Chateau International: Récit


The ‘dancing’ fountain was first described by Hero of Alexandria, a mathematician and engineer from Roman Egypt: “A bird made to whistle by flowing water. A trumpet sounded by flowing water. Birds made to sing and be silent alternately by flowing water.”

“There’s something extraordinarily emotional about that fountain… The water is so alive—it is life. And people get very emotional around it. You see people crying—just overwhelmed by the spectacle.”

Transparent medusas rose to the sea’s surface, throbbed there a moment, then flew off, swaying toward the Moon. Harmonising with the medusas, the sea itself would rise too, far beyond the summit of the mountain’s peak, attracted by the heavenly stars. In each display the water would narrowly avoid skimming the edge of the Earth’s plate – countering the effects of gravity in its daily show of flair and finesse.

The ‘dancing’ fountain was first described by Hero of Alexandria, a mathematician and engineer from Roman Egypt: “A bird made to whistle by flowing water. A trumpet sounded by flowing water. Birds made to sing and be silent alternately by flowing water.” From here, through recollections of the fountain at the centre of the garden of Eden, the parting seas and Aphrodite’s Botticellian scallop-shell debut; alien mechanisms, the Pillars of Hercules and Louis XIV’s will to demonstrate his power over nature, we eventually meet in Los Angeles, at the headquarters of WET – or, Water Entertainment Technologies – the firm behind the world’s largest, most dynamic and hi-tech water features. Experience Passion. Experience WET.

WET, founded by former Disney Imagineers Mark Fuller, Melanie Simon and Alan Robinson in 1983, has designed hundreds of fountains and water features around the world, using water, fire, ice, fog and lights, alongside music. Perhaps its most renowned work is the Fountains of the Bellagio, which front Steve Wynn’s Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, and are considered by Steven Spielberg to be, “the greatest single piece of public entertainment on planet Earth”. In terms of physical scale, WET’s most impressive creation is the Dubai Fountain, the world’s largest choreographed fountain system set on a 30-acre manmade lake at the centre of Downtown Dubai.

In the ‘Finale’ to Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates describes Tartarus, the deep abyss, a chasm bored right through the earth – quite the opposite to a shallow manmade lake in Dubai, but with a similar effect – where all rivers flow together: “This fluid has no bottom or resting place: it simply pulsates upwards and downwards, and the air and the wind round about it does the same… as the breath that men breathe is always exhaled and inhaled in succession, so the wind pulsates in unison with the fluid, creating terrible, unimaginable blasts as it enters and as it comes out.”

Tartarus evokes the drama of the contemporary fountain, but the opposite expression. Being caught among its waters would only be in punishment, the axis of its abyss covering the axis of the *only recently identified!* spherical Earth. Swayed by his study of Pythagorean mathematics, Plato declared the world was declared “round as from a lathe” –although at the time, the word ‘world’ commonly referred to the heavens: Tarturus’ “unimaginable blasts” took in all the ‘world’s’ horrors.

As the contemporary fountain reaches its peak in the desert of the United Arab Emirates, it also returns to its source, the desert – although over a couple of thousand years the fountain has shifted a couple of thousand kilometres east, from Roman Egypt to the Arabian Gulf. While what might be considered the main source of desert water is a mirage, or a contradiction in terms, underground springs, rivers and lakes aren’t uncommon, and wells and oases – either dug or naturally formed – can support plant and animal life. Lakes occasionally form above ground in desert basins, from the precipitation or meltwater of glaciers above. They tend to be shallow, and consequently strong winds cause them to glide – like a stone skimming water – across low-lying land. When they evaporate off, the clay, salt or sand left behind forms in shallow plates, known as playa; and in North America many of the playa are relics of Lake Bonneville, which covered much of Utah, Nevada and Idaho during the last ice age. In 1912, an area of the Bonneville Salt Flats was marked out for motor sports – the Bonneville Speedway – and since then it has been the location for a number of land speed records. The first was Sir Malcom Campbell’s 1935 record of 301.129mph in the “Blue Bird”, and most recently Roger Schroer’s 2016 record of 341.264mph, in the Venturi Buckeye Bullet 3, an electric car specifically designed to break the land speed record on the Bonneville Speedway.

Although the playa continue to erode, the various muscle cars, modified aircraft belly tanks and Harley Davidson Road Glides are having considerably less impact than climate change on the shifts in surface. In The Endless Summer –  the 1964 surf movie where narrator Bruce Brown follows two surfers as they circumnavigate the globe, following the summer, and searching out “the perfect wave” – the trio ride the desert dunes on their route towards the water off South Africa’s Cape St. Francis. Shifting the sands of time, they worked with the rhythm of the folds in the same way that they’d later ride the curl of each wave. Brown, describes the sensations the camera couldn’t record:

“The thing you can’t show is the fantastic speed and the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. It’s the kind of a wave that makes you talk to yourself. I couldn’t help but think of the hundreds of years these waves must have been breaking here, but until this day no one had ever ridden one.”

Both the drivers pursuing land speed records, and the surfers seeking out the perfect wave, are attempting to defy the laws of physics. They are also, to differing extents, working with nature, letting it hold power over them, and define the terms. Neither are working against the laws of gravity.

In the Idea Playground, WET’s R&D lab, their equivalent of Imagineers work to make water do the seemingly impossible, or at least the improbable. In “Water Music”, published in a 2010 edition of The New Yorker, writer John Seabrook considered the roots of the work of WET’s innovators, and what came before their compressed-air cannons, which conquer the problem of gravity:

“Water is heavy, and fountain designers through the ages have been preoccupied with finding ways to counter the effects of gravity. The ancient Romans figured out how to use gravity to their advantage, by forcing water into fountains from high aqueducts; the weight of the down-rushing water created the head. During the Renaissance, the ancients’ hydraulic innovations were rediscovered, and the Popes restored and embellished the fountains of Rome, commissioning the great sculptors of the day, who used water to give their figures the liquid glue of life. In the nineteenth century, mechanical water pumps began to be used in fountains, which made fountaineering easier, and today anyone with an electrical outlet can run one in his back yard.”

As well as being heavy, water is unruly. While surfers work with the wave, and submit to the unknown, the fountaineer works against it, asserting their power over nature. A fountain can ‘dignify the water’ and as Seabrook wrote, give stone sculpture “the liquid glue of life”; fountains patiently give lessons in transience, and choreographed drama, in a way that is diametrically opposed to the true nature of cascading, or undulating water. They symbolise both the emergence and disappearance of fresh, or chlorinated water, and mark the jubilant entry of water into a city. Mimicking the nature of a spring, the fountains and wells of ancient Rome would have been the primary source of fresh water in the city, before the advent of modern plumbing. Having figured out aqueducts, they channelled water towards the city for the sake of supply rather than performance, and the gleaming, often decorated stone wellsprings would form the centre of social life.

The channeling of water, via aqueducts, hydraulics or pumps, contains the ungraspable rush, while maintaining the wonder in its lively, life-giving swirl. As the moon invented natural rhythm, civilisation uninvented it, and in its place built altars to Man’s influence. A prime example is Louis XIV’s commissioning of Les Grandes Eaux Musicales at the Château de Versailles. In doing so he invented the modern musical fountain, which synchronised the dancing water with music and fireworks. Sculpture formed the principal element, the water jets animating and enlivening the stone and lead forms, caught in the midst of victory or loss. There are fountains dedicated to: the four seasons, animal fights, dragons, the story of Latona, Apollo and Neptune; each representing Louis XIV’s vision of his own confidence and power.

The jets d’eau, berceaux, nappes, cascades, grottes, bassins, gerbes, armes d’eau, grilles, champignons, buffets, fontaines and théâtres, wreaked havoc with the château’s water supply. Initially, water had to be pumped from ponds and reservoirs close to the château; and in 1671, when the Grand Canal was completed, a system of windmills pumped water back into the garden, but never enough to keep the fountains in full-play. The king nevertheless demanded that every fountain be frolicking at all times, and those in view of the château danced with the dedication of Fred Astaire. Further along the garden, fountaineers would signal each other with whistles to switch fountains on and off as the king paraded through his grounds – giving the impression of life everlasting. The fountains would later be supplied by water lifted from the Seine, by the Machine de Marly, and even with the château’s equivalent of austerity measures, the gardens consumed more water per day than the entire city of Paris.

When hotelier Steve Wynn opened the Fountains of Bellagio in 1998, he described being hit by the tricksy water’s spray as akin to “being baptised”; as the jets, pumps and music dignified the water – which was Louis XIV’s belief – the water dignified its people. For the king and his swanky contemporaries, fountains call to mind something altogether larger, something Nicola Salvi, architect of Rome’s Trevi fountain, articulated as: “the only everlasting source of continuous being”. But as much as water can be coaxed, shaped and transformed, what makes it a (not actually everlasting) source of (comparatively short-lived) being is really the fact that it can’t be stilled. It inspires and dissolves, it’s life-giving and purifying, it spoils and drowns; its uncanny movement ungraspable and uncontainable.

Published in 2018 by Chateau International, with contributions from Soft Baroque and Bryony Quinn.


Thriving, Puckering, Adoring, Warping, Glowing, Scorching: Soft Baroque’s Sun City

Tanning salons — Eternal Summer, Brazil Bronze, Healthy Glow, Sun City — and their offerings — sprays and sun-bed sessions in shades of ‘Exotic Dancer’, ‘WASP Housewife’, ‘Skinny Tan’, or ‘Chocolate Brown’ (“great for body builders and ballroom dancers!”) — rose in popularity through the 1970s and 80s

Tanning salons — Eternal Summer, Brazil Bronze, Healthy Glow, Sun City — and their offerings — sprays and sun-bed sessions in shades of ‘Exotic Dancer’, ‘WASP Housewife’, ‘Skinny Tan’, or ‘Chocolate Brown’ (“great for body builders and ballroom dancers!”) — rose in popularity through the 1970s and 80s; the experience being likened to going into orbit, and sun-beds hailed as the healthy alternative to sunbathing, as the UV light “only let the good rays in”. Any fears relating to indoor tanning had less to do with the potential of leathery skin, malignant melanomas, and death (“What’s a little skin cancer, anyway, when you’ve smoked four packs a day for most of your life?”), which could be abated in the interests of ‘sexy good health’, and more to do with the potential of what had been a slow, communal, outdoor pursuit becoming private, optimised, and feeding into a growing culture of instant gratification and disconnection.

Apollo, the Greek god of seemingly everything, including the sun (after Helios’ legacy was cruelly and lazily sidelined) inspired Louis XIV to appoint himself as “the Sun King”, and commission the Fountain of Apollo at Versailles. The fountain, and nomenclature, symbolised the sun’s power over nature, as a life-giving force, a potentially destructive element, and as a site of worship — all qualities that Louis XIV humbly saw as being reflected in his own sphere of influence. But defining your status and identity according to your proximity to the sun isn’t exclusive to self-satisfied royals; actors, musicians, stars of reality TV and politicians (and those who move between the two), still seek to envelop themselves in a golden glow. Jersey Shore’s Snooki, who is Chilean-American, describes tan as her “race”, a Donatella-Versace-level tan communicates camp pomp and circumstance; tanning is associated with a dated expression of hotness, but it also has something of an an enviable laissez-faire vibe. It’s hard to deny the draw of reclining on a lounger, facing straight into the sun.

In Marsèll’s limonaia, the Italian term for a conservatory where lemon trees are grown, Soft Baroque have installed a sun lounger, which sits on a plush carpet, as if in a suburban salon, surrounded by a bright, yellow glow. Made from a wooden body covered in patches of polyurethane rubber, which were poured at pressure points corresponding with a relaxed body — where wet swimwear hits the surface, or sweat trickles down from our supine bodies — the lounger is covered in Marsèll’s classic yellow calfskin leather, which acts as an ersatz for human skin, puckering as it’s pulled tight over rubber patches, reflecting the possible, probable future of our skin.

The UV rays that emanate from the sun, and sun-beds, stimulate growth, can be used as a treatment for disease, and sustains all forms of life. Grow lights imitate the life-giving potential of the sun, installed in domestic grow cabinets and ‘stealth grow boxes’, which take the form of wardrobes, elaborate desk set-ups, and chests of drawers, emitting a Repo Man glow. The UV-A and UV-B light improve THC and CBD production in cannabis, and encourages plants to produce their own protective ‘sunscreen’. The artificial blue or toxic magenta glow associated with grow-ops reinforces chlorophyll production, strong, healthy stems and leaves. This relationship between nature and technology, DIY solutions and design, is reflected in the materiality of the pieces that furnish the basement of the Marcèll space. A hybrid of an homage to grow cabinets, Donald Judd’s panelled furniture, and the idea of taking a big Exacto Knife to IKEA’s single-sheet products, Soft Baroque’s bamboo wardrobe, acrylic and stone plinths, and aluminium table are sliced wth drastic cuts, plants growing out from gaps that emanate an artificial glow.

