Simple Forms/Inventive Forms

Whenever I find myself looking at a collection of images – in galleries or while surfing the web – I’m inevitably drawn to objects that are both severely understated and yet inventive. I think I’m fascinated by how the artists who produce work like this can still create visual magic even after most of the supportive props are removed. When I look at these images I see obvious materials, simple marks or colors and straightforward compositions. But I also see a love for the elements and principles of design as well as a celebration of the creative process in its most fundamental state.

There are a lot of artists who create work like this, but let me grab a few examples from the web. Here are some designers who illustrate my point…

The first image is by the noted French designer Pierre Charpin. It is felt tip marker on a 28” X 39” (70cm X 100cm) piece of paper. Considering its materials, how much more basic and direct can you get? Felt marker on paper is what you usually use for mailing labels or shopping lists.

Pierre Charpin felt tip pen on paper

Here, however, we have an image that is arguably monolithic in its presence. It seems both ancient and contemporary. It is obsessive/compulsive in its mark making and yet zen garden like in its totality. The repetitive marks also create a textured surface that suggests way more physical substance than what you would expect to see from just a thin piece of paper.

The next image is by English designer Emily Forgot (aka Emily Alston). This is an installation view of her solo exhibition Neverland. The work in this show is inspired by Forgot’s interest in architectural space. The small pieces seen here are simple constructions made from medium-density fibreboard that has been cut into eccentric geometric shapes, painted with flat pastel colors, and then stacked and glued. There is no mystery about the fabrication process and the colors/shapes are totally obvious.

Emily Forgot, medium density fiberboard and paint

You don’t have to look at the individual constructions for very long, however, before you get caught up in their whimsical back-and-forth banter between real and illusory space. These are solid objects that exist in our three-dimensional world but yet they pretend to be no more than two-dimensional paintings or drawings dependent on illusion to suggest depth.

The last example is by Dutch designer Monique Bröring. This small sculpture is from her series Office Plants. Here Bröring has collected found objects from a variety of worlds and combined them to create something new. Party balloons, a doctor’s latex glove, and a plastic flower pot come together to suggest a humble workplace decoration.

Monique Bröring found object sculptures

The message could easily be that office plants are little more than decorations and therefore an invented configuration is just as good. I prefer to simply enjoy contemplating the similarities of form between the organic ideal and the invented substitute. It’s the playful mind of an artist at work.

In each of these examples the artist has created elegant and thought provoking objects using simple materials. Their creative process has been stripped down to its essence, but that essence is really the core of what matters most.

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Repetition and the Principles of Design (Part Two)

Two weeks ago I wrote about the use of repetition and its relationship to the design principles of Balance, Unity and Variety, the Grid, Pattern, and Rhythm. Today I want to present some more examples of works that utilize repetition.

If you haven’t read my previous post here is a link to Repetition and the Principles of Design (Part One).

Repetition is easy to spot. If you look at the examples from my prior post it shouldn’t take much effort to grasp its use. That’s also true of most of the art shown in this post. But, there are also more subtle ways to employ repetition. The first image below, painted in the 1660s by Diego Velázquez, is an example that I’d like to take a moment to discuss.

Diego Velázquez's oil painting portrait of Queen Mariana

In this portrait of Queen Mariana of Austria Velázquez uses repetitions of color, line and shape to move the viewer’s eye through the picture. The focal point of the painting is the Queen’s face, which is emphasized by the strong red horizontal line of what appear to be flowers woven into her hair. We find this red color repeated throughout the painting. Our eyes move between the line of flowers and the two red forms at her wrists. As we look further we notice that she is framed in space with the color red – a table cloth in the background, and draperies above and beside her. Taken together, the various shades of red unite and balance the composition.

Diego Velázquez's oil painting portrait of Queen Mariana, detail with diagram

In addition, we can connect the strong reds at her wrists and her red lips (which are at the center of the red line of flowers) by drawing imaginary straight lines, creating a triangular shape. This shape is mirrored in the elaborate embroidery at the top of her skirt, forming base to base triangles. These two triangles are at the heart of the composition.

Where else can we discover the use of repetition? If you look at the first image I’ve included you’ll see that Velázquez has used line as a repeating motif throughout the painting. The decorative lines of the embroidered dress are repeated in the line of flowers in Mariana’s hair. We end up circling through the composition, moving up and down between the horizontal lines in the hem of the dress and the strong red horizontal line in the central portion of the painting. Our eyes travel back down through the winding pathways in the bodice and upper skirt. All of this movement balances the otherwise static position of the figure, serving to enliven the composition.

