In 1917, Marcel Duchamp famously took a simple white toilet, signed it “R. Mutt", submitted it to a gallery and dubbed it “Fountain". And the world declared it “art".

When does a toilet stop being a toilet and become art?

Over the past three years, product and furniture designers in the West have started addressing that question, reclaiming design from Proust and venturing into the fine art category themselves, seeing it as the inevitable next step. Now, thanks to a flurry of art and design exhibitions, it is a question also being asked in Indian design circles.

Piled high: A sketch by Gunjan Gupta inspired her project Cyclerecyclecycle, in which she explores how the onslaught of modern transportation has edged out vendors on bicycles.

In 2006, Alexander Payne, the director of auction house Phillips de Pury & Company, coined the term “designart" to market high-end furniture pieces.

The new trend saw an upturn in prices for design work. Lockheed Lounge by Marc Newson, an aluminium chaise lounge, sold for £748,500 (around Rs6 crore) at one of Christie’s sales in 2008. The robust art market, aided by new design fairs such as the London Art and Design show, fuelled interest in works by architect Zaha Hadid, designer Phillipe Stark, and industrial designer Mark Newsom.

Peter Nagy, owner of the Nature Morte galleries and curator of the recent Vistaar II show at the Stainless Steel gallery, says people’s perception of design as museum-worthy has been growing slowly in strength ever since the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City began a design section in 1932. Other museums followed suit in the 1970s and 1980s.

From 10-30 May, Something Different, a new show by the Goethe Institut, New Delhi, will present 106 experimental designs from Germany and Western Europe at the Lalit Kala Akademi. Prof. Volker Albus, the curator of the show and a professor of product design in Germany, says he chose European designers who are trying to break down the conventions of household items. “I’d like the show to invite people to look very precisely at the behaviour of people."

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain

The India Modern show at Good Earth made it clear the show had a more commercial purpose than a strictly artistic one, says participant Neelima Rao, the product designer for Anupam Poddar’s furniture design house, Devi Design. The show displayed work by Gupta, Vikram Goyal and textile firm Shades of India. But while not claiming to be art in the strictest sense, Rao says the show did allow designers like her to push the boundaries of their work, and it provided an Indian platform to explore new aesthetic directions. “We’re articulating what is modern Indian design, not ancient Indian design. We’re evolving a new metaphor," she says. But she admits that traditional artists may be sensitive to designers claiming their work as art.

Design, she says, necessarily has a commercial aspect to it since it’s usually used to solve a problem of function. Keeping costs low must also always come in as a factor of good design. Therefore, since these pieces need to be marketed, there is a danger the trend could be seen as commercialization of art.

Nevertheless, some artists are embracing the trend, testing out design themselves. Tagra, of Thukral and Tagra, says it was a challenge that they were happy to take on. For the Vistaar II show, they created a series of postcards and chappals (flip-flops), including one larger-than-life one, to convey lessons in safe sex.

Artist Manjunath Kamath has decided to question the meaning of art by making and selling T-shirts as artwork for Rs500. “You can wear it or frame it," he says. “I’ll convert the gallery into a T-shirt shop."

Nagy likes this confluence of genres and thinks people should take a mishmash approach to presenting work—be it design or art. “When I started showing art in Delhi, people thought it was crazy to put a painting next to a photograph," he says. Now, he doesn’t see why design should only be featured in Art and Design shows. He thinks a piece of furniture could be displayed next to a painting, next to an installation. “Shows should just be shows."

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Thukral and Tagra’s condom-friendly chappal

N. Pushpamala’s dinnerware

A table by Reena Saini Kallat

A lamp by Ingo Maurer

Morphogenesis’ tree-lined mirror room

In the Vistaar II show at the Stainless Steel gallery, Jain first thought of only having designers in the traditional sense present work, but she says Nagy convinced her to include artists such as Thukral and Tagra, jewellery designers, and even the architecture firm Morphogenesis. Pieces ranged from black and white photographs adorning plates, the huge chappal with instructions on how to wear a condom, and an interactive display promoting the redesign of Delhi’s development along the naala (drain) pathways.

At a recent lunch at the restaurant Manré, in New Delhi, Jain announced Gupta’s upcoming Sotheby’s show. The New York sale will display Gupta’s series Cyclerecyclecycle, originally shown at the Vistaar II exhibition. The series features “bicycle thrones", as she describes the chairs, which have been inspired by Indian vendors on bicycles and have been made with recycled bicycle parts.

Gupta says designers are often tied to the demands of a customer’s brief and do not have the opportunity to experiment in a personal space—the space an artist usually resides in. Thanks to a workshop with Dutch design house Droog, Gupta was allowed to focus on the philosophical challenges of design, rather than just focusing on creating a functional product. “If you’re engaging with your own philosophy and you challenge perceptions, that would fit into the art category," she says.

Besides her Sotheby’s show, Gupta will curate an exhibition of some 10 designers in Lisbon in August. Jain says the “parallel medium" of design creates a new challenge for artists and designers alike.

Even as artists and designers promote design exhibitions, they are quick to warn about the blurring of boundaries of art and design.

“I’m very sceptical about this mixing of art and design," says Albus, curator of the Something Different show. “An artist must always ask, ‘How can I say something?’ The point is to give a message to the public. A designer should be thinking ‘How can I do something?’ They must be fulfilling some needs and always think about the utility of things."

He says that presenting Something Different at a gallery may cause people to mistake the design for art. But just because a design is experimental and people may not recognize the functionality of the product initially does not mean the object should be considered art.

Payne, the curator who coined the “designart" term, has since gone back to calling the high-end work “design". Even Gupta, while discussing her design work in terms of art, is quick to assert: “I’m not an artist; I call myself a design practitioner."

Jain admits that there may be some designers who want to become artists to increase their commercial value. But, she says, it’s a learning curve for the consumer to set norms on quality design where there have been none.

Nagy sees a market for design at the “fine art level". “If your whole life becomes an aesthetic spectrum, it’s a natural extension that you would want all the pieces of your home to be of a museum quality."

He says that as design has become more democratic—lower prices and quality of products have allowed everyone to expect good design—people with money seek out unique design objects.

Jain concurs, “When people are tired of buying art for the walls, they’ll think about buying it for their floors."