The baby blue log chair is the exception to the rule, a reflection of their affection for log furniture, which is seen as dorky, but is an economical and environmentally friendly approach to making furniture with wood. Log furniture makes use of the shoots and branches that grow quickly from tree stumps, which are often used in developing thicker brush in a forest, or cultivating hedgerows, but aren’t used for timber because of their unpredictable scale and form. It has a strong connection to its raw material form, and is a symbol of growth — of the branches, and understanding how to work productively with your environment.

The potential of sun-dappled, perfect weather is sold to us via films, tv, literature, billboards, perfume ads and promotional videos encouraging us to move to California — where reinvention, prosperity and fulfilment are only a hike away, and wildfires burn through forests, towns and across highways every year. SAD lamps, introduced as a light therapy to help ease Seasonal Affective Disorder, mimic the bright morning sunlight that’s lacking in winter, or the year-round sun of CA. Thought to encourage our brains to produce less melatonin and more serotonin, they improve moods and boost energy levels; but like the sun, staring directly at them is a bad idea. As it creates and sustains life, the sun holds an equal potential to be destructive. Droughts and wildfires, escalating with the climate crisis, decimate land and destabilise communities; melting, bubbling, bleaching, and scorching materials, leaving behind dry earth. Soft Baroque’s installation of stacked loungers atop a coir carpet (like the material of a doormat) with patches painted in chroma green (the shade used in digital cleaning out, substitution, and generic ‘green screen’ backgrounds) faces up to a balloon light — like those used to flood construction sites — in an homage to the sun’s ability to warp, blister, and dissolve. A formal acknowledgement of the force of the sun, stacked pyramid-like, the Tan structure evokes pre-Christian sites of worship; setting up sunbathers as reclining, vulnerable offerings, lovingly facing towards the object of their affection, sweating like pigs. Meanwhile, a TV plays a 7-second video on loop. A close-up of the surface of the sun, which bubbles and writhes for its audience, transfixed, as they sit back in the aluminium lounge chair — folded from a single sheet, its form slumped as if it’s melting before the screen.

Light lends drama to what we see. A defining feature of architecture — from Stonehenge and the pyramids, to Modernist villas and the accidental ‘Manhattanhenge’ — the sun casts shade, shadows and spotlights, emphasises features, structures and corners, it can create a steamy mirage, and a transfixing glow. An understanding of the arc of the sun was critical for ancient cultures, who depended on that knowledge for successful harvests, and it defined the form and orientation of buildings and ceremonial structures. Summer solstice — when the sun reaches its highest point, and, in the pagan religion, the summer king gives way to the winter king — is a turning point that’s significant across time and religious beliefs. The ‘standing still’ of the sun is thought to open doors between worlds, release magic, and allow the barriers between humans and spirits to fall. People gather in forests, on mountains, or among ancient structures, they draw protective rings around cattle and crops, engage in communal worship and public theatre. Like sunflowers, crowds engage in their own romance with the sun.

At the highest point of Sun City, where light dapples the room, Soft Baroque’s dancing armchair faces the alter, a throne performing a trance-like wiggle at its central sacred brass object. Playing on the tradition, and interior architecture of sites of worship, Soft Baroque set up a space for relaxation, where wheat grows inside lipos wood chests and carbon fibre hi-performance vases; brass, cut with a chainsaw-like motion from sheets, is bent into soft, graphic curves, formed into a bookstand, coat hook and candlestick, a series of disturbed religious objects. Referencing Quaker and Shaker traditions — the Tufnol Shaker chair made from carved plastic, with layers of compressed material revealed like woodgrain — known (and fetishised) for their egalitarianism and belief in simplicity, conservatism and puritanical nature, combining of principles of design and religion. The furniture in the space takes on some of their ideals of form, and exaggerates them to symbolic breaking point; taking high-minded ideas of function and turning them into inflated decoration, taking materials associated with decorating suped-up cars, and turning them into functional objects. While the furniture in Sun City is animated in narrative and form/structure, engaging in a sort-of theatre, it’s fundamentally rooted in an empathic relationship to material. Responding to the needs, reality and magic of how metal bends and leather curves, how wood, stone or plastic can be carved, Soft Baroque give in to their material, as if laying back in the sun.

Published on the occasion of Soft Baroque’s solo show, SUN CITY, at Marsèll, Milan, curated by PIN UP magazine.

Chateau International

Dope and Diamonds: A Lana Del Rey Reader

Lana is variously lethargic and confrontational, vulgar yet deeply sensitive. Her contradictions are rehearsed and precise. She also represents a nuanced, vulnerable and flawed femininity rarely explored in contemporary pop, exposing the emptiness and hypocrisy of sloganistic corporate feminism…


“What if her pussy tastes like Pepsi cola? And if all she wants it dope and diamonds, so what? What if the most radical – fuck it, feminist – thing you can do is believe everything a girl says about her life, whether or not you like it?”

In her essay “The Fake As More”, reproduced here from a supplement in The New Inquiry, July 2014, Sarah Nicole Prickett asks us to consider the idea that, despite endless accusations of affectation and fakery, Lana Del Rey might be extremely real indeed. This bootleg collection pursues that premise.

Lana Del Rey embodies many things that women are not supposed to be. Like Ottessa Moshfegh’s unnamed protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, she’s tragic and banal. As Ariel Levy describes, “Moshfegh’s characters tend to be amoral, frank, bleakly funny, very smart, and perverse in their motivations, in ways that destabilise the reader’s assumptions about what is ugly, what is desirable, what is permissible, and what is real”. Lana is ugly and desirable. In her lyrics and self-conceived music videos, she reinforces a range of problematic, outmoded and damaging female stereotypes. Her narratives glamourise objectification and the accumulation of wealth, alongside female financial disempowerment, assault and abuse. She prioritises boys on bikes and ignores her friends, if she even has any: while she might, in Video Games, describe “watching all our friends fall in and out of Old Paul’s”, she definitely means “his” friends. Her protagonists don’t run the world, they are not independent women and they are not doing it for themselves. Instead they defer to a selection of fathers and boyfriends, drug addicts and pimps, priests and police officers; being held down is a turn on.

Lana is variously lethargic and confrontational, vulgar yet deeply sensitive. Her contradictions are rehearsed and precise. She also represents a nuanced, vulnerable and flawed femininity rarely explored in contemporary pop, exposing the emptiness and hypocrisy of sloganistic corporate feminism, of the arbitrary codes of sisterhood, and the regime of empowerment and keeping it real. She’s both obvious and ambiguous, campy and earnest; her metaphors are as grandiose and predictable as a self-conscious freshman. She constructs a visual language of images that have been sold to us for decades, twists them round her little finger and throws them back at us, with a wink reflected in the wing mirror of her boyfriend’s truck. Maybe we’re giving her too much credit, but maybe we’re not giving her enough?

As “empowerment” and “authenticity” have become the default message of the female pop star—from the Spice Girls’ Girl Power, to Beyonce’s, well, everything, through to Pink, Ke$ha, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift—instead Lana’s plaintive “God knows I tried” somehow feels less barren than the promise that “We run this motherfucking world”. Lana exemplifies the contrariness of empowerment under capitalism. In Pretty When You Cry, Lindsay Zoladz writes of Katy Perry’s Roar: “I like the song, but I also sort of feel like a Pavlovian dog for liking it… [it] feels like it was drawn up from focus groups and genetically engineered in a laboratory for the sole purpose of EMPOWERING ME.” She argues that Ultraviolence provides a sort-of antidote, “a fantasy of leisure” that explicitly rejects wellness and self-betterment: “The people in Del Rey’s musical universe do not strive or believe that things will get better, they lounge around all day manicuring their nails and then drink and smoke themselves into a glamorously inert stupor by night.” Lana doesn’t offer a solution, but she does offer an alternative that involves getting high. She’s not unlike one of the other great female misanthropes, Jackie Brown’s Melanie:

Ordell: I’m serious, you smoke too much of that shit. That shit robs you of your ambition.
Melanie: Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV.

Of course, misanthropy and morbidity have long been the preserve of white, male authors and white, male characters – flawed and dissociated, reprehensible and adored. In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield hopes to hell “that when I die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something”. In The People look like Flowers at Last, Charles Bukowski claims that “You have to die a few times before you can really live”. In On the Road, Kerouac describes how “My whole wretched life swam before my weary eyes, and I realised no matter what you do it’s bound to be a waste of time in the end so you might as well go mad”. It’s a wonder Lana del Rey has never sung “I’m not brave any more darling. I’m all broken. They’ve broken me.”

It’s Lana’s dream logic that provides the closest thing to clarity; her use of repetition, of tired cliches, disordered timelines and mixed messages is consistent, and reminiscent of the confused narratives we construct in our subconscious and retell with the static fuzz of days-old news. Her vision of California, of glamour and love, fame and anguish—like her use of clumsily try-hard references, to Vladimir Nabakov and David Bowie—is evocative of Cher-Horowitz-dumb: “Duh, it’s like a famous quote!” But Clueless, too, was written and directed by a woman, and Horowitz, like Lana, is self-satisfied and clever. Sex preoccupies both, yet feminism is arrived at almost accidentally.

When Lana was accused of only getting successful because of an industry boyfriend, she doubled down and wrote Fucked My Way Up To The Top. While pushing sexuality through a range of passé stereotypes, she ended up presenting as more empowered than ostensibly feminist pop stars proclaiming full emancipation over an off-the-shelf backing track. Sure, she’s a mess of smokescreens, but tell us what isn’t? Lana’s feedback loop of lacklustre imagery—taking her red dress off, putting her little red dress on, wishing she was dead, wishing she was dead already—adds up to a sort of refreshing shamelessness: fresh out of fucks forever.

Written with Lillian Wilkie, 2019

Originally published in Dope and Diamonds: A Lana Del Rey Reader, Chateau International

Occasional Table: Distributed

Life is Good and Good For You in New York

It’s dry with a dash of satire – knowing and sarcastic, without losing the magic of the unreal. Gossip Girl embraced the truth of our never really leaving high school, and festooned it with the perks of adulthood…

As Rufus Humphrey prepares for the opening of the latest exhibition at his eponymous gallery, for which no one has RSVP’d, Lily van der Woodsen-Bass – née Rhodes, and formerly Humphrey and Bass – is arranging the final details for her Sotheby’s auction, to benefit the Art Production Fund. Scandal ensues.

Gossip Girl was broadcast from 2007 ’til 2012, and produced by Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz – of The OC – for the television network, The CW. The ruling passion is power. It’s dry with a dash of satire – knowing and sarcastic, without losing the magic of the unreal. Gossip Girl embraced the truth of our never really leaving high school, and festooned it with the perks of adulthood.

The teen drama focused on exactly that: the trials and tribulations of insufferable, privileged teenagers as they navigate addiction, affairs, murder and property empires, and dip in and out of being related to each other. Rampantly jealous and wildly loyal, the central characters – Serena van der Woodsen, Blair Waldorf, Nate Archibald, Chuck Bass, and Dan Humphrey – oscillate around each other, twisting and turning between love and hate. The story goes that an anonymous blogger, Gossip Girl, is tracking the every move of the senior class at a prep school on New York’s Upper East Side; and the show opens with the mysterious return of former ‘Queen Bee’ Serena, who disappeared to a Connecticut boarding school after sleeping with the boyfriend of Blair (her BFF), among other dramas.

Gossip Girl may be one of the first programmes to engage so enthusiastically with the inanimate as character. The disembodied voice of Gossip Girl – who turns out to be a man – is a woman, who plays what may be considered the central role, and is not ‘seen’ or ‘known’ until the final episode. She/he/it lives in the mobile phones and on the screens of the characters, and directs their lives. Arguably, the animated inanimate precedes the animate.

Through each season the characters speed through relationships, surnames, jobs, colleges, and principalities, and although the teen amateur oligarchs are certainly busy, the central characters populating Gossip Girl’s New York aren’t always the teen idols. First, there’s the aforementioned disembodied narrative voice of Gossip Girl and second the artwork – closely followed by the borderline hysterical product placement.

In 2007, the executive producers behind Gossip Girl worked with the Art Production Fund – a non-profit organisation which produces public art projects – on one of the first instances of a collaboration between a TV series and contemporary artists. In consultation with the Gossip Girl team, APF chose works by artists such as Kiki Smith, Marilyn Minter, Ryan McGinley and Richard Phillips, which were hung in the penthouse apartments and hotel suites populated by the key screen families.

The main location was Lily van der Woodsen’s apartment, and her ‘collection’ was unveiled in the fifth episode of Season 2. She enters the apartment already in conversation with her art consultant, Bex, who, on exiting the lift, introduces Lily to her newly adorned surroundings:

Bex: Kiki Smith greeting you in the foyer, Elm & Drag pulling you into the main room…
Lily: Oh, I love that…
Bex: And making a statement on the stairwell, Richard Phillips.
Lily: … isn’t it just breathtaking?
Bex: Any museum would be thrilled.