I did promise you some more obvious examples of the use of repetition and here they are.

Markus Linnenbrink painted gallery installation with stripes

Markus Linnenbrink

Mona Hatoum ceramic objects

Mona Hatoum

Lorna Simpson photo series of hair

Lorna Simpson

Barry McGee two art installations

Barry Mc Gee

Eva Hesse sculptures

Eva Hesse

Jennifer Steinkamp video installation with looping lines

Jennifer Steinkamp

Wayne Thiebaud oil painting of pastries

Wayne Thiebaud

Adolf Wolfli patterned drawing

Adolf Wolfli

Yayoi Kusama two art installations with dots

Yayoi Kusama

Charles Le Dray art installation with men's suit jackets

Charles LeDray

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Art Hotels Showcase Real Artwork Throughout Their Spaces

The term “hotel art” is generally used to describe bland imitations of serious artworks. It’s meant to dismiss, even ridicule, work that is primarily decorative and extremely easy on both our eyes and our minds – a corporate committee’s version of visual white noise.

Spend the night in most hotels or motels around the world and you’ll hardly notice the paintings on the walls or the sculptures in the lobby. Most of what you’ll see has been selected because it blends in with the decor and is anything but challenging or engaging. The rooms and public spaces in generic hotels are designed to be anonymous.

There are, however, a few hotels around the world that don’t follow this business model. These hotels cater to people who frequent galleries and museums. People who display original artwork in their own homes. People who choose to stay in a hotel filled with invigorating, even challenging, images and objects.

Let’s look at three art-centric hotels that feature real art in their lobbies, guest rooms and public spaces…

lobby of the 21c Museum Hotel

The 21c Museum Hotels is a chain of seven hotels located throughout the midwestern United States. The original hotel in Louisville, Kentucky was launched in 2006 by art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. Like all the other locations in the chain, this first hotel is housed in a repurposed historical structure (here it’s a 19th century tobacco and bourbon warehouse).

Hotel room installation by artist Yung Jake

The image above is a guest room in the Nashville, Tennessee hotel. The room is designed by L.A. based media artist Yung Jake.

Other artists who have been featured at different 21c Museum Hotels throughout the chain include internationally known artists such as Bill Viola, Andres Serrano, Kara Walker, and Alfredo Jaar.

Lobby of the Dolder Grand with image by Andy Warhol

The Dolder Grand in Zurich is a recently remodeled historic hotel dating from the late 19th century. Mixed in among the elegant architectural features of the building visitors will find over 120 mid-20th century to contemporary era works of art by world famous artists. Above the front desk, for example, is the 36 foot (11 meters) long Big Retrospective Painting by Andy Warhol.

Sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle

The image above is a sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle located in one of the hotel’s courtyards. Other artists on display throughout the hotel include Fernando Botero, Sol LeWitt, Joan Miro, Henry Moore, and Damian Hirst. Visitors can request the loan of an art iPad at the front desk that contains information and location for each of the artworks in the hotel.

The Henry Jones Art Hotel lobby

The Henry Jones Art Hotel in Tasmania, Australia is located in a repurposed early 19th century jam factory on the waterfront in Hobart. The architects who rehabbed the building saved much of its original character including the stone/brick walls and heavy wooden beams. The building has so much visual presence that the hotel’s 400 pieces of art merely add another layer of character to the guest rooms and lounge areas.

photograph by artist Ruth Frost

The art collection at the Henry Jones is focused exclusively on contemporary work by Tasmanian artists. The image above is a photograph of the Clarendon House by Ruth Frost.

The next time you travel check ahead and see if there is an art hotel (or a hotel noted for its collection) at your destination. Coming back at night to an interesting and thought provoking space will add greatly to your tourist experience.

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Repetition and the Principles of Design

Last week when we celebrated spring by playing hooky I encouraged you to download a copy of our book, “Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.” That got me thinking about the relationship between our blog and our book.

When we wrote our design book we decided to focus on the elements and principles of design as found in the everyday world. Our interest was in training you to see and think visually – finding and understanding elements such as line and shape in your daily encounters.

We developed the blog as a supplement to the information covered in the book. The blog is the place where you will find the elements and principles of design put to use by artists and designers.

