Functional art cannot be denied. It invades our lives, bringing beauty and joy and inspiration to the simplest of acts. This art sings to us as we pour a cup of tea, as we drive the road to work, as we turn the tap to fill our bathtubs. The considered design that composes functional art is what makes you smile at Mini Coopers in the roadway and luxuriate in pulling a dollar out of the handtooled wallet you purchased at that tiny craft fair you stumbled across while on vacation.
At its simplest, functional art is a utilitarian object which has been designed for form as well as function, meaning it serves a physical service, like a chair or a teapot. Because of this service, functional art is often shuffled into the “craft” category. These objects help us drink a cup of coffee or park our bicycle. They tell us the time and hold us while we sleep. They keep our butts off the floor and hold our clothes in place. They store our keys, piles of apples, stacks of books.
How Do I Know Functional Art When I See It?
The difference between a merely utilitarian object and a piece of functional art lives in the eye and the heart of the beholder. Your experience makes the difference between a mug and warmth infusing you each time you grab your favorite mug because it perfectly fits your hands. Your eye makes the difference between a watch and a timepiece whose face makes checking the time a pleasure. Your heart makes the difference between a chair and the handsome wooden rocker where everyone wants to sit.
However, some objects rise above the rest. Such pieces as Christopher Dresser’s Claret Pitcher, housed in the Museum of Modern Art, or the collection of chairs at the various museums of the Smithsonian Institution show that the art of design cannot be overstated. Starting in 1932, MoMA added the first curated collection of Architecture and Design to their museum. Since then, many other illustrious institutions have added such departments to their collections, and even entire museums such as the Museum of Art and Design in New York City have been dedicated to these ubiquitous pieces of art.
Do I Have Functional Art?
The beauty of functional art is that we can (and do) all have these things in our homes, allowing us to create inspiring spaces. This elegance of design supports us in every part of our lives, bringing joy to the most mundane acts. Every piece you bring into your home has been considered by a designer as well as an engineer. From the floor to the ceiling, our homes are full of art which can be used: bottle openers, tables, chairs, coffee pots, area rugs, baskets, bookcases. The list runs on and on.
Let’s take the example of the dining room. A table stands surrounded by chairs. The sideboard doubles as a buffet against the wall. On special evenings, cream-colored candles soar above the table in brass candlesticks, intertwined with a trio of low vases filled with seasonal flowers. Place settings of wine glasses, sterling silverware and china surround the centerpiece. All of these objects may be infused with artistic meaning, and many have been professionally designed for at least your use, if not for the elegance. Choosing each piece with mindful intent ensures that your home fills with functional art instead of mere utilitarian clutter.
But there’s a trap! (Isn’t there always?) Often, we save our most precious and beautiful possessions for use at special occasions. Graceful crystal glasses and delicate bone china grace our tables at holidays. The lace tablecloth our grandmother packed in the already too full chest for transport to her new homeland covers the tabletop. Luxurious swirls line the edges of the Chantilly patterned sterling silver next to each plate.
I advocate using these beautiful objects more often. Why deny yourself the joy of drinking from that graceful glass? Use the lace tablecloth at your anniversary as well as the big holiday feast, or perhaps instead of the big holiday feast. (You can trust your partner not to spill more than those sweet but uncoordinated nieces and nephews.) Pull out the silver and the china to celebrate the completion of your journey to Friday. The happiness I receive when I sip my pinot noir out of my Riedel crystal glass, tasting every nuance of the terroir, is a gift I can give myself every day. Why deny myself?
Functional Art Exists to Be Used
These objects surround us, giving us joy in small and large ways. These objects can provoke; they can comfort. They are the things which spark joy, which accompany us through the hard times. They are the mug you used during the time when your mother was in the hospital, sipping your coffee while tears of panic ran down your face. The mug you clutched until you discovered she was safe. The mug you filled with a sip of brandy to celebrate her homecoming. That mug gave you comfort, inspiring you with its design. Perhaps the motto made you smile or the little bird warmed your heart. Perhaps the shape fit your hands perfectly.
Those small quirks of design inspire you and comfort you and provoke you as all good art does. Even as we walk through our darkest times, functional art brings light into every corner of our world.