Richard Phillips’ Spectrum is the star piece. Hung at the centre of the space, above the glass stairwell, it features not only in conversation but also as a central character. Known by the core gang as ‘the rainbow woman’, in the final season the painting is embroiled in an elaborate scheme.

It’s the sixth episode of Season 6, otherwise known as ‘Where the Vile Things Are’, and Spectrum is at centre stage. Nate, the local all-American, dead-behind-the-eyes good guy, has a rare brainwave and steals the phone of the financial advisor to Bart Bass (the formerly dead, hotelier father of Chuck, Nate’s best friend), in the hope of unearthing the secret of where Bart has hidden a suspicious envelope – the records of an illegal oil deal with a Sudanese sheikh. (Really.)

Nate and Chuck trawl the phone for clues and find one in its calendar: ‘Bass, Traffic’. It turns out that the advisor records each of his money-saving plots with the name of a film, and in this case it’s Traffic, a film in which, as Chuck kindly explains, ‘the head of the drug cartel stored his illegal account information in the back of a painting’. But Chuck has been banned from his sort-of familial home – his mother may or may not have died soon after giving birth to him, and his father had been long dead before he unceremoniously reappeared in the back room of a brothel in upstate New York, only to commandeer his real estate empire from Chuck who, at 19 and in the midst of grief, had continued his father’s legacy – so Nate takes on the responsibility of “paying them a visit”.

On entering the apartment, Nate realises that “The rainbow woman is gone!” It is in fact at Lily van der Woodsen’s Sotheby’s art auction for the APF, where Rufus Humphrey is wreaking havoc with his current spouse, and former step-daughter (scandal), Ivy Dickens. Ivy inherited half of Lily van der Woodsen’s mother’s estate, having been employed by Lily’s sister to impersonate her daughter, with the aim of commandeering her trust fund. She is now masquerading as Rufus’s girlfriend, but is actually in cahoots with Lily’s ex-husband, William van der Woodsen, to destroy Lily – or so she thinks…

Back at the auction, in an effort to resolve the gallery panic, Ivy has bought every painting, and made a deal with Sotheby’s to display the work from Rufus’s gallery. Lily panics at the thought of sharing the spotlight with both Ivy and her ex-husband, and so enters Spectrum for auction. The painting – behind which Bart Bass has hidden the aforementioned microfilm – stars in a live auction, a battle between Lily, Ivy, and Chuck, which ends at a crescendo of one million dollars. From here, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump through promises of ruin and sex games before the evidence goes up in flames. It’s really very straightforward.

Snobbery is looked down upon.

The distinction, or lack thereof, between the animate and inanimate in Gossip Girl, is the only aspect of the series in which the hierarchy is flat, if not non-existent. The characters’ clothes speak with more clarity and purpose than the characters can seem to portray; they trade each other as often as they sell stories or hotels (and occasionally for hotels), and the art that surrounds them has a life of its own – in and out of the show.

After the collaboration between Gossip Girl and the APF came to fruition, a series of prints went into production, selling at 250 dollars apiece, and APF co-founder Doreen Remen – who also guest-starred in ‘Where the Vile Things Are’ – waxed lyrical about the impact of displaying work on screen: “Exhibiting artworks in this context is a way to engage people in their daily lives; a chance to generate a spark of interest that may grow into something thought-provoking and mind-opening”. In the episode, Remen reflected this statement, and Richard Phillips went along with Humphrey’s questionable interpretation of art history:

Doreen Remen: I like that your art is reflecting the same socially relevant projects we commission at the Art Production Fund.
Rufus Humphrey: And I like that you can see the street art influence. I’m not talking about the ’80s, but the ’40s. Dubuffet, Pollock, Ray Johnson.
Richard Phillips: When artists were the stars of New York, instead of celebutantes.

In this star turn, Gossip Girl did what it did best, layering references upon references. Phillips’ comment makes a joke of the show, and somewhat of himself. By having artworks ‘starring’ in a network show, and guest-starring in the show himself, he reaches the apex of Pop, and somehow brings Gossip Girl into its history. In an interview with The New York Times, Phillips said: “It’s so wonderful how my work has been able to reach out, Warhol would never have been able to dream of such a thing”.

Not unlike Andy Warhol’s Factory, Gossip Girl attracted a wild mix of personalities while it mass-produced images – of artworks, of themselves, of New York – and moving images. The show regularly spliced the realms of fact and fiction, the plausible with the implausible, and was somehow just dry enough to convince established artists and organisations to go along with its high jinks. Politicians, ballet dancers, designers, and musicians both star and are referenced, and real-world scandals are accounted for. New York plays itself. Mayor Bloomberg plays himself. Sonic Youth play a special set for Rufus and Lily’s wedding.

The inner circle’s relationships crossed over in reality and on the show, and gossip about the actors was as popular as gossip about and between the characters. Real-life columnists reviewing Gossip Girl appeared as characters, and character arcs appeared in real-world expressions. Serena and Dan dated on the New York set while Blake Lively and Penn Badgley, who played the aforementioned characters, dated on the New York streets.

Every episode would reach a crescendo at a high-production gala, auction, or masked ball, with the characters walking the red carpet, being chased by paparazzi and featured on Page Six. Every week would close with a mirroring reality for Gossip Girl’s stars, often in the same elaborate outfits, on the same marble steps. In a conversation with New York magazine, Penn Badgley (Dan Humphrey) said: “Look, the show that we’re on, it wants us to be celebrities, it’s trying to launch us into the media like a project. You know. Like a social experiment”.

Gossip Girl was distributed internationally and spawned a number of spin-offs, but it was the way that it permeated and was scattered across New York that was most remarkable. In a bizarre, regurgitating food chain, Gossip Girl would be consumed by New York, and New York would be consumed by Gossip Girl. Like pigs in shit. The show went high and low, far and wide, extolling the virtues of VitaminWater, Windows phones, and Chanel make-up, with the regularity and fervour of an underfunded lifestyle magazine. In addition to featuring figures such as publisher Jonathan Cape, critic Charles Isherwood, novelist Jay McInerney, and journalist Hamish Bowles, the show also coupled up n+1’s former editor Keith Gessen with Elizabeth Hurley, when she was moonlighting as a newspaper editor at The New York Spectator, sleeping with Nate and pretending to be Chuck’s mother.

Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa sign, which holds a prime spot in Lily van der Woodsen’s apartment, was made especially for the show – as a precursor to the permanent Prada Marfa sculpture in Texas, which was made in partnership with the Art Production Fund. The print, known on APF’s site as ‘Elmgreen & Dragset – Prada Marfa Sign (Prop Art)’ can be bought for as little as $149.99 on It has also spawned countless imitations, including images of signs pointing to Paris, New York, and London, and a variety of ‘PRADA’ signs in a mix of typefaces, printed in gold, on marble and in millennial pink.

In 1977, Printed Matter was founded in Tribeca, New York, by Sol LeWitt and Lucy Lippard, with the intention of disseminating artists’ books. To quote from details of the organisation’s history on Printed Matter’s website:

Large-edition and economically produced publications allowed for experimentation with artworks that were democratically accessible, affordable, collaborative, and could circulate outside of the mainstream gallery system. Printed Matter provided a space that championed artists’ books as complex and meaningful artworks, helping bring broader visibility to a medium that was not widely embraced at the time.

Why shouldn’t the next logical step be dissemination in the background – and foreground – of teen drama?

There were few – if any – redeeming features of the characters who made up Gossip Girl’s New York – and that was their best quality. If anyone had a virtue, it was in their total, uncompromising embrace of viciousness and vacuity. This doomed bourgeoisie, in ‘love’, addressed culture and politics with the same confident lack of care they inflicted upon each other. If an art of and for the people is what we want and need, here’s a playbook. To quote Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal: “To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance”.

XOXO, Gossip Girl


Originally published by Open Editions, in the anthology Occasional Table: Distributed

This is Badland

In an elegant beach-front setting

BODRUM – An archaeology of street media; signage, translation and interpretation; architectural simulation; design vernaculars and improvisations.

BODRUM – An archaeology of street media; signage, translation and interpretation; architectural simulation; design vernaculars and improvisations.

If you take a Joker boat from Bodrum’s waterside Starbucks, you reach the island that carries the Castle of St. Peter, built by the Knights Hospitaller — a mediaeval and early modern Catholic military order — in the late 15th Century. It was constructed in part from the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which had been erected in 350 BC and destroyed by a series of earthquakes over the following centuries. The Mausoleum, or Tomb of Mausolus, had been built for the ruler of Caria and his sister-wife Artemisia II of Caria, when Bodrum was the ancient Greek city of Halicarnassus. 

Soon after its completion, the castle was attacked by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and the Knights surrendered it to the Ottoman Empire. It became a mosque, then a military base, a hamam, a prison, a garrison, and finally, in the 1960s, a museum of underwater archaeology. In recent years, the Halikarnas nightclub — which sits on the outer edge of the Bodrum strip — has projected enticing messages in neon green light onto the castle walls: **LADIES NIGHT**, **FREE DRINKS**, **IMPORTED DRINKS**. 

The high columns that frame Halikarnas date back to 1979, but since its closure was announced by founder Suleyman Demir at the close of the last decade, its mock historic architecture is now destined to become a ruin. A temple of entertainment, the Halikarnas website boasts visits from: “Bette Midler, Dustin Hoffman, Princess Margaret, the Rockefellers, Valentino, Sting, Richard Branson, Phil Collins, Michael Caine, the Blues Brothers, Ronald McDonald, Pamela Anderson, Kid Rock and Naomi Campbell”. There was a restaurant designed by Jade Jagger, and an Arabesque Lounge, which encouraged its guests to “indulge [their] taste for the Oriental”: “Enter a world of relaxing water pipes, indulgent divans and special cocktails with a touch of ‘Eastern Promise’.” Bodrum, or Halicarnassus (or Halikarnas), having criss-crossed between empires, religions and nations since early civilisation, now stands as an example of how histories can layer up, change direction, be built over and projected on. Ancient ruins sit beside moulded replica statues (“Perfect for your garden!”), the ANCIENT RUIN estate agent sells holiday villas on spec, and imported camels sit on the side of the road, ready to indulge tourist ignorance. 

On the north side of the highway running from Bodrum Airport to the city, which cuts through pine forests and gourd-laden villages, past cut-outs of police cars and stacks of honey on the side of the road, is the Sedative Boutique Hotel and Spa: “In a world of its own, both intimate and stylish, offering very high class service with the added qualities of personalised attention in an elegant beach front setting.” Self-identifying as “understated”, its roadside signage is gilded in gold leaf, S-e-d-a-t-i-v-e spelt out proudly in Baroque serif, promoting calm, in a sparkling, high gloss example of how easily things can be lost in translation. Or was it all on purpose? 

Literal translation, or straight-forward readings of places, people and practices, leads to a flattening out (or exaggeration) that obscures history, but that instinct can also, at times, be optimised — the importing of camels being a case in point. Often, it’s places that contain and sit at the junction of complex histories that are most capable of playing a little fast and loose with assurances of authenticity. 

Growing up, I visited the Bodrum peninsula every summer with my family. My Dad was born in Istanbul, to Turkish-Jewish parents, who’d emigrated from Bulgaria and Spain on one side, Russia and Greece on the other. My brother and I were born in the UK, as was my Mum, to British-Irish parents, and we’d meet with my extended Turk-ish family — who lived in Istanbul, Sydney, Tel Aviv and Paris, further elaborating on our already “soupy” sense of identity — grounding ourselves in the inconsistencies and contradictions of the landscape. 

The sound of cicadas, the call to prayer, the call for “ALGIDA”; the sight of bougainvillea, white houses, geckos; the smell of mandarin, sweetcorn, pine forests, cumin, dill or pul biber, all feel like home. A sense of home that’s both strange and familiar, foreign and integral, to which I’m connected by a sort-of muscle memory, but disconnected from. Embracing that means collapsing assurances about identity and connection; allowing disconnections, misunderstandings, and a lack of clarity to be precisely what binds you. It’s home always accessed from a distance. 

The drive along the coastal road from Bodrum-Milas airport (if you turn right towards Torba, just beyond the Sedative Hotel) takes you through the fishing and hillside farming villages that surround Bodrum (as well as past countless golden mega hotels and cités), and along the hillside cliffs that drop into the Aegean Sea. Along it, like the highway, are streams of billboards, and roadside attractions. 