We often discuss sophisticated works of art without specifically signifying their relationship to these fundamentals of design. Our hope is that by reading the book you’ve created a filter through which you process the information covered in the blog.

Today we’re going to return to several of those core design ideas, looking at repetition as its found in the organizing principles of Unity and Variety (Chapter 8), Balance (Chapter 9), the Grid (Chapter 10), Pattern (Chapter 13), and Rhythm (Chapter 14).

Repetition: the act or an instance of repeating or being repeated

What are some of the ways artists and designers use repetition?

One device used by artists and designers working with both two-dimensional and three-dimensional media is the “multiple” or “serial” format. In these instances the artist makes several versions of the same piece, often with variations from one to the next. They are designed to be viewed together. (Note that the term “multiples” is also used to refer to editions, such as prints, but these are not meant to be seen as a single piece and they are not what we are discussing here.) Andy Warhol often worked in this manner.

Another device, found in many sculptural works, is the repetition of a single material or component. Examples can be found in the work of artists such as Tara Donovan and Félix González-Torres. Tara Donovan has worked with large volumes of toothpicks to create a cube, and huge numbers of styrofoam cups to make undulating cloud-like installations. Among other things, Félix González-Torres is known for his installations comprised of thousands of hard candies.

In other instances artists employ repeating elements within a single composition. The viewer’s eye will naturally move from one repeating element to another, unifying what otherwise would be a chaotic composition.

Let’s not forget the use of repetition to make patterns. In fact, repetition is how patterns are made. It is the basis of many quilts, of patterns found in architecture, and of the complex designs central to Islamic works of art.

Now, reread the chapters that I listed above. As you do so think about the idea of repetition. What role does repetition play in establishing unity and variety? How is it used to create balance? Does this change how you view the grid? Can you even separate the idea of repetition from pattern and rhythm?

Scroll through the images below and think about how and why the artist has used repetition. Does it help balance the work? Does it create a pattern or a sense of rhythm? Does it demonstrate the use of unity with variety? Does it increase the power of the individual unit or does it diminish it?

When I began to put together the images for this post I was reminded about how prevalent the use of repetition is in the fields of art and design. I could easily have included thousands of works.

Two print series by Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

A sculpture and an installation by Tara Donovan

Tara Donovan

An art installation of hard candies by Félix González-Torres

Félix González-Torres

Art installations by Allan McCullum

Allan McCullum

Grid artwork of swimming pool by David Hockney

David Hockney

Painting of hills and houses by Roger Brown

Roger Brown

Graphic art project by Matt Kay and Michael McCaughley

Matt Kay and Michael McCaughley

Red and white quilt by Lucy T. Pettway of Gee's Bend

Lucy T. Pettway

Elaborate mosaic roof of Hafez tomb

Roof of Hafez Tomb

Four architectural facades

Clockwise from top left: Hawkins Brown Architects; Jing Mian Xin Cheng: ECDM Architects; ACXT Architects


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In Bloom

I awoke this morning to the smell of the blooming tree outside my window. While lying in bed my husband informed me that daylight saving time starts this weekend. Taken together, the tree and the time, I realized that an early spring break was called for. Guess that means we’ll be off celebrating spring instead of writing this week’s blog.

We’ll be back next week with a new post. Until then I encourage you to download a copy our book, “Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.”

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Girl With A Pearl Earring: Looking Beneath The Surface

Earlier this week a team of technicians and researchers armed with some of the most advanced equipment available began an extensive examination of a small oil painting dating from the mid-1600s.

The painting is Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of those iconic images that nearly everyone knows. It’s often called the Mona Lisa of the North or the Dutch Mona Lisa because it rivals DaVinci’s famous portrait as a recognizable image.

Johannes Vermeer's oil painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring"

Like Mona Lisa, Girl with a Pearl Earring has captured the public’s interest as a portrait imbued with mystery. Unlike Mona Lisa, however, most art historians do not believe this is a portrait of a specific person. They think it is a “tronie,” a somewhat stylized and/or composite image representing a type of character or a type of painting. Some think that Vermeer’s oldest daughter may have served as the primary model for what is essentially a study of facial expressions and costume.

Johannes Vermeer is known for his meticulously organized and carefully painted compositions. He worked slowly and methodically, demanding perfection at every step of his creative process. As a result we have only 34 paintings today that scholars accept as Vermeer originals.

