We call it design … and so it is

« I say, ‹ There is a chair.› What if I go up to it, meaning to fetch it, and it suddenly disappears from sight? ‹ So it wasn’t a chair, but some kind of illusion.› But in a few moments we see it again and are able to touch it and so on. ‹ So the chair was there after all and its disappearance was some kind of illusion.› But suppose that after a time it disappears again—or seems to disappear. What are we to say now? Do you have rules ready for such cases—rules saying whether one may use the word chair to include this kind of thing? But do we miss them when we use the word chair; and are we to say that we do not really attach any meaning to this word because we are not equipped with rules for every possible application of it? »
(Ludwig Wittgenstein)8

At first glance furniture doesn’t appear to consist of difficult-to-touch objects. Everybody has an image of what is meant when we talk about furniture. A couch or a stool, an armchair or an entire bedroom suite—all of these evoke certain concrete images. If one follows Martin Heidegger’s9 conceptual order of ‹ things › and ‹ stuff ›, ‹ things › are objects that we have in this world at our disposal and ‹ stuff › is what is needed for the production of ‹ things ›. Heidegger derived this classification out of the German language using the terms ‹ Zeug › or ‹ Schreibzeug ›. Thus, furniture is obviously a ‹ thing ›. In turn ‹ things › are different from natural objectsas well as art through a clear functional assignment to which we can attribute a targeted use. In this context it is also basically the character of design to be unambiguous.
What happens if functionality is not the greatest priority of the design or if the point is not to use the object? Don’t we have to follow Wittgenstein? Are we still able to talk about a piece of furniture or a design if they are not used in the conventional sense? As objects between real estate and paraphernalia, furniture is representative of personality. To arrange one’s things is also a means of both creating and showing identity. Objects of everyday use are therefore social objects and wares. They are cultural assets and even proof of our technological history. In this respect furniture is a central object with which we communicate. In the title of our exhibition, the totem stands for this motif. In the religion of Native Americans, the totem is the object that both represents one’s ancestors and provides the means of spiritual contact with them. Furniture (or furnishings in general) takes over the function of representation. In this way objects communicate through their context and through their milieu. In contrast to the oft-cited credo ‹ form follows function ›10, which has dominated the training and evaluation in design, a new consciousness of design developed in the 1980s.The Totem by Etorre Sottsass, already created in the 1960s and then executed in different versions, can be understood as a precursor to a new movement in design11. This design has been established and staged along different conceptual lines by the group Memphis and by Martine Bedine, Gaetano Pesce, Andrea Branzi and later by Jurgen Bey, Martino Gamper and others as an open discipline. Early on, artists like Donald Judd, Franz West or Richard Artschwager made expressions of identity through their work with furnishings in art installations as well as with individual pieces. The resulting pieces are works of art or designs that constitute a new class of work that exists on the borders of disciplines and for which there is still not a new definition12. This step into autonomy is of special meaning for design. The work of the designer as author has been reconceptualized since the 1980s. Since the founding of design museums which represent the design’s demand for autonomy, it has established itself through the convention of dealing with the object, the ‹ Work of Design ›.
Something has happened with those ‹ things › so that the pieces don’t yet appear as anything but furniture. Deyan Sudijc (director of Design Museum London) speaks of new pieces which we encounter as either plain pieces or as shapeless furniture. They’re sensational or of a reserved simplicity, but in meaning they demand much more than is common for this kind of design; they’re autonomous works of design. In this regard, they’re pieces that have become more than simply pieces. In the lovely words of Rudolph Arnheim, « They have taken on the form of a thought. »13

—Tido von Oppeln

8 Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus logico philosophicus und Philosophische Untersuchungen, Frankfurt a. M . 1984, S. 285 f (§ 80)
9 Martin Heidegger: Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, Reclam 1965.
10 The original quotation is taken from the extract: The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, which is about the architecture of skyscrapers and says: « Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at ist base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change.» Louis H. Sullivan, 1896, p. 111.
11 The object Chiara di Luna, 1967 from the totem series by Etorre Sottsass, which the exhibition is showing, is from the year 1982 and is a loan from the collection Wolfgang Maurer in Munich.
12 D eyan Sudijc: The Language of Things, « But with the appearance of the work of Marc Newson or Ron Arad in art galleries, some kind of transgressive line has been crossed. … Now we are being offered an entirely different category of object… », London 2008, p. 67.
13 Rudolf Arnheim: Kunst und Sehen, eine Psychologie des schöpferischen Auges, De Gruyter, Berlin 2000.