Round the blind corners and along the sheer drops, past the busy roadsides and on the chaotic roads, you eventually reach a particular village that’s built around Hellenic ruins — 
the sunken walls of the ancient city providing a route across the sea to a small island inhabited by rabbits. Myndos, now Gümüslük, was an ancient Dorian colony — one of the four major ethnic groups among the Hellenes of Classical Greece —of Troezen; it’s thought that an unrecorded earthquake caused the seafront sections of the ancient town to be submerged. It was designed, like Halicarnassus, with the intention of accessing and controlling the surrounding seas – particularly the straits between the Anatolian mainland and the adjacent islands of Kos and Kalymnos – a principle that features in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who set Brutus and Cassius’ fleet base at Myndos during the battle of Philippi, which followed Caesar’s assassination. 

Myndos, or Gümüslük, is protected by a bay that juts out to the south and curves round the town’s beachfront from the north-side. No longer a working harbour, fishing boats still moor there, and yachts and gulets drop their anchors further out in the bay, taking advantage of the protection it provides from the weather of the open water. Beyond the hill that faces the town, the sun performs its daily ritual of dropping from the sky into the sea, lending the sea a silver glow; giving it a sense of unfamiliar magic for those who find a sense of home in the blue of the water.

Spring, 2020

Originally published by This is Badland.

Spike Art Magazine

Forensic Architecture at the ICA

In Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture, the ICA opens up as a site for enquiry – both as a record of inquiries undertaken by the independent research agency Forensic Architecture, and as a space of study for the public.

In Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture, the ICA opens up as a site for enquiry – both as a record of inquiries undertaken by the independent research agency Forensic Architecture, and as a space of study for the public. The ICA itself is undergoing a period of renovation, and it’s core structure – from grand, detailed cornices, to internal wiring and insulation – forms the backdrop to Forensic Architecture’s investigations. The exhibition stretches through the lower and upper galleries, as well as the theatre space and reading room; and is very much focused on collective experience – facilitated via scale, access, seating and sound, as well as a programme of short courses and debates.

The agency was established in 2010, by British-Israeli architect Eyal Weizman. His critical practice initially took form in a PhD on the ways in which town planning in the occupied territories was used to divide and suppress, and a censored exhibition on settlements, which went on to be shown at the Israeli pavilion in the Venice architecture biennale. Weizman wanted to show how architects could be complicit in human rights violations by architecture and planning; and although the work of Forensic Architecture now extends far beyond the slow violence of architecture and into the rapid violence of warfare and displacement, architectural practice – actual, virtual and cognitive – is still at its core.

As the extensive wall texts of the exhibition describe, the word ‘forensic’ derives from ‘forensis’, Latin for ‘pertaining to the forum’. The Roman forum was “a multi-dimensional space of politics, law and economy”, and the centre of day-to-day life in ancient Rome – a marketplace, and the venue for public speeches, criminal trials and gladiatorial matches. This definition is in stark contrast to the contemporary understanding of forensics as “the application of science within a legal framework”: “Extending from DNA analysis to image surveillance and digital eavesdropping, contemporary forensic practices provide one of the means by which state agencies survey, police and judge individuals under their control.”

Counter forensics, as undertaken by Forensic Architecture, is: “a civil practice that seeks to invert the institutionalised forensic gaze, with individuals and organisations making over the means of evidence production, and turning the state’s means against the violence it commits.” The agencies practice employs spatial and material analysis, mapping and reconstruction, witness testimony and visual documentation from blogs and social media, to produce and present evidence in the pursuit of public accountability. The work on display is complex and demanding, and deals with distressing, urgent cases; the video works are compelling and the exhibition is striking as a spatial intervention, but at points the extensive texts draw too much attention away from the work itself. With so much to address, in terms of subject, process and context, the information is by no means superfluous, but could do with being presented in another form. It’s at the points where the information is shown – such as in the mural flow diagrams – that it achieves real clarity, and in the engagement with the public through the aforementioned short courses and debates. It’ll be here that Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture will not only counter the contemporary definition of forensics, but embody the Latin origin of the term with its focus on the public.

The exhibition presents multiple investigations – which have lead to the contestation of accounts of events given by state authorities, affecting legal and human rights processes, and military, parliamentary and UN inquiries – each one an open-ended process, and here set on the stage of a public forum, the ICA. The role and position of public arts institutes, their civic responsibility and potential impact, has long been in question – or questioned. Here, the ICA and Forensic Architecture have presented a form that could be translated to countless cases – the gallery as a forum, a place for debate and the pursuit of public accountability.

Spring, 2018

Originally published by Spike Art Magazine.

Eye on Design

What Does #MeToo Gain by Winning “Brand of the Year?”

Do we risk over-simplifying complex social + political movements or do awards like these keep the activist spirit alive?

The Suffragettes have gone down in history for a list of reasons that is as long as it is obvious by now, but there is one lesser known fact that might surprise even the most ardent activist: it was one the very first political movements to create a visual identity. The color scheme (purple, white, and green to represent loyalty, dignity, purity, and hope) was devised in 1908 by Votes for Women co-editor Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and the identity was designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, who trained at the Royal College of Art. The colors, sashes, badges, and ribbons marked a sense of camaraderie and a desire to be recognized both within the group and by the general public as a collective entity.

It also acted as a fundraising exercise, with The Suffragettes marketing products featuring the color scheme, including a game called Suffragetto, “An Original and Interesting Game of Skill between Suffragettes and Policemen,” that allowed them to continue their work without accepting donations that may have compromised the integrity of the cause. In many ways, it’s a prime example of turn-of-the-century branding—defining a strong visual identity, and using product sales to sustain and grow—but to suggest that The Suffragettes are a brand would be reductive.

The term “brand” originates from the branding of livestock in Ancient Egypt, to mark ownership and denote quality, and with the first Industrial Revolution it extended to become a practice of imbuing marketable products with character and recognizable personality traits. Now, the marketable products often seem secondary, or they’ve all but disappeared, and the definition of a brand has stretched so far it seems to be swallowing everything up in its path. Individuals work on their “personal brand”; countries employ designers to brand their capital; political movements are described as brands. Maybe it’s just semantics, but to me, defining an individual, a movement, a city, or a nation as a brand feels like a bleakly dystopian act of “tidying up,” flattening complex people, ideas, and places into neat, universally accessible forms. It also ties our sense of self ever more tightly to a capitalist infrastructure.

Today, the School of Visual Art’s Masters in Branding Program announces its second annual “Brand of the Year:” the #MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 (last year the honor went to the “pussyhat”). The press release regarding the announcement states that “#MeToo, which began as a grassroots movement, has now circled the globe to unite people behind one cry and cause. This is the highest calling of branding: to bring people together for the benefit of humanity.”

It’s a big statement, with a fundamental sticking point in the relationship between brands and the market, and how that can help to strengthen (or often, to undermine) their ability to bring people together for the benefit of humanity. It also comes unstuck when you consider Burke’s relationship to the movement, and her publicly appointed position as figurehead. She maintains a consistent focus on highlighting the complexity and wide spectrum of harassment and sexual violence, rather than allowing it to be simplified into something with a singular definition. She’s also stepped away from opportunities to monetize the movement, and still gives away the same T-shirts she’s been handing out since she started leading workshops and visiting rape crisis centers; she intrinsically doesn’t seek the spotlight, but rather, legitimate structural change.

Tarana Burke hasn’t claimed ownership of the #MeToo movement or sought to define or classify it. Rather, she’s allowed it to grow and change shape along with the nuances and intersections of the experiences attributed to it. For something to function as a brand, it requires the kind of tangible clarity that’s in opposition to the messy nature of life, let alone lives impacted by trauma. Brands iron out or make statements apologizing for inconsistencies that contradict or fall outside of their “ethos,” and while I’m more than happy for brands to influence my choice of shampoo, chair, shirt, butter, and mascara, I’d rather they lay off our socio-political movements.

In a later release from SVA’s Masters in Branding program, they announced that in light of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel’s memo concerning Michael T. Flynn and their investigation into Russia’s election interference, the OSC would be announced as “Brand to Watch.” Referring to an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency as a “brand” is even more of a stretch than the #MeToo movement. Brands rely on a veneer of accountability to draw us further into their narrative, and while there can be crossovers in the way public outcry is aimed at all kinds of collective entities, to collapse institutions and companies into “brands” could have the effect of normalizing shallow responses and a transactional relationship with our public representatives.

If by naming #MeToo “Brand of the Year” and the OSC as “Brand to Watch,” Debbie Millman and the SVA department she chairs is suggesting that the definition of brands is evolving to encompass more than just profit-centered companies, I’m eager to learn more about that line of thinking (at the time of publication, Millman had not responded to our interview requests). Otherwise, I worry that acknowledging a movement that has set the world on fire, or an independent federal agency investigating paradigm shifting interference and manipulation as examples of savvy branding, undermines the significance and impact of individual trauma and collective reckonings.

December, 2018

Originally published by Eye on Design.


Is Political Satire a Match for the Times We Live In?

Satire has a long and complicated history, with writers using wit and parody to draw attention to cracks and flaws in society from Ancient Egypt all the way through to contemporary life…

Satire has a long and complicated history, with writers using wit and parody to draw attention to cracks and flaws in society from Ancient Egypt all the way through to contemporary life—The Onion and Private Eye are prime examples. It’s integral to Thomas More’s Utopia; James Gillray and William Hogarth’s paintings and political cartoons; Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove; and TV shows including Spitting Image and Have I Got News for You. Unlike sarcasm, and its reputation for being the lowest form of humour, satire manages to criss-cross through society, aiming both high and low, and occasionally toppling those in power.

At the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts, curated by Slavs and Tatars—whose practice takes the form of exhibitions, books and lecture-performances, rooted in themes and ideas concerning “an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia”—the radical potential of satire today is being considered via a mix of works, from furniture and market stalls, through to magazine archives and itinerant voting booths. Now in it’s thirty-third edition, it has also provided an opportunity for Slavs and Tatars to consider the biennial’s heritage in graphic arts, and how that ties in with the history of satirical periodicals; the affordability of print and potential of distribution in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and the increased access we have to hardware and software today.

A selection of Slovenian satire periodicals from the International Centre of Graphic Arts’ (MGLC) archive are displayed among the exhibition, chronicling responses to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom and the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia. The use of illustration and caricature in satire periodicals is effective in its potential to create archetypes and popular characters, in its immediacy in communication, and the fact it can cross language barriers—both as a sort-of visual Esperanto, and as a form of communication that could negate issues of literacy. Many of the publications are named after animals or plants known for being prickly, including Jež, or “hedgehog”; Kača, or “snake”; and Bodeča neža, or “silver thistle”; and Pavliha, the longest-running journal, had a repeat character, Martin Krpan, who was known for being a trickster, and has since become a sort of folk hero “drafted to bolster claims of self-determination”.

Another example of popular culture displayed as part of the biennial, is Top Lista Nadrealista, or “The Surrealists’ Top Chart”, a TV sketch comedy that aired in Sarajevo in the 1980s. For its first season Nadrealista focused on themes including Yugoslavia’s preparation for Euro 1984, lampooning Star Trek, and an ongoing parody of Romeo and Juliet that told the story of star-crossed lovers separated by a cross-town football rivalry. By its second season, which aired in the period leading up to the Yugoslav Wars, it dealt more directly with politics, thanks to the willingness of its network-assigned executive producer to trick his TV Sarajevo superiors by airing sketches that directly mocked those in power.

In line with the approach of Nadrealista, in their introduction to the biennial, Slavs and Tatars suggest that living in “sour times” requires “sweet-and-sour methods”. They frame satire as something that has the potential to “tease, stunt or terrorize”, and raise the question: “Is each joke, as George Orwell maintained, really a tiny revolution? Or do laughter and satire release the pressure that would otherwise lead to political upheaval?”

In America, TV shows such as Saturday Night Live and Veep, and commentators Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert, among others, have gone from being enjoyed as light-hearted fun, to being considered as essential political devices. Political cartoons throughout the world are becoming ever more meaningful and potentially divisive, and as the news becomes increasingly absurd, The Onion somehow manages to stay ahead of the daily cycle—but could it be going further? Even when European and American politics seem to be hitting new heights of stupidity and new ethical lows, when writers, comedians and artists take shots at politicians, policy and the news of the day, the stakes are often low. Of contemporary, Western satire, Slavs and Tatars’ Payam Sharifi says: “Satire has the potential to be quite conservative, suggest[ing] it was better as it was before—a true progressive agenda would be bringing down those norms full stop,” he says. Considering the freedoms we enjoy, and the lack of real pressure or force on those who speak or act out against government, are we achieving the revolutionary potential of satire, or as Slavs and Tatars suggest, just “releasing pressure” that may otherwise create change.