For nearly 200 years after his death Vermeer was considered just an artist from Delft. Girl with a Pearl Earring stayed in private collections and was not particularly revered. In 1902 it was donated to the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, Holland.

In the late nineteenth century Vermeer was “rediscovered” and a growing number of scholars started to see him as an important figure. When twentieth century historians learned more about him Vermeer became widely recognized as one of the premier masters of Dutch painting.

In the 1990s Tracy Chevalier wrote a best selling novel titled Girl with a Pearl Earring that was turned into an Oscar nominated movie of the same title. Shortly after that the painting was featured in high profile exhibits in the United States and Japan.

Vermeer’s rediscovery, combined with media and artworld attention, helped make Girl with a Pearl Earring one of the best known images in the world.

That brings us to February of 2018 and this current effort to examine the painting in depth.

The last time Girl with a Pearl Earring underwent intense scrutiny was in 1994 when it was examined using what were then state-of-the-art techniques. Scholars studying the work even removed a few pinpoint specks of paint and did chemical and microscopic analyses of the samples.

In contrast, today’s state-of-the-art tools are completely non-invasive yet much more revealing. There will be no need to remove any paint samples.

Mauritshuis scanning equipment used to scan "Girl with a Pearl Earring"

Just a few of the highly advanced processes being used this time are: Macro x-ray fluorescence scanning, multispectral infrared reflectography, infrared and visible reflectance imaging spectroscopy, and optical coherence tomography. State-of-the-art indeed.

Some of the things the researchers expect to learn include: The steps Vermeer took to create this work, how specific pigments are distributed across the painting, and detailed information about paint layers including translucent glazes. They also expect to develop a high resolution 3D topographical map of the painting.

In addition to analyzing and mapping the painting, researchers will scan its entire surface with microscopes capable of enlarging details 7,000 times.

When the process is complete the team hopes to create an accurate digital version of what the painting looked like at the time Vermeer finished it. What we see today has been altered by time and multiple restorations. The painting’s background, for example, was originally a dark greenish black but now appears as a simple black with no color cast.

Because Girl with a Pearl Earring is so popular with museum visitors all of this scanning and analysis must take place quickly once the painting is removed from the wall. It will all happen over a two-week time period – working 24 hours a day – before the painting is put back on exhibit.

glass partitions used with Mauritshuis scanning equipment used to scan "Girl with a Pearl Earring"

All of the scanning and most of the analysis will happen behind a temporary set up of glass partitions in an upstairs gallery. This will allow visitors to watch the activity as it occurs.

At the end of the two weeks Girl with a Pearl Earring will be one of the most examined and documented paintings in the world. We should know much more about Vermeer’s process and the materials he used. We should also have an amazing digital record of this beloved masterpiece.

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Mending The World With Gold

Two weeks ago I wrote about the use of gold by artists and designers. I discussed “America,” an interactive sculptural installation by Maurizio Cattelan. Today I want to talk about two contemporary artists, Yeesookyung and Rachel Sussman, who use kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer and gold.

Kintsugi, also called kintsukuroi, translates to golden joinery or golden repair. It is part of a celebration that values age and a history of use. Instead of throwing away a broken object it makes it even more valuable. Rather than hiding the repair it emphasizes it. Kintsugi can be seen as an extension of the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi – the aesthetics of the “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”

Kintsugi is the art of carefully applying multiple layers of lacquer along the broken edge between two pieces of pottery. The process is time consuming, involving meticulous sanding between each layer of lacquer. Additional layers of lacquer mixed with gold dust are then added until a fine golden seam joins the broken pieces.

Yeesookyung Translated Vases ceramic and gold joinery

Korean artist Yeesookyung is a conceptual artist who works in a variety of media. The pieces I want to look at are part of her ongoing series titled “Translated Vases.” You could call these kintsugi on steroids. Instead of joining parts from a single broken piece of ceramics she joins together pieces from multiple sources, creating organic and bulbous forms that resemble rampantly mutating cells.

Yeesookyung Translated Vases an installation of ceramic and gold joinery

Korea has a long ceramic tradition in which craftsmanship is supreme and even slightly imperfect works are destroyed. Yeesookyung has been able to collect the broken shards from ceramic workshops that specialize in fine historic reproductions of pottery from the Goryeo (918–1392) and Joseon (1392–1897) dynasties. She then reassembles them using epoxy and 24 karat gold. Her larger sculptures are built around a metal armature which  adds structural strength.

