Can a Mere Product Design Win a $250,000 Art Prize?

Why shouldn’t great designs rank with great art? Designers are testing the waters.

Can a Mere Product Design Win a $250,000 Art Prize?

Industrial designer Joey Ruiter is trying to blur — no, obliterate — the line separating art and design. “I don’t think there’s too much difference,” says the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based designer on why he entered one of the world’s most lucrative open art competitions, Art Prize, with a sleek, minimalist city bike.


Wayne Adams, a longtime friend of Ruiter’s and a Brooklyn-based painter, disagrees. “It’s not design prize, it’s Art Prize,” he says. Adams has also entered Art Prize with an oil painting that looks like a real-life photograph of bunched up aluminum foil, and he doesn’t think designed objects should be considered art and entered into an art competition along with traditional art mediums.

[A boat which Ruiter entered into last year’s competition]

Their debate will be put to the test next month in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the second year of Art Prize, an open art competition with a $449,000 kitty, including a jaw-dropping $250,000 top prize. Last year about 1,200 artists from around the world showed a signature piece of sculpture, performance, or painting. Art Prize drew 200,000 visitors to the city in its inaugural run last year, doubling as both art event and economic stimulant. The winner of the top prize is determined by popular vote, via text or online voting, a la American Idol. This year, organizers made a conscious effort to encourage more designers to enter — a move that is sure to not only complicate the ongoing debate over what constitutes as “good” art, but art itself.


Adams concedes it’s not a simple argument–and that not all designed objects hit the mark. “If someone brings in their old 10-speed, it’s harder to make the argument and design equals art,” he says. But does it? The 10-speed bike has arguably transformed more lives than any piece of art.

Even Ruiter isn’t sure a street bike can win Art Prize, if last year’s winner, a 19-foot oil-painted mural of ocean waves by Ran Ortner, gleans any clues about the taste of Grand Rapids voters. But Ruiter, who has done work for Herman Miller and izzyplus, sees himself as an artist, regularly exploring his own creative limits. His bike was a design exercise in stripping away the parts of a convention bike: Think of it as a unicycle with a front wheel, no chain, and a single front disc brake. “There’s no grease, no moving parts, we’ve really deconstructed something that was already something simple,” Ruiter says. But it’s impractical for other than as a well-dressed spin down the block: ?It might not even be functional at all and that’s hard to swallow for a lot of designers,” says Ruiter.

Which raises a question: Should Ruiter’s entry be judged as a piece of design–and thus on how well it functions? Design usually only becomes great when it serves its purpose well–But does being an entrant in an art contest change that criteria?

And does that mean souped-up washing machines or electric cars could win the next Art Prize? It’s totally possible, says Bill Holsinger-Robinson, the executive director of Art Prize. He and other organizers realized at the end of last year’s event they needed to reach out to more designers — from fashion to graphic-design — to really widen the contest’s reach and impact.

“To a large extent we see ourselves as social designers,” Holsinger-Robinson says, who along with most, if not all, of the Art Prize team also work for Spout, an online networking site for movie fans started by an Amway heir, whose family also underwrote last year’s startup costs. “Some audiences won’t view design as art. But for the broader group, I don’t think they will have issues with trying to make those lines of distinction.”

Take a look at a few of the design pieces entered into this year’s competition:


South Korea-based artist Chulyeon Park explores duality and bipolarity in this bench called “Schizophrenic’s Debris.” It’s made of MDF, laser cut and coated with graphite, then finished with lacquer. [As we were going to press, Park decided to withdraw from the competition, citing shipping costs.?Ed.]

Progressive AE, an architectural and engineering firm in Grand Rapids, entered with “Rabbit Hole,” an interactive installation based on the theme of discovery and curiosity. The visitor will find clear tubes hanging like chimes that emit a kaleidoscope of effect on color, the walls are designed to manipulate sound, texture and balance for the overall experience.


“There will be a variety of texture and sounds. It’s something that’s asking to be touched,” says Brian Koehn, one of the project’s collaborators.

Last year, they entered d.ploi (below), a mobile, modular structure of wood and steel that could work as your own mini-room inside a room or outside.

Go to Art Prize and see (and judge) for yourselves, September 22 to October 10.

About the author

Kaomi Goetz is a writer for Co Design. She also uses audio to tell stories about technology and social and economic trends for National Public Radio and others.