In their selection of work for the biennial, Slavs and Tatars focus on practices that make use of the “slipperiness” of definitions, in terms of both context and meaning. A lot of the work sits between art and design, between so-called high and low culture, and rather than reflecting directly on present-day politics, offers ideas that could inform the future. They engaged with the history of the biennial, which is rooted in graphic arts, not through showing graphic design practice, or showing the work of graphic artists, but by considering the “democratic potential” of its heritage, and the ideas of satire and publishing as a form of “popular philosophy”. Showing work by historical and contemporary artists—including Fluxus artist Endre Tot, and contemporary artists Martine Gutierrez, Zhanna Kadyrova, Kriwet, Ella Kruglyanskaya and Lawrence Abu Hamdan—as well as interventions by activists, new media polemicists, scholars and stand-up comedians, what pulls it all together is a sense of humour “with a level of sophistication behind stupid or simple gestures, a thickness behind the facade”. 

Uninterested in work “where the discourse is clearly available”, they focus on pieces that draw you in without giving everything away. Kriwet’s text signs, a series of circular, badge-like layouts of letters that “slip” between forming various words—including “YOUTHIRSTY”, “SUBURBANDIT” and “SODOMESTICK”—interrupt conventions of reading and the structures of language. Artist Dozie Kanu’s work sits somewhere between sculpture and furniture, bringing together what’s perceived as incompatible ideas, in regards to form and function, and the potential for objects to carry multi-layered narratives—of dreams of mobility, car parts, hip hop and the performance of blackness. In Martine Part I-IX, Martine Gutierrez explores the complexity, fluidity and nuances of both personal and collective identity in a video filmed in a variety of locations—including Providence, Central America and the Caribbean—which symbolize her character’s process of self-discovery, and how they negotiate various perceptions of gender identity. A trans, Latinx artist of indigenous descent, Gutierrez asserts control of her own image by taking control of the entire creative process, in a characteristically subversive look at how society seeks to control “unruly” bodies, and how deeply embedded sexism, racism, transphobia and other biases are within our culture.

One of the more direct engagements with the theme of satire is No More Fuchs Left to Give—a collaboration between book dealer Arthur Fournier and scholar Raphael Koenig. The installation of books, editions and periodicals considers the work of German book collector, art historian and Marxist activist Eduard Fuchs; who, through his publishing programme, was key to the development of ideas around the role of mechanically reproduced satirical images in the production of political discourses in the early twentieth century. In a great twist, prints from his out of copyright books are now available to buy from, as “canvas wall art for your home or office”, and Fournier and Koenig ordered a few for the exhibition, which draws on Koenig’s recent work as a scholar in comparative literature at Harvard University. Aware of the potential for satire to both talk back to power and reinforce existing mechanisms of discrimination and oppression, Fuchs’s research and collection is a rich resource for clues about how we might grapple with authoritarianism, nationalism and neoliberalism today.

Of the value of satire, Sharifi suggested it’s in the balance of “sophisticated, deep research with stupid gestures”; “too often, people who do one, don’t take the risk of the other”. Artists engaging with satire often do so with the intention of taking on political and economic systems and tropes, but they also almost self-satirize, or parody the smaller world in which they move (as do films like The Square and Velvet Buzzsaw). Marcel Duchamp satirized the art establishment, Andrea Fraser’s institutional critique parodied museums and their various hierarchies, Elmgreen and Dragset satirize via theatrical installations, and Jeff Koons thinks he’s a satirist. 

In Crack Up – Crack Down, the potential of humour—balancing sophistication with stupidity—and work that is “slippery” in regards to its implications, is presented with confidence; but the study of satire, from its roots in journals to the present day, has left Sharifi with mixed feelings about how we employ it. “As things become more common, they lose a certain power, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that [satire] isn’t as effective as it was before,” he says. “But I still have a lot of hope. I believe that words are powerful—the way that stand-up comedy puts pressure on language, poetry, new terminologies for gender and sexuality. Language has a lot of power and always will; it’s a good antidote to the glut of visuals we’ve had recently.”

June, 2019

Originally published by Elephant.


Ornament Takes on New Meaning at Artmonte-Carlo

Monaco’s beach-front promenade stretches along much of the principality’s coastline, interrupted by luxury beach clubs, rocky cliff edges, private villas, the occasional drained pool and, for the last few years, construction boards depicting a photographic render of the horizon line they obscure…

Monaco’s beach-front promenade stretches along much of the principality’s coastline, interrupted by luxury beach clubs, rocky cliff edges, private villas, the occasional drained pool and, for the last few years, construction boards depicting a photographic render of the horizon line they obscure. It seems to be a year-round festival of construction and Formula 1 prep. In a country with more billionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world, Monte Carlo’s lap of luxury is draped in elaborately decorated hoardings, wire mesh fencing, overlapping Belle Époque villas and peach-tinted skyscrapers; as well as the obligatory palm trees, gold-plating and jardins exotiques. 

Navigating Monte Carlo on foot, between the Grimaldi Forum, where artmonte-carlo is held, the National Museum’s Villa Paloma and Villa Sauber, and the art fair’s various satellite events, is like being in an arcade game won by dodging Ferraris, locating hidden staircases, crossing world-famous hairpin bends, and counting the number of bedazzled, bouffant-ed, stiletto-ed women ambling along the sides of A-roads. It’s difficult to ground yourself in any sense of recognition, or reality, when even the high-gloss landscape is part simulation.  

The fair itself mirrors this atmosphere of Riviera gloss, ornament, and pastel excess, playing on the absurdity while existing within it and, in certain instances, utilizing its own visual language to critique it. Genova gallery Pinksummer’s exhibition of works by Invernomuto—a collaboration between Simone Bertuzzi and Simone Trabucchi—was focused on Italian colonialism and, in particular, Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. It’s Invernomuto’s second project focused on the Mediterranean, the first being Black Med, which was exhibited at Manifesta 12, Palermo, and “explore[d] different journeys of sound movement, touching topics such as alternate use of technology, migrations, peripheries and interspecies”, rooted in Alessandra Di Maio’s adaption of black Atlantic theory to the Med.

MED T-1000 has the (knowing) feel of a Mediterranean, glass-fronted estate agent, with ceramic heads, a giant white rug, vending machine, photographs and postcards depicting bright blue skies and lush landscapes. On closer look, the ceramic heads are actually Moor’s Heads, turned into robots with laser eyes and the mass of picture-postcards is being “harassed” by a T-800 cyborg from the first Terminator film. The vending machine is dispensing water in plastic bottles labelled “Mediterranean Sea Water Not Suitable for Drinking” (a limitless edition by the artists) and has a still from Invernomuto’s film Negus—a documentary starring Lee “Scratch” Perry, which “explores the convergence of history, myth and magic through the complex and competing legacies of Ethiopia’s last explorer Haile Selasie I”—printed on its plexiglass front, and the carpet depicts a technical drawing of Selassié’s last visit to Italy in 1970. The installation is playful in its approach, and effective in presenting the Mediterranean sea as “the battleground for increasingly complex identities”: “once understood as a fluid entity aiding the formation of networks and exchange, [it’s] now the scenario of a humanitarian crisis and heated geopolitical dispute”.

Paris- and Marseille-based gallery Crèvecoeur showed works by a mix of practitioners working between textiles, sculpture, photography and painting, including two South American artists, Ad Minoliti and Sol Calero, from Argentina and Venezuela respectively. Minoliti’s work, Untitled (Logos 2), draws upon early modernist iconography, and like Invernomuto’s pieces it seems at first to be light and decorative, while tackling complex ideas around techno-feminism, queer theory, geometry, space travel and colonialism. Minoliti’s work is concerned with intersectionality in terms of both its core themes and use of disciplines—its radical politics told through light-hearted, colourful exuberance.

Similarly, Sol Calero’s work, often taking the form of brightly painted, immersive installations, can be considered social practice in its broadest sense—both in terms of engaging with political issues, and a want to engage her audience directly with and in the work. Calero’s projects can be informed by everything from hyperinflation to how salsa music reflects identity, interested in reflecting on the ambiguity of cultural signifiers, and how meanings can proliferate and change. She’s particularly drawn upon the popularization of Carmen Miranda, and the appropriation of Latin American culture by the USA in the mid-twentieth century; taking recognized and re-appropriated cultural codes and putting them back into context. In her series of Frutas paintings, Calero roots her work in the visual language of 1930s Latin America, focusing on lines, shapes and bold colours; in a study of the mis-appropriation of Carmen Miranda, who was seen to represent “the exotic beauty of Latin America”, when the context of her costume was based on clothing worn by Afro-Brazilian Baiana women who made their living selling fruit.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s Excessive Sensual Indulgence, exhibited by Blain Southern, also typifies this potential for misunderstanding. The title, and the work itself—a dazzlingly absorbing and perpetual fountain in lights—immediately conjures up visions of the Las Vegas strip, but the work was apparently made more with Blackpool in mind; in particular, its illuminations, the carnivalesque annual event founded in 1879, which sees out the ending of the seaside resort’s season.

Torino-based Galleria Franco Noero showed Francesco Vezzoli’s People People (Fighting Sexism with New Tactics – America Loves Her Again), two framed covers of People magazine side-by-side, one of Gloria Steinem, the other of Jane Fonda, each embroidered with tears in his signature needlepoint technique. It seemed to be Vezzoli’s only work at the fair, which is surprising considering how the whole of Monaco could so easily pass as an elaborate, site-specific Vezzoli performance; his core concerns being power and seduction in contemporary culture, and the ambiguity of what constitutes truth.

May, 2019

Originally published by Elephant.


The Seductive, Revelatory Art of TV Drama

This year marks two decades since the pilot episode of Sex and the City. When Carrie Bradshaw first broke the fourth wall, Samantha Jones introduced us to the rules of the free-market-feminism…

This year marks two decades since the pilot episode of Sex and the City. When Carrie Bradshaw first broke the fourth wall, Samantha Jones introduced us to the rules of the free-market-feminism that bound the show, Miranda Hobbes wore a bucket hat over a hoodie, and Charlotte York went back to Capote Duncan’s to “see the Ross Bleckner”. Not for the first time, or the last, contemporary art was brought in on the action (or as part of a ploy to get some).

A year earlier, in Los Angeles, Amanda Woodward, the head of advertising agency D&D, had brought her love interest, Kyle McBride, to an art opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA), in episode 28 of the fifth season of Melrose Place — a spin-off of Beverley Hills, 90210, which followed a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings living in the same apartment complex. Much of their date took place in front of a Bleckner-like painting—as described by William Grimes in The New York Times —which alluded to the American bombing of Baghdad.

Amanda: You know, I wanted to major in art.
Kyle: (Sighing) Aaah!
Amanda: But it wasn’t practical. So I majored in business and minored in art. I went through this bohemian stage, where I considered forgetting about money, and I just wanted to travel and paint. That was my dream.
Kyle: What changed?
Amanda: Poverty sucks!

Kristin Davis, who played Charlotte York in SATC, had previously been entangled with Amanda in a web of blackmail and drama in season 4 of Melrose Place, as Brooke Armstrong, an intern at the ad agency. She missed the MOCA show having drowned in a courtyard pool in episode 20, after a boozy argument with her ex-husband (and Amanda’s ex-lover); she also missed the grand unveiling of the PIMs (Product Insertion Manifestations), orchestrated for Melrose Place by the GALA Committee.

Conceptual artist, and GALA Committee founder, Mel Chin had stumbled upon Melrose Place when his wife, flipping channels, landed on a scene with Heather Locklear, who played Amanda Woodward, speaking in front of a painting. It was the mid-90s and he’d recently been approached by the curators of the MOCA exhibition Uncommon Sense, a show that would comprise the newly commissioned work of six artists who were interested in both social issues and engaging people who wouldn’t normally frequent galleries. The clip from Melrose Place, plus his interest in working out how artists might work with TV—a theme Chin was exploring in his teaching at the University of Georgia and the California Institute of the Arts—led him to the conclusion, “That’s the gallery”.

Although the cast of Melrose was older than that of 90210, they swung between love and hate like teenagers, and created countless opportunities for new layers of meaning to surround their absurd interactions. The show’s production team went for it and, for the next two years and two seasons of Melrose Place, the Gala Committee embedded PIMs in the storylines, homes, and workplaces that made up the show.

In its artist’s statement, the GALA Committee wrote: “[We] sought to work with commercial television by actively approaching it as a proper site in which to develop possibilities for education, to generate the transfer of information, and to layer narratives and poetic construction.” They called the project ‘In the Name of the Place’, and recognized it as a viral, conceptual public artwork to be conducted on primetime TV.

The GALA Committee’s interventions included bedsheets with a repeat pattern of unrolled condoms on the bed of womanizing Dr Peter Burns, and a quilt appliquéd with the chemical symbol for the then-illegal abortion pill RU-486 that covered the accidentally pregnant Alison Parker (when unwanted pregnancies on the show had previously been dealt with by a dramatic fall-down-the-stairs, rather than any storylines involving reproductive rights).

