I saw a story recently about a 75-year-old guy credited with putting his stamp on 750 household products. I'd never heard of him, but you...

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I saw a story recently about a 75-year-old guy credited with putting his stamp on 750 household products.

I’d never heard of him, but you and I probably own something he has shaped. He’s an industrial designer and, unlike painters or sculptors, they don’t usually sign their work. About the only time I think about industrial design is when we distribute our mismatched silverware at dinner and I have to remember who likes which implement best.

The forks with the brown plastic handles are my favorites, but I also like the ones that look like the forks in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

I like one set because of the way it fits my hand. I like the other because it looks cool. Industrial design is a combination of form and function — art that serves a mundane purpose.

And some folks think the most interesting modern art shows up in consumer products because we are a consumer society. People who in another era might have been painting landscapes or sculpting torsos design cellphones or office chairs.

After Michelangelo, what’s left for an artist to do, anyway?

OK, some artist just screamed and hurled the paper across a room.

I don’t think fine art is passé, but I do think a lot of artistic talent is channeled into making products useful and making them sell.

Whatever line there is between pure art and art with a practical purpose is fuzzy in some places. Some chefs are artists with food. Some clothing designers would see themselves as artists, so I suppose a person can wear art.

Haute couture is art. I just read about a men’s fashion designer whose work is getting more recognition lately. There was a photograph of him wearing one of the suits he designed. The pants were well above his ankles, which were bare, since his vision does not include socks, and the jacket was a shrunken version of what a person would normally wear. He looked, as the writer noted, like Pee-wee Herman.

It is certainly my artistic failing that would not allow me to wear such a thing, but I do wear art, I suppose. Someone had to design the more-pedestrian clothing I wear. My watch was designed by someone with an artistic eye, my eyeglasses and my shoes, too. Apple has built its business on combining form and function in artistic ways.

But form is as important as function in a whole range of everyday objects.

The industrial designer I mentioned, Chuck Harrison, was in the news because he got a couple of big awards for his design work.

Harrison rose to chief of design at Sears, Roebuck and Co. on the strength of his work, which made him the first African-American executive at Sears. He made the first plastic garbage can, which saved lots of ears from the noise of banging metal, and he worked on everything from toasters to lawnmowers.

He called himself an artist, which is what got me thinking about industrial design as art. Art doesn’t have to be rarified thing. Some is, but not all.

What’s art? Scientists have numbers to work with, and they have trouble figuring out what is or isn’t a planet. Art questions seem much tougher.

Everything is art when it gets old enough — just visit a museum sometime. They’re full of stuff that was mundane in its day but looks really cool now.

The stuff one generation hauls to Goodwill gets put on a pedestal a couple of generations later.

What’s certain is that people and art are inseparable.

We need something art provides; something that arrests our senses and our attention and reminds us there is something more to life than the daily grind. Making art, listening to it, watching it, holding it, seeing it yields its own kind of pleasure, whether the art is pure or connected to some other purpose.

I don’t worry about where the lines are, but I do fear that as a driven society we don’t always appreciate the arts. Whether budding artists are being yoked to industry is less important a question than whether we are giving kids enough opportunity to explore the arts, and whether we take time to appreciate artistry wherever it shows up.

Sometimes a fork is just a fork, but sometimes it’s a lot more.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.