Why choose between buying something beautiful and buying something useful when you can do both at the same time?
Designer and artist William Morris once wrote: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ Functional art combines both these directives, giving you the best of both worlds.
A sculpted vase. The handmade salad servers you bought on your last holiday. The teapot that was crafted by a potter on an artists’ meander. Items that not only add something special to your home, but that also do a fine job when put into service.
That’s the essence of functional art, says Kate Shepherd, founding owner of design companies Something Different and Something Desired. ‘Functional art is created for purpose – perhaps not for everyday use, but certainly not simply to be admired. A hand-painted clock, a hand-woven or stitched cushion or large artistic lighting pieces all fit the bill,’ she explains. According to Artscape.com, ‘functional art is a genre that’s remarkably inclusive, encompassing everything from furniture to lighting and even books’. It’s not just about aesthetics – although these are important too – or even the emotional value that’s associated with high art, which is why many items that you may not typically consider art slot easily into this category.
It’s a great addition to the home because it can service as a feature or focal point of a room and pull the entire space together, Shepherd adds. ‘It can also create personality and show personal taste and flair, and is a super way to add textures and layers or colours or patterns.’ But, at the same time, functional art provides even more pleasure than other pieces, because you’re able to incorporate it into your daily routines. Rather than enjoying the visual aspect alone, you’re able to appreciate its tactility, too. Admit it – doesn’t coffee taste that much better when it’s sipped from a mug that was made by hand?
How to make sure your functional art pieces fit your space as well as they fit your life? Start by researching the artist to make sure you agree with their beliefs, aesthetic and overall meaning, Shepherd advises – just as you would when purchasing any other piece of art.
On the other hand, one piece of wisdom that holds true for paintings may be entirely dispensed with when buying functional art; in this case, it’s not only acceptable to ensure that the colour palette of the piece in question fits with the rest of the space, it’s actually preferable.
Shepherd says that it’s important to guard against filling a space with too many pieces, as they may compete and dilute the overall impact.
Functional art pieces tend to be sourced directly from the makers themselves, which adds to their charm. But Shepherd warns that just because something is handmade doesn’t mean it qualifies as ‘art’. ‘Be aware of the difference between handmade and artisanal,’ she says. ‘Quality is always paramount.’
Sheri Howes, Carrol Boyes Visual Merchandiser, has more advice: ‘Try to connect with the product before you buy it – hold it and feel its weight. Run your fingertips over its edges and tap into the idea that this was an item created by a true artist who spent time dreaming and creating. On that note, chat to the curator before you make your purchasing decision. Although art appreciation is very personal, it is often inspiring to hear the story behind a piece – and that can often solidify your connection with it.’
From a practical perspective, Howes says it’s important to care for your functional piece. It might be designed to for daily use, but that doesn’t mean it can withstand excessive wear and tear. Check for care instructions specific to the materials used.
Finally, you might find that, although you think your patchwork quilt or kudu horn hat stand is absolutely marvellous, others may be less enthusiastic – and that’s perfectly alright, says Shepherd. ‘Art is in the eye of the beholder. Not everyone is going to agree with your personal and intimate art preferences, but as long as you love them, does it matter?’