Hockney-esque paintings (supposedly painted by Samantha Reilly, the show’s resident artist) depicted the infamous locations of LA deaths including Sharon Tate’s house, Marilyn Monroe’s bungalow and the Ambassador Hotel where Robert F Kennedy was assassinated, and Chinese takeaway boxes that read “human rights” or “turmoil and chaos”, referenced the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

The PIM that created the biggest stir, and finally provoked the attention of Aaron Spelling and the cast, was a vodka ad campaign called Total Proof, which depicted the wreckage of the 1995 Oklahoma Bombing (and took its title from an altered photograph of the site), with the shadow of a vodka bottle embedded in the building. The piece had been ruled too offensive, but somehow ended up on the wall of D&D Advertising, behind Allison and Amanda in their last showdown at the company—which also nearly became the GALA Committee’s last hurrah.

Back at MOCA, Amanda and Kyle’s in-situ date coincided with a piece in The New Yorker, titled “Agitprop”, which coincided with the real-life opening of Uncommon Sense. In the piece, Mel Chin was interviewed about ‘In the Name of the Place’, the thematic links between the props and the show’s treacherous characters, and how he’d been inspired by Goya’s Los Caprichos—the salacious etchings of the Madrid aristocracy that he subsequently sold back to them. Chin imagined an ecology for ‘In the Name of the Place’ that would rely less on the project’s time in the gallery, and more on the space of TV, where ideas could re-run until we all “got it”.

It could be understood as a form of parasitism, informed by the revelatory potential of fiction, and the power of broadcasting secondary messages and meanings within an endlessly repeating and comfortably recognizable structure. In his synopsis of the work on his portfolio site, Chin explains: “This project of covert insertion wasn’t intended to be subversive, but to offer a blueprint on how artists can collaborate with commercial production from the ‘inside.’”

For the GALA Committee, the belly of the beast was the centre of the action. In the Name of the Place culminated in a glamorous charity auction in Beverley Hills, where its collectively-made works of art were sold off by Sotheby’s to patrons that resembled their fictional peers.

Melrose Place faded out with the twentieth century. Its final episode, “Asses to Ashes”, aired in the summer of 1999. A couple of seasons earlier, the character Megan Lewis had been introduced. She was a hooker employed by the wife of Michael Mancini (long story) who was played by Kelly Rutherford. Despite her various entanglements, marriages and attempts at murder, Rutherford held out until the show’s final episode, and a few years later, reappeared as Upper East Side matriarch Lily van der Woodsen, in the teen drama Gossip Girl.

Developed by Josh Schwartz, who had previously created The OC (a show indebted to the 90210/Melrose Place family), Gossip Girl also adopted the principle of the TV drama as gallery. Working with the Art Production Fund—a non-profit producing public art projects—the Gossip Girl team had the work of contemporary artists installed throughout the show. The main location was Lily van der Woodsen’s apartment, from which party guests could enjoy works by Kiki Smith, Richard Phillips, Marilyn Minter, and Elmgreen & Dragset (whose Prada Marfa sign was specially commissioned for the show).

But rather than being a project of “parasitism”—as Chin had described, ‘In the Name of the Place’—on Gossip Girl, the art wasn’t adding layers of meaning, it was rather, inserting itself into the centre of abundantly meaningless escapades. In perhaps the next logical step of Chin’s intention to show how artists could collaborate with commercial production from the “inside”, artists and the APF appeared on the show as characters, the work itself often took on central roles, and could later be bought as prints.

When Richard Phillips’s Spectrum got embroiled in Chuck Bass’s scheme to have his back-from-the-dead father imprisoned on the grounds of an illegal oil deal with a Sudanese sheikh, the painting took on a character as central as Bass, or any of his vapid frenemies. In both Melrose Place and Gossip Girl, the revelatory power of fiction was explored. For the former, it was in the Gala Committee’s PIMs, adding meaning while hiding in plain sight; in the case of the latter, it was in the way the artworks were co-opted into the teen drama, caught up in the fizz, and giving up meaning for the sake of becoming a piece of the action.

August, 2018

Originally published by Elephant.


The flexible radicality of the Camaleonda

Camaleonda is a portmanteau of camaleonte, meaning chameleon, and onda, meaning wave; two bodies that shift and change according to the conditions of their environment. The Camaleonda sofa…

Camaleonda is a portmanteau of camaleonte, meaning chameleon, and onda, meaning wave; two bodies that shift and change according to the conditions of their environment. The Camaleonda sofa, designed by Mario Bellini for B&B Italia in 1970, was part of a collective shift in Italian design against bourgeois, establishment practices. The radical design movement, which engaged with Italy’s socio-political context through its utopian ideals and material experimentation, pushed for new ways of inhabiting space, while maintaining a productive relationship to nature. The Camaleonda went a step further, by grounding its radically in the day-to-day realities of peoples homes; challenging the relationship between the evolution of new patterns of behaviour in the home, and the limitations of furniture available at the time.  

The Camaleonda is a modular sofa made up of padded, capitonné, 90x90cm seats, with detachable back- and armrests; individual parts strung together by a system of cables, hooks and rings, which can be unhooked and recombined in potentially infinite configurations. It quickly became popular, and was adopted by many households — including New York’s Gracie Mansion, where ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, alongside another dancer, was photographed performing a naked handstand on the Camaleonda in the “champagne room”, during a reception for the Russian Winter Olympics team.

Despite its early popularity, the sofa was only manufactured for eight years, until 1978, and has since become one of the most sought-after sofas on the secondary market. This year, B&B Italia reissued the Camaleonda in celebration of its 50-year anniversary. The new edition honours the original design, B&B Italia’s Research & Development Centre — which was established when Busnelli, B&B’s co-founder, built what was once called the most fully automated furniture factory in the world — has finessed the balance between the rigorous geometry of the seating, and roundness of the padding, and replaced materials to be representative of new technologies and requirements. They’ve maintained, and progressed, the Camaleonda’s reputation for adapting to shifting conditions, lifestyles, and new ways of inhabiting space; recognising that the only permanent state should be a constant will to transform.

Originally published in Port.


Formal Poetry: Commemorating Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery

Giuseppe Brion, the founder of Brionvega – the electronics company famous for the Cubo television – died in 1968. His wife Onorina, wanting to memorialise her husband, extended the family plot at the local cemetery…

Giuseppe Brion, the founder of Brionvega – the electronics company famous for the Cubo television – died in 1968. His wife Onorina, wanting to memorialise her husband, extended the family plot at the local cemetery of San Vito d’Altivole, the village in the shadow of the Dolomites where Brion was born, and approached the Italian architect Carlo Scarpa to design his tomb.

Scarpa stood between the ancient and modern; in Venice – the old, crumbling city where he was born and lived – the architect introduced a modernism sympathetic to the canals and palazzi: the Olivetti showroom on St Mark’s Square; the Biennale ticket booths and the Venezuelan pavilion in the Giardini; the renovations of the Gallerie Dell’Accademia and the Fondazione Masieri. But it is his work with the Brion family, the only project he would “go to look at with pleasure”, that is his most studied and visited, and, ultimately, the place where he would be buried.

It started, simply, as a tomb, but between 1970 and 1978 the memorial would grow to include a chapel and meditation pavilion, all set around pools of water and surrounded by a garden, approached and enclosed by tall cypress trees. Rendered in concrete and ornamented with tile and glass and metal, the elaborate stepped surfaces evoke ancient Mesopotamian ziggurats, which raised temples closer to the heavens – a motif that echoes throughout the cemetery, creating bands of light and shadow, cutting through and framing rooms, corridors, and terraces. The steps, submerged in water, moulded into concrete, seem either to lead to something or nothing; it’s disorienting, but in a way that appeals to the subconscious, inviting you to move through the space. Scarpa described the complex as being designed with a sense of “poetic imagination”: “Not in order to create poetic architecture, but to make a certain kind of architecture that could emanate a sense of formal poetry.”

It’s a place rich in material symbolism, from the use of interlocking circles, which represent husband and wife; to the bodies of water, between and beneath the cemetery buildings, both life giving and morbid, the Nile and the Styx; and the way nature is left to grow over and around the structures. “The place for the dead is a garden,” Scarpa said. “I wanted to… approach death in a social and civic way; and further what meaning there was in death, in the ephemerality of life – other than these shoe boxes.”

Originally published in Port.


Stanley Kubrick’s Meticulous Set Designs Made His Films Strikingly Eerie

Stanley Kubrick once said that “most films are little more than stage plays with more atmosphere and action.” Going beyond the relationships between a scene and a sentence…

Stanley Kubrick once said that “most films are little more than stage plays with more atmosphere and action.” Going beyond the relationships between a scene and a sentence, the director relied on an expanded definition of film grammar to underpin his stories: The lighting, sets, and props acted as commas, semicolons, and dashes to join his narratives and define their rhythm. In an exhibition about Kubrick at London’s Design Museum, which runs until September 15th, it’s these environments—and the meticulous research on which they were based—that take center stage. There’s a model of the war room from Dr Strangelove (1964); a re-staging of the Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange (1971); and drawings, paintings, photographs, and diagrams from each of his films.

Kubrick often sent teams of people around the world to measure and photograph locations—from precise documentation of New York streets to tens of thousands of location-scouting photographs for Kubrick’s unmade film on Napoleon Bonaparte. The director recreated these real-world locations in London studios in part because of his fear of flying, but also to have command over every element of the set and make use of it as a narrative device. Kubrick’s stories may have had a degree of abstraction, but they were never lacking control. More interested in raising questions than providing answers, the director was driven by an interest in symbolism and the subconscious, considering an emotional response potentially more powerful than an intellectual one.

Before Kubrick started making films, he made a small living playing chess for cash in New York’s Washington Square Park. The nature of chess as a game that requires strategy and big-picture thinking made it a logical precursor to his approach to film. The ability to maintain control, to move artfully and tactically from beginning to end, mirrors the exacting attention to detail that defines his filmmaking.

Around the same time, in the mid-1940s, Kubrick started working as a photographer for Look magazine, which informed his approach to composition and mise en scène. In an interview with Michel Ciment for the book, Kubrick (1983), the director emphasized: “To make a film entirely by yourself, which initially I did…you must know about photography.”

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Kubrick’s intention in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), was to create “a visual experience, one that…directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content,” he told Playboy in 1968. The sci-fi flick was filmed during NASA’s Apollo missions, and the set had to outpace emerging technology to successfully look futuristic. Alongside art director John Hoesli and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (and later in production, John Alcott), Kubrick meticulously researched NASA’s design and employed a team of astronomical artists, aeronautics specialists, and aerospace engineers to design the spacecraft interiors. Dialogue is scattered sparsely throughout the film—totaling only 40 minutes over two hours of film—so the sets, props, and costumes play a prominent role, drawing viewers into the atmosphere of the film and its vision of the future.

Conversely, A Clockwork Orange utilized real locations, in particular London’s Thamesmead estate, a utopian social housing project built in the mid-1960s. The Brutalist architecture was the backdrop to much of the action, and its position as a project meant to represent the future of cities made it a fitting space for a film that was as much a social document as it was dystopian science-fiction. It was also cheaper to film there (Kubrick’s budget was considerably smaller after 2001), but shooting in London suited his creative aims, to show a future already being shaped in the present.

Although set in Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket (1987), was also filmed in London, the battle scenes in the city of Hué captured at Beckton Gasworks in the Isle of Dogs. The gasworks had been built by a company of architects who’d worked in Hué, and the Docklands location only needed a few details added before it became the site of the action. Kubrick’s ability to work with believable reconstructions is also evident in his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which was set in New York’s West Village and filmed at London’s Pinewood Studios. He sent a set designer to photograph and measure shop fronts, the width of streets, and distances between locations and recreated the area, complete with faded shop signs, jazz dives, and apartment buildings.

Accuracy also drove the set design of The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel. “We wanted the hotel to look authentic rather than like a traditionally spooky movie hotel,” Kubrick told Climent. Designed like a labyrinth, with impossible corridors and rooms, the oppressive space disoriented even the actors and crew. It was spacious and modern compared to the tradition of dusty horror sets, and rather than building tension out of claustrophobia, it achieved it in the use of high ceilings, elaborate patterns, and vast expanses that would dwarf its characters.

The Overlook’s interior was based on American hotel rooms photographed by the set designer, Roy Walker. Kubrick felt that in order to really affect his audience, the film needed a balance of realism and fantasy that he likened to author Franz Kafka, who balanced fantastical, allegorical stories with straightforward writing. The idea of taking a familiar space and turning it on its head is evident in much of Kubrick’s work. “I’ve never been able to decide whether the plot is just a way of keeping people’s attention while you do everything else,” the director once mused, “or whether the plot is really more important than anything else, perhaps communicating with us on an unconscious level which affects us in the way that myths once did.”

Originally published by Artsy.

