When William Morris famously counselled "have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful", he was seeking a golden rule not for interior decoration, but for life. Who could possibly argue? If you are lucky enough to have a furnished house (to say nothing for having a house to begin with), it's difficult to name something in it that falls into neither of the two camps (and if it doesn't, I bet you've been meaning to get rid of it for ages). But wouldn't quotidian life be so much more enriching if we could have both at the same time?
With a bit of perspective, even the most banal object - a lemon squeezer, a bowl, a chair, a window - is a luxury item. We could very well divide everything right down the middle: lemon squeezers are useful and artworks are beautiful, and we would not be wrong. The historical and conceptual frameworks on which each class of object is built and their very reason for being born into the world are fundamentally different. Both classes bring pleasure in different ways, either through form or function. But then what if the chair is an original Eames? What if the window is stained glass?
If you look up "art" in the Oxford English Dictionary, the first entry defines it as "skill; its display, application, or expression." Your finger will scan down past "a practical application of knowledge" and further past "a practical pursuit or trade of a skilled nature, a craft." It's not until iteration eight that you reach "the expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power." The Oxford English Dictionary is by no means the defining text of modern and contemporary art practice, but the reminder of the dualism of the definition is welcome.
The division of art and craft is now also a conversation between art and design. Are architects artists? What about graphic designers? (David Hockney was quite clear: "art has to move you and design does not, unless it's a good design for a bus.") And while objects (or ideas) that have had the title of arthood bestowed upon them are reified, the banality of a certain class of objects has its own domestic sanctity. These objects have a function (which is not a dirty word!) and that utility does not by definition strip them of their arthood. These objects have what Nicholas Baker calls a "mute folklore" - they are full of an innate history "of behavioural inventions, unregistered, unpatented, adopted and fine-tuned without comment or thought." The intimacy that comes from putting one's mouth on a mug thrown by a potter who spent years refining a particular glaze is as poignant as it is radical.
The works in this show are part of an ongoing conversation about value and the definition of art. Art objects of both classes become part of our everyday. A quilt or a cup becomes part of our routine and the closeness we share with it is different to the intellectual and visceral affinity we may share with a painting. Both are valid; both are valuable.
Marcel Duchamp said it best when in 1973 he noted that "art is not about itself but the attention we bring to it." Why can't we have our beautiful cake and make use of it by eating it? My gorgeous one-off, hand-thrown, deftly painted Brendan Adams lemon squeezer says I can - and it's dishwasher-safe.
Functional is on at Whitespace Contemporary Art from 30 June to 19 July 2015