Two witty ceramics by psychoanalysis-obsessed former pop artist Carole Windham might make a few eyes bulge. Venus With A Penis, a disconcerting figure with both male and female genitals, is certainly not the classical image of the Roman goddess. Claire, A Tranny Who Won The Turner Prize, 2003, is a porcelain sculpture of the art prize winner Grayson Perry, dressed as Claire, lifting up his skirt and grabbing his manhood.

“You can’t be subversive without being controversial,” argues Stella Beddoe, the driving force behind an ambitious autumn exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

Beddoe is a passionate advocate for the applied arts – functional design, if you will – which she says over the past 30 years has proved it can tackle big themes as well as fine art.

She was also a keeper of the museum’s Willett Collection of pottery for more than 20 years. The decorative art collection is from a time before the industrial revolution when “it was all about stories and campaigns, quirky things that didn’t get coverage in normal histories of English ceramics”.

What dawned on Beddoe recently is “how bland later aspects of decorative arts became, particularly after the industrial revolution, because they are items for use – and a poor relation of fine art in many ways.” So she has pulled together 130 items for Subversive Design to show – more often than not with a wry smile – how industrial design and decorative arts can undermine conventional thought, contain hidden meaning, tackle social issues and make political comment.

“Fine art is supposed to be about big, serious issues. Decorative art is supposed to be decorative or functional. It is not supposed to have ideas of its own. I want to say it is as important, and as full of meaning, as fine art.”

At the back, beside Windham’s designs, is an item which has the rare ability to shock today, despite being made in 1979. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Prick Up Your Ears T-Shirt takes its name from playwright Joe Orton’s biography. You might need a double-take but you won’t want to return your eyes for a third time. Contrast its images with the Sex and Seditionaries shop owners’ Sex Pistols T-shirt, a metaphorical two fingers up to the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, which feels as safe as a punk gig in 2013. “Sometimes you need to shock to make people think in a different way, even if it is only to be broad-minded,” adds Beddoe, as she leads The Guide around the show, which is not thematically linked, but carefully arranged and feels like a collection of stories about why things are produced and designed as they are. “We have grouped things together under unofficial themes and we have working titles for the different themes but we have not put them up.

“We want to get people to work out for themselves what the themes are.”

Guidance comes from quotes by artists and thinkers such as Leonard Cohen, Bertrand Russell and John Ruskin.

Above Brazilian brothers Humberto and Fernando Campana’s Favela Chair, made from scrap wood, and Studio Job’s Wrecking Ball Lamp, a cast iron bronze crane with an illumined globe hanging from it, is a quote by George Orwell.

“In our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics. All issues are political issues.”

Orwell knew the power of language. He spent a lifetime arguing for clarity in writing. Being subversive, though, like language, is never fixed.

“It used to mean something entirely negative and destructive – and destruction was achieved by guerrilla tactics,” notes Beddoe.

“Subversion was something that came from under the parapet. More recently it has gathered more positive associations because it has been used to undermine old-fashioned pompous ideas or recently in global politics against bad regimes which can be subverted.”

The final word goes to Simeon Farrar, whose Royal Wedding T-Shirt from 2011 parodies Westwood and McClaren’s designs. It was made to commemorate Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s wedding. “The end story,” smiles Baddoe, “is that the rebels have become the establishment.”

  • Subversive Design, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Pavilion Gardens, until March 9
  • Open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm, free. Call 03000 290900.