Maharam Stories

The End of the Plain Plane

In 1965, Alexander Girard was hired with Emilio Pucci to redesign every aspect of Braniff International Airways. Pucci was tasked with overhauling the uniforms, with Girard responsible for the design of…

In 1965, Alexander Girard was hired with Emilio Pucci to redesign every aspect of Braniff International Airways. Pucci was tasked with overhauling the uniforms, with Girard responsible for the design of more than 17,000 elements—from the airplane livery to blankets and even sachets of sugar. They were brought on board by advertising firm Jack Tinker & Partners, namely by account executive Mary Wells, who’d been charged with transforming Braniff from a relatively small name in the aviation business to the airline representing the golden age of travel. 

Braniff had recently been bought by Troy Post, who worked in insurance. He’d appointed his brother-in-law Harding L. Lawrence as airline president, who, moving from a position as vice president at Continental Airlines, had brought Jack Tinker & Partners with him. The agency had already earned a reputation for its innovative approach; in its work for Braniff Airways, Jack Tinker & Partners not only created a new identity for the airline but shifted the approach to identity design within aviation as well. 

Economy fares had only recently been introduced, and the opportunity to fly still existed mainly in the realm of the rich and famous; planes were white and grey, and airports resembled military aircraft hangers. There was no broad market for air travel, and there were also no differentiating features in terms of aircraft design or speed, so in its work with Braniff, Jack Tinker & Partners stepped away from facts and statistics in favour of creating a mythology. “The problem, as I saw it, was to destroy the monotony,” Girard is quoted as saying in Alexander Girard, written by Todd Oldham and Kiera Coffee. “Do something to make the performance lively and interesting. With this in mind, I prescribed seven or eight colour schemes with seven or eight specially designed textiles for the interiors.” 

The airline’s fleet was painted with a palette of soft pastels and bright primary colours, the plane seats and carpet upholstered in Girard textiles, and the in-flight experience packaged and presented in a typeface designed by Girard, with a custom bird logo, “The Bluebird of Happiness.” His typographic treatments and bird silhouette appeared on everything from matchbooks and glassware to timetables, stationery, badges, and ashtrays. He designed posters featuring art from South America for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s lounge, and furnished it with pieces by Charles and Ray Eames—his colleagues at Herman Miller. It was a project most designers could have only dreamed of, and one of unprecedented scale. 

In a television advertisement for the new-look Braniff International, a suited man announces: “We hired Alexander Girard to do our planes—we have blue planes, orange planes, yellow planes. You can fly with us seven times and never fly the same colour twice . . . Inside [we have] seven different colour schemes, and since we fly to Mexico and South America, and from Peru, Brazil, and Argentina . . . Cha-cha-cha. Braniff International announces the end of the plain plane. We won’t get you where you’re going any faster, but it’ll seem that way.”

The uniforms designed by Emilio Pucci were another revolutionary spin on the characterisation of air travel. Where air stewards had previously been presented as staid experts in safety, at Braniff, they were reappointed as “air hostesses,” dressed in uniforms that reflected contemporary fashion trends. This also created the opportunity for the “Air Strip”—an in-flight experience targeted at attracting business fliers, who at the time were mostly men. The “Air Strip” was the brainchild of Mary Wells, and Pucci designed a multilayered outfit of a coat and space helmet (or “Rain Dome”), a jacket and wraparound skirt, a dress, and a jumper/culotte two-piece, which would all be worn together, a layer being removed at each key in-flight interval. 

The new look, and particularly the in-flight experience, blurred the lines between empowerment and objectification, and was emblematic of a broader shift in culture and attitude, with Madison Avenue’s ad agencies seen as modern pioneers of this mindset. Magazines like Rolling Stone and Playboy were foregrounding the pursuit of leisure, entertainment, pleasure, and luxury, and Braniff was following suit. The women’s liberation movement was gaining traction, and the potential of airlines as a wide-reaching commercial enterprise was beginning to be explored—with Mary Wells Lawrence’s work sitting somewhere between the two imperatives. The positive impact of the “Air Strip” for the feminist cause is debatable, but at the time it struck a chord (not to mention made Braniff the go-to airline during the Sinatra “Come Fly with Me” era), and Mary Wells Lawrence went on to become the first female CEO of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, as founding president of ad agency Wells, Rich, Greene. Wells, Lawrence, and Braniff were chasing—and enjoying—the sweet smell of success. 

After its initial collaboration with Girard and Pucci, Braniff worked with Alexander Calder and Halston. In 1973 and 1975, Calder painted a series of aircraft liveries with designs that reflected the bright colours synonymous with South America, and a commemorative design to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States; in 1977 Halston redesigned the air stewards’ uniforms and overhauled the plane interiors in the “Ultra” look, regarded as “quiet, classic, elegant in [its] simplicity,” and befitting the “maturity” Braniff wanted to communicate. Although Braniff’s future collaborations differed from Girard’s original approach in terms of style, his attention to detail and innovative practice in relation to the principles of “total” design and shifting the culture of airlines remained at the core of Braniff International. Girard’s work also influenced other airlines, including Continental’s commission of Saul Bass, who redesigned its logo in 1973. 

In the 1968 ad campaign accompanying the “End of the Plain Plane” project, Andy Warhol and Sonny Liston, and Salvador Dalí and Whitey Ford, among other odd couples, sat in conversation, performing a version of the in-flight seating assignment lottery. While their conversation points varied, each ended with the slogan “When you got it, flaunt it”—the idea of art director George Lois, who saw the “out-flaunting” as characteristic of Braniff, with the implication that you might bump into Warhol mid-flight. It also further cemented Braniff’s reputation for blending style with arrogance, the flip side of its relationship with Madison Avenue—and it was precisely this arrogance that would ultimately lead to the airline’s demise. 

Braniff ceased operations in October 1982, after suffering spiralling debt and eventual bankruptcy. The airline had made brave, transformative decisions regarding design and culture. It had been open to the potential of design to transform an experience and an industry—open to what Alexander Girard described as “uncovering the latent fantasy and magic in [a project] and convincing [the] client to join the process,” which they very much did. But what Braniff may have failed to see is the way that Girard grounded that fantasy and magic in modernism—playful decor and masterful reduction, craftsmanship and industry, fantasy and logic—rather than style with arrogance.

Originally published by Maharam Stories.

Maharam Stories

A State of National Recline

Eero Saarinen had been experimenting with the idea of conversation pits for a few years when he received a commission from industrialist J. Irwin Miller to design a family home in Columbus, Indiana, in 1953…

Eero Saarinen had been experimenting with the idea of conversation pits for a few years when he received a commission from industrialist J. Irwin Miller to design a family home in Columbus, Indiana, in 1953. Saarinen was interested in the potential for sunken living rooms to create productive divisions in open-space floor plans—informal, intimate spaces within large expanses, which would solve “the problem of furniture, with its inevitable ‘slum of legs’”—and the Miller House provided an opportunity to test his solution. 

In 1959, the house appeared in a twenty-page feature in House & Garden, where the conversation pit was described as a “brilliantly cushioned well”—the back cushions made thicker than standard to help people get in and out more easily, the steps angled so sitters couldn’t see up women’s skirts, and the underside of the piano painted pillar-box red—an intimate, low-profile setting where guests could lounge and look at nothing but each other. Creating a dedicated space for conversation might have been less unusual at the time than it would be now, particularly considering current suspicion around technology entering the home, but it was undeniably decadent and challenged ideas around social decorum and propriety. In a 1963 edition of TIME, an argument against conversation pits, and their many dangers, was published:

“At cocktail parties, late-staying guests tended to fall in. Those in the pit found themselves bombarded with bits of hors d’oeuvres from up above, looked out on a field of trouser cuffs, ankles and shoes. Ladies shied away from the edges, fearing up-skirt exposure. Bars or fencing of sorts had to be constructed to keep dogs and children from daily concussions.”  

In an April 1964 edition of the New York Times Magazine, writer Sylvia Wright described them as an “anti-chair,” a “transitional device backed by many architects who lack the courage openly to advocate lying down.” She argued that, rather than too radical, they could go further to accommodate modern America, a “uniquely non-chair sitting people,” who “only sit when engaged in activities of great importance, those which identify them as men of position and substance” and prefer lying down or standing. “There seems to this writer, however, to be overwhelming evidence that [. . .] the United States is gradually ceasing to be a chair-sitting nation,” she writes. It “is becoming instead a nation where one of the most characteristic positions is a state of collapse.”

Conversation pits appeared at a time of broader cultural shifts and upheaval, when “the vogue for suntans brought the freedom to lie down in places our parents wouldn’t have thought of,” and with so much up in the air, rolling down or climbing over seats seemed just as plausible as any other future. They featured in various homes, in projects by Saarinen, Girard, Goff, and Paul Rudolph, both domestic and in the exciting new realm of the airport—such as Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at JFK. However, by 1960, Saarinen decried them as a cliché, fearing they were overdone and lamenting that he hadn’t come up with a better way to restructure the formal parlor. And so, for a while at least, they disappeared. Then, in the 1980s, conversation pits had a resurgence amid New York’s boom in Midtown lofts and bachelor pads. When architect Janusz Gottwald designed a loft interior for a wealthy consultant who “wanted to be freed from the limitations of ordinary seating,” Gottwald realized the versatility of the form—“you can even lie on it as if it were a grassy knoll.”

Originally published by Maharam Stories

Maharam Stories

Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium

“Human life is a combination of tragedy and comedy. The shapes and designs that surround us are the music accompanying this tragedy and this comedy,” said Alvar Aalto, whose approach to design and production was defined by…

“Human life is a combination of tragedy and comedy. The shapes and designs that surround us are the music accompanying this tragedy and this comedy,” said Alvar Aalto, whose approach to design and production was defined by both his exacting attention to detail and, conversely, a lightness of touch. Considered one of the less dogmatic faces of modernism (at the Riihitie House in Helsinki—which he and his wife Aino designed, lived, and worked in—among the Japanese-influenced decor and modernist furniture was Alvar’s favorite armchair, a sturdy blue seat as aesthetically out of place as it was comfortable), Aalto’s designs embraced both International Style and the practicalities of people’s wants and needs.

In his designs for the Paimio Sanatorium—a tuberculosis sanatorium near Turku, Finland, built in 1929 after Aalto was awarded the commission in an architectural competition—Aalto’s intention was to build “a cathedral to health and an instrument for healing”; an environment that, before medical treatments for tuberculosis had become available, could provide the literal breathing space that was thought to help rehabilitate patients. Set on a sandy terrain in the middle of a pine forest, the main building sits at the area’s highest point—a central core from which various wings jut out into the forest. The patients’ quarters and sun deck face south, filling the rooms with natural light—the heat broken up in the shade of the pines—and allowing patients to follow the course of each day. The walls are white and the ceilings a muted shade of green, which Aalto thought would make the general tone more peaceful from the perspective of a recumbent patient; the lighting is set both above and below sight line to avoid glare, and almost every detail of the furniture in patient rooms is curved. The door handle leading into the room loops inwards to avoid catching on sleeves, wardrobe doors form soft waves, and the sinks were designed to sit on an angle that would reduce splashing noises, to avoid waking roommates.

Curved forms were integral to the design of the Paimio Sanatorium—and throughout Aalto’s practice—from the edges of the building itself to the reception desk, walkways, staircases, and furniture. The Paimio chair, designed to be its namesake’s staple seat, was made from cantilevered birch wood bent into scrolls—taking form in two closed loops of laminated wood that support the central seat, angled back for optimum ease of breath. It’s Aalto’s best-known piece of furniture, which at the time tested the limits of plywood manufacturing, inspired his peers—including Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen—and was one of the works that drove the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne to, in 1933, cite him as “the new voice from the northern fringe of Europe that was soon to add color and richness to their somewhat austere vocabulary.” And while Aalto did receive acclaim from his peers and the design establishment, it was the general public, in Finland in particular, who’d been the first to embrace him. Pieces produced by his and Aino Aalto’s company, Artek, furnished not only Aalto buildings but schools and public buildings across Finland as well.

The color and richness of Aalto’s practice went far beyond the literal sense of these terms; how it really came through was in the form of broad influences, experiences, and viewpoints. With an approach more complex than being straightforwardly modernist, for Paimio, Aalto placed International Style within the context of ancient cultures, Finnish traditions, and new knowledge, as well as, fundamentally, the needs of the people inhabiting the space. It was this pragmatism, somehow both inspired and practical, this openness, and this lack of pomposity that allowed him to appeal to both the people and the establishment—and be known for both “pushing the vocabulary” of modernism and grounding his work in the requirements of everyday life.

