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Design is the tribute art pays to industry, you might say

Paul Finch’s Letter from London: Scarpa’s glass works, design sensibility and architecture make him the nearest thing to a Renaissance figure in the 20th century

Between 1932 and 1947, Carlo Scarpa was the chief designer for the Murano glassmaker, Venini. Under his designer’s eye (he never qualified formally as an architect), the company produced a pantheon of glass objects/products/artworks exploiting traditional and new manufacturing techniques. The work was of extraordinary quality, both in terms of design and making, and was frequently exhibited at the Venice Art Biennale. A superb exhibition of Scarpa’s glass is currently on show at the Cini Foundation on San Giorgio as part of this year’s architecture biennale; if you are going to Venice be sure to see these masterworks.

All this set me thinking about the relationship between art, design and architecture, especially as we have just enjoyed the 10th London Design Festival, the best we have yet seen. The headline to this column, that design is the tribute art pays to industry, is a definition of my own devising, and was a response to a question by the Design Council many years ago to provide concise definitions of design. I adapted one of my favourite aphorisms, by the French essayist La Rochefoucauld, who observed that ‘Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue’, a timeless observation that seems relevant every time you open a paper and start reading about politics.

There have been times when art, architecture and design have seemed closer than perhaps they do today, particularly during the Renaissance. One thinks of the great artists of the period as being universal geniuses, capable of turning their hand to any activity. But when you try to identify true artist architects who produced whole buildings that have passed the test of time, they are quite hard to find. Michelangelo of course; Bernini; Giulio Romano; Tiepolo - and after that not easy to think of others. In our own era it is not so easy, either. Le Corbusier considered himself to be an artist as much as an architect, and his painting and sculpture was certainly produced on a prodigious scale, though never achieving the quality of his built work. Scarpa’s work as a glass sculptor and maker, as well as his design sensibility and brilliant architecture (pictured: Olivetti Showroom, Venice, 1958, detail), make him perhaps the nearest thing to a Renaissance figure in the 20th century.

In the UK one might expect to find artist architects in the Royal Academy, but I can’t think of an artist academician who has built much. As for the limited number of architect academicians, only Will Alsop could properly be described as bridging the two activities, with his splodgy, colourful, life-enhancing paintings still very much part of his working method in the creation of buildings.

Of course many architects paint and draw, but few would claim to be artists in their own right. Gene Kohn, founder partner in KPF, currently has an exhibition of watercolours in the firm’s London office: seascapes, landscapes, skyline vistas and, in the more recent part of his painting life, abstraction.

And there are artists who take architecture as major subject matter for their work: Brendan Neiland or Ben Johnson, for examples. I don’t think either would describe himself as a designer, though most architects think of themselves that way and, as this column has remarked before, the silos of ‘design’ and ‘architecture’ are melting as we realise the foolishness of definitions that make no acknowledgement of the way artists, designers and architects work now.

If you want the best example of someone crossing the barriers, think of Thomas Heatherwick, whose Olympic ‘cauldron’ brought an artist’s temperament to a design which had to work at both functional and theatrical levels of the highest order. Probably indefinable.

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