Borrowing made a fine art

1st September 1995 at 01:00
THE NEW DESIGNERS, Business Design Centre, London.

Fine art students have been disappointed that this year there was no national showcase for their work as there is for designers. Mini shows were promised during this exhibition, but in the event Hertfordshire was the only university that appeared.

Challenging the viewer on subject, form and taste, its students put on a bracing display, epitomised in two pieces - a painting by James Dyer where an image overtly suggestive of baggy knickers was rendered with all the refined, autographic brushwork usually associated with abstract expressionism, and a suspended sculpture by Sarah Clune, provocatively titled "Bollock Nation", that transformed taxidermied bulls' testicles into a delicate vessel replete with all the connotations of male sexuality.

More explicitly challenging was the seven students' printed statement, "You Owe Us A Debt", which claimed that, "For many years now designers have begged, borrowed and stolen from fine artists and now it's time to settle the score. " How they intended to do this was not made clear but they certainly felt vindicated when Vittorio Radice, managing director of Habitat UK (a major sponsor of The New Designers), bought ten of Dyer's works, offering him and possibly another student, Marco Puig, exhibitions in the near future.

By its very nature, illustration has close affinities with much painting and this was hilariously exemplified in Natalie Wayman's (University of East London) faux-naif mediations of cross-dressing, bondage, whipping and a motley range of sexual practices she had discovered working in an Ann Summers shop.

Yet whenever one turned to more commercial work, the plunder of fine art became evident. Robert Rauschenberg's mix of boldly gestural swathes of colour with photographic imagery was frequently identifiable while the softened, geometric forms of Alison Gourlay's (Edinburgh College of Art) double award-winning surface designs were but one successful example of a much wider transposition of post-war British abstract painting into decorative terms.

For those aware of the often-cited distinctions between design and decoration, it was equally revealing to observe their recurrent polarisation, particularly where enmity between interior designers and interior decorators is most easily aroused. If the furbelows and fripperies associated with the over-upholstered, chintz-ridden tradition of English interior decoration were difficult to find, there was no shortage of highly ornamental alternatives whether they were like the Fauves-inspired, gaudily coloured floral textiles of Elaine Macaulay (Scottish College of Textiles) or the medieval-inspired "Sir Lancelot" gentleman's steam press of Karl Elliott (Brunel University).

Interior decoration courses now seem entirely restricted to the private sector and they probably have more allegiance to the annual Decorex exhibition than The New Designers. In the public sector, there has been an increasing preference for courses in what is now known as interior architecture; a significant shift in terminology that is realised in the student work. Simon Peake's (Nottingham Trent University) use of radical thinkers like Foucault and Derrida to help him break away from the rigid structures that have dominated institutional buildings in general and mental asylums like his in particular may be an extreme instance of this much more exploratory approach. But even in the almost domestic context of Ross Haxton's (Edinburgh College of Art) Potter Row Student Centre project, the aim has been to reconsider all the issues and come up with a new solution that not only solves the design problems but achieves a coherent, aesthetically satisfying image.

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