want from this thing," Kapoor commented at one stage, which roughly translated means "No compromise".

"Art makes life more difficult, but makes people feel more alive," was the view of Antony Gormley. His dowel-like coat-pegs were by far the most understated and minimal of the project's nine creations. Clearly they disconcerted his adopted family, who were expecting something figurative from the creator of the Angel of the North.

"I'm sure we'll find somewhere to put them," they remarked, putting a brave face on their disappointment. However, it poses the question why, when we have such a vast pool of creative design talent in this country, we are trying to bang a square peg into a round hole.

At Home With Art is on show at the Tate Gallery, London, from 15 November 1999 to 13 February 2000. Products are on sale at the Tate and at Homebase stores nationwide