While today most of the original interior details at the Paimio Sanatorium have been replaced or repainted, the colors and forms still adhere to Aalto’s vision. The stairs are banana-yellow with a turquoise trim; the cafeteria walls are dappled with pink light from the bright marquees and the room completed with similarly “candy” orange chairs; and mint-green details line the communal areas and patient rooms. On the one hand, the color choices may be seen to undermine the principles of Functionalism and the practicalities that defined so many of Aalto’s design choices; but on the other, the proposition that design ought to be either purely functional or purely decorative misses the mark. It misses the difficult fact of people, and the contradictions and complexities that make up our wants and needs—it misses the value, and functionality, of having music to accompany the tragedy and comedy of life.

Originally published by Maharam Stories.


Anti-Morality Tales: Famous Artists from Chicago at Milan’s Fondazione Prada

Artist and curator Don Baum had been teaching at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center for close to a decade when he started exhibiting the work of under-represented Chicago artists. It was the early 1960s and…

Artist and curator Don Baum had been teaching at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center for close to a decade when he started exhibiting the work of under-represented Chicago artists. It was the early 1960s and Baum’s exhibitions – a mix of group shows, with themes including ‘Animal’, ‘Vegetable’, and ‘Mineral’ – were put together on a shoestring, the focus being on the community that surrounded the artists, as well as the work itself.

The Hairy Who (and/or The Monster Roster, Nonplussed Some and Chicago Imagists, as they were also known) was founded as a group – and as an exhibition title – when Baum offered Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, James Falconer, Art Green and Karl Wirsum a show at the Art Center in 1966. Their work was both aesthetically and thematically in opposition to the New York School, and while those artists were delving further into abstraction and although satirical, nonetheless glossy, escapist Pop; the Hairy Who, and their Chicago contemporaries, were engaging with the grotesque, hysterical and at times psychotic nature of life in post-war America.

For the Art Center exhibition, The Hairy Who – and later their 1969 exhibition, Don Baum says ‘Chicago Needs Famous Artists’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago – the artists covered the walls with a flower-patterned linoleum, with the express intention of having their audience experience the work in visually complex circumstances. For Fondazione Prada’s newly opened exhibition, Famous Artists from Chicago, the curator – and the Fondazione’s Artistic Director – Germano Celant mirrored the original setting.

On entering the gallery, you are met with a secondary route through to a room that has been built within the gallery walls, in which the group’s work is shown as a collective entity. A mass of wobbly, naked, fuzzy bodies; psychedelic stagings of suburbia; elaborate, flaming dreamscapes; and graphic expressions of delusion and dare; beyond the collective introduction, the exhibition peels off into individual sections, in considerably more ordered, traditional gallery settings. In doing so, each artist is given their moment at centre-stage, but the calm belies what was the strength of The Hairy Who: their focus on collective, noisy social commentary.

In an interview for the accompanying exhibition publication, Germano Celant spoke of how: “They did not passively accept reality like mechanical recorders in the manner of Warhol, but rather explored contemporary society with malice and irony.” He continues, “… they created visual subversions that contemplated the destruction of the body, and the ambiguity of existence leading to inhuman transformations. They focus solely on a moral argument, but attempt[ed] to push forward, awake and aware…”

In the surrounding galleries, above and adjacent to Famous Artists from Chicago, Celant curated concurrent exhibitions of the work of Leon Golub and H. C. Westermann, both of whom lived and worked in Chicago after the second world war. Westermann, born in 1922, studied applied arts at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago, after serving in the U. S. Army as a Marine. Initially stationed in the South Pacific, and later in Korea, through his work Westermann recorded his traumatic experiences and anti-war politics. Working predominately in wood, in which he carved parts and images of boats, as well as assemblages and hallucinatory narratives, the forms in his work, as they are described in Celant’s essay in the exhibition catalogue: “oscillate between humour and ambiguity”. “On one hand, between a diving airplane and an atomic bomb, a penetrating penis and a figure with arms open in a gesture of surrender; and on the other, between a collapsing building and a book immersed in a void, heralding the end of the world and a return to the life of a savage.”

As is the case in Famous, the interior architecture of the Fondazione is utilised here, too. Westermann’s larger, sculptural works – in wood, metal and enamel – form a sort-of army, or front, defending the more revealing narrative works in wood and on paper, which are mostly hidden on entry. His practice embodies both a criticality of the brutality of war and its motivations, and a nostalgia for the fantastical stories of old Hollywood; and Westermann’s titles speak to that. They include, A Piece for the Museum of Shattered Dreams, Swingin’ Red King and the Silver Queen, Coffin for a Crooked Man and Where Angels Fear to Tread; and while his work is known for its craftsmanship, Westermann qualified in an interview with gallery director Martin Freedman and art critic Dennis Adrian in 1966, that: “To me craftsmanship is very secondary, actually”. “As I said, I like quality, but I like quality of ideas first, quality in politics, or quality in business. What the hell’s the difference?”

Golub’s concerns were rooted in his experience of American imperialism, but not limited to the conflicts the U.S had been involved with. He was equally interested in those that had gone unnoticed, developing timelines of concurrent wars and conflicts through his lifetime, and proving the interchangeability of the global paramilitary condition. In his installation works – where he manipulated and altered images of conflict, and presented them on layered photographic transparencies – Golub spliced recognised historical narratives, from the tragedies of the antiquity to the first televised war.

At the close of the second world war, figurative, expressionist practice was conflated with Socialist Realism and, particularly in the U.S, an aesthetic was sought that would assert the concepts of individual freedom and personal enterprise (i.e. The American Dream). This saw the onset of New Abstraction and Pop, and a so-called “depoliticised radical practice”. But Golub, as Celant describes: “Avoid[ed] the whisper in order to denounce loudly the terrible and dark situation in which the world itself.” And with H. C. Westermann, The Hairy Who, and countless other artists working outside of the New York School, he avoided the futile and the frivolous.

Although, “I would dare to claim that despite the apparent pessimism or negativity of the subject matter, in the reportage, retains a residual optimism”, as Golub said in 1996. “It’s in the very freedom to tell. In the freedom to make and exhibit these paintings.”

Originally published by Port.


All in the Balance

There is a distinct lack of dogma to the designer Peter Ghyczy’s practice. Although concerned primarily with function, his approach has never discounted form, decoration, beauty or, indeed, even the principle of design as a sort of divine intervention.

Peter Ghyczy, Garden Chair
There is a distinct lack of dogma to the designer Peter Ghyczy’s practice. Although concerned primarily with function, his approach has never discounted form, decoration, beauty or, indeed, even the principle of design as a sort of divine intervention.

In Peter Ghyczy: The Evolutioner, the book accompanying Ghyczy’s new exhibition at Brussels’ Design Museum ADAM, the designer writes: “My work takes its orientation from its purpose […] Nonetheless, design can be a spiritual passion. The designer is close to the divine, practicing a profession that affords them the chance to further evolution […] As in natural evolution, not every new species represents a desirable step forward with a promising future. The phenomenon has borne strange fruit, especially since design took up with art.”

The exhibition commemorates 50 years since Ghyczy designed his famed Garden Egg chair, an early experiment in a then new material, polyurethane, for the manufacturer Reuter. The form was inspired by that of a suitcase, and the intention was to design a chair that was light and easy to transport, comfortable and water-resistant. The curved form, manufactured in a range of iconic Pop colours, became a key piece for the atomic age and, paradoxically, East German culture. When Gottfried Reuter – “a capitalist with Marxist leanings”, as the book describes him – sold his company to BASF Group in 1972, he also sold his knowledge of plastics and the rights to the Garden Egg chair to the German Democratic Republic. The Garden Egg chair remained in production through the Cold War, and while plastic furniture became less economically viable elsewhere due to the oil crisis, it remained popular behind the Iron Curtain because of a quirk in Cold War regulations. The chair forms the centrepiece of Peter Ghyczy: 50 Years of Functionalism, which traces Ghyczy’s design practice from his early works to the material experiments that still occupy him today.

Curated by independent design curator Kunty Moureau, the exhibition features some of Ghyczy’s most famous pieces –the Garden Egg chair, Spring chair and T24 table – alongside drawings and limited edition works including a neon tree lamp and brass dumbbells. Current projects such as the new Safari chair, an extendable sofa and brass-fronted cabinet are also included. The walls are lined with quotes from Ghyxzy, reflecting on his practice – both past and present – and the legacy he’d like to leave behind: “Timeless, functional design that leaves minimal waste and respects nature,” reads one. There is a mock-studio space, its desk stacked with sketches and tests for structures, forms and joins.

As we sit down for an interview at Ghyczy’s family home in Bessel, in the southeastern Netherlands, Ghyczy describes how he thinks of his practice: “It’s difficult to explain something that comes so naturally. Ideas surface in my mind – like a composer hears a melody, I imagine a design.”

Ghyczy’s process is a balance of science and intuition, and although he is known for artistry and invention, he considers himself primarily a craftsman: “I’m a joiner first – I’m interested in finding the most simple and effective solutions. ‘How does it function? How does it fit together?’ I always start with the clamp, and without a product in mind, I test how it can be loosened and tightened, how it can move and adapt. I’m interested in invisible connections, or frames that fix with a single screw. They’re primarily functional, but something of the result is decorative and beautiful. A good solution is always beautiful.” 

The principles of adapting and connecting, and employing problem-solving as the root for form and function, may be a practice that stems from Ghyczy’s personal history. Migration plays a significant role in the history of 20th-century design, and specifically in regards to Modernism – from the Bauhaus, and particularly Marcel Breuer’s move from his native Hungary to Germany in the 1920s, to the collective shift of mid-century Modernists from Europe to the US during the Second World War in the 1940s. In Peter Ghyczy: The Evolutioner, writer Bernd Polster suggests: “The emigrant’s simultaneous experience of gain and loss and his position between two different worlds can evidently provide extremely fertile ground in creative personalities.”

Ghyczy was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1940 to an aristocratic family, and his father was killed during the Red Army invasion in 1944. He was moved first to the Hungarian countryside, then to Belgium as part of a Red Cross aid programme, before returning to Hungary to attend a Benedictine boarding school. In 1956, Ghyczy fled Hungary for Bonn, via Vienna, where he joined his family. His mother had exchanged a portion of her family’s jewellery for a smuggler to lead Ghyczy on a three-day trek across the Hungarian border and into Austria. Once settled in Bonn, and on completing school, Ghyczy attended the Polytechnic University Aachen, where he studied architecture. On graduating in 1967, he took up the position of head of design at Reuter, a chemical and product design company helmed by German chemist Gottfried Reuter. Here, Ghyczy specialised in experiments with polyurethane, components and design systems. It is also where he designed the Garden Egg chair in 1968. By 1972, however, Reuter had been sold to its main competitor, and their design research output had been defunded.

Having gone freelance, Ghyczy subsequently started testing the idea of a frame-less glass shelf, which would be wall-mounted by a clamping bracket. “What is key is an understanding of the flow of weight,” he says, holding a hardbound book between his thumb and index finger to mimic the bracket. “I made the glass wall shelf and tried to sell it to a few companies, but they said it was too simple. It fit well with the aesthetic of the period, but they couldn’t see it; it was too new. I decided I’d have to produce it myself, so it was then that I founded my company.” The oil crisis and subsequent economic crisis was at its peak, but by 1975, Ghyczy’s furniture company was off the ground. His frame-less glass shelf became a commercial success, revered and imitated by his peers, and he’d moved with his wife and children to Beesel, a small town on the Netherlands’ river Maas. “I was young,” he says. “I didn’t know how difficult it was to run a business. And I’m very happy that I didn’t know, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.”

“To be a designer is not easy,” Ghyczy continues. “You have to be strong and able to defend your work. Either your ideas are too ‘known’ or too ‘unknown’. That’s why I’ve been happy to be on my own, I haven’t had to defend every new idea. It’s turned out to be a blessing. Now, I can look back with satisfaction. I’ve had success thanks to my own work.”

Although born to an affluent family, Ghyzcy’s life as a near-constant émigré – with, as he attests, “no mother tongue” – has afforded him a sense of openness and independence in terms of thinking and practice  which can often be impossible for those solidly rooted in a particular culture. He designs with a consistent focus on innovation and timelessness (in his frames, joints and applications of material), human comfort (in his padded, flexible furniture), and environmental impact (in making his furniture to order, with low impact materials). While his practice centres around functionality, there is a clear thread of Art Deco that does not only run through its details and forms, but also its ethos of social and technological progress, glamour and exuberance.

Ghyczy’s arguments for aesthetic charm sit firmly outside of cold perfectionism. “I have a theory on this”, he says. “If people are ‘high gloss’, or behaving ‘high gloss’, they get damaged. Hollywood beauties, they have to repaint everything, every morning, because no fault, no scratch is allowed. Every day they go to the hairdresser and do their make up and everything, this is not the solution. I like it much more when people are natural, they have flaws, lines, scratches. We are ageing, and I like furniture to age too. To have a patina conveys a life.”

All text originally published by Disegno Daily. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.