Yeesookyung Translated Vases of ceramic and gold joinery

About the work Yeesookyung says, “From the moment of destruction, I obtain a chance to intervene and fabricate new narratives with my own translation… I am attracted to failed, broken or ephemeral things. Things in a broken state provide me with a chance to intervene. It is not about fixing or mending, but about celebrating the vulnerability of the object and ultimately myself. This broken state allows me to explore new narratives which are not bound by hierarchy. The narrative gives rise to a real world, even more concrete that this existing world, built by art practice and filled with countless endeavors to reach sublime beauty.

Rachel Sussman study for Sidewalk Kintsukuroi photograph, enamel paint and metallic powder

Like Yeesookyung, Rachel Sussman has taken a traditional process and recontextualized it. Her series, “Sidewalk Kintsukuroi,” contains both installations and photographic studies – the studies consist of photographs embellished with enamel paint and metallic powder. Aging and deteriorating roads and walkways have been mended by applying the technique of kintsukuroi. The juxtaposition of thin lines of precious gold with the industrial and utilitarian materials that are part of our infrastructure is startling. The unwanted cracks have been transformed into something of extreme value, drawing our attention to a history we usually overlook.

Rachel Sussman study for Sidewalk Kintsukuroi photograph, enamel paint and metallic powder

Sussman’s work has long centered on ideas about time. She became famous for her photographic (and book) project “The Oldest Living Things in the World,” which documented organisms that are at least 2000 years old. About the time she finished that project she became aware of kintsukuroi and thought it meshed with many of her ideas about time and impermanence.

I had spent 10 years looking at ancient organisms who have withstood the test of time. I was already connected to the aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi inherent in the work and the organisms themselves: quiet and imperfect, bearing the proud patinas and injuries of age, while flirting with the boundaries of permanence.

Rachel Sussman Sidewalk Kintsukuroi installation of gold and lacquer into cracks in museum floor

The cracks in our roads and sidewalks become markers of the passage of time. With age and use pristine surfaces succumb to entropy. Sussman’s repairs emphasize this change. Even they will be worn away, nothing more than slight hints left of their presence. Sussman sees this all as part of a natural process. With her work she hopes to get us to slow down, to weigh our sense of personal time with “cosmic time,” to appreciate the beauty in decay, and to understand our place in the natural cycles of life.

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Black And White: The Hyundai Pavilion By Asif Khan

One of the most dramatic cultural offerings at this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea is a pavilion commissioned by Hyundai and designed by the English architect Asif Khan. The structure is 10 meters (33 ft.) high and 35 meters (115 ft.) long. Its walls form gentle parabolic curves sloping in toward the center from each corner.

The structure is all black on the outside and has dozens of thin rods projecting out from its walls. On the end of each rod is a small light.

Asif Khan's Hyundai Pavilion, exterior view

The black exterior is special because it is the first time a large scale piece of architecture has been coated with the hi-tech substance Vantablack VBx 2, one of the darkest materials in existence. Regular readers of this blog will remember our post last year about the development of the original Vantablack and its connection to the artist Anish Kapoor.

The original Vantablack is without question the darkest material ever developed. It captures 99.96% of all the visible, infrared and ultraviolet light that shines on it. That’s pretty much all the light we can and cannot see. As a result it is impossible to perceive any surface variations on an object coated with the substance. Viewers can only determine the object’s outside shape.

The original version of Vantablack is made from millions of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes that are 3,500 times thinner than a human hair. Coating an object with this version of Vantablack requires a painstaking chemical process and is currently limited to relatively small objects and surfaces.

Recently Surrey NanoSystems, the company that makes Vantablack, developed a new version of the product that captures 99% of only the light that is visible to human eyes. Instead of a chemical process and carbon nanotubes this new product uses a sponge-like micro base and can be applied by spraying it on an object or surface.

It’s this second generation Vantablack that covers the Hyundai pavilion.

Asif Khan's Hyundai Pavilion, detail view

As visitors approach the pavilion they see dots of light from the projecting rods floating in front of a field of impenetrable blackness. Asif Khan says, “From a distance the structure has the appearance of a window looking into the depths of space. As you approach it, this impression grows to fill your entire field of view. So on entering the building, it feels as though you are being absorbed into a cloud of blackness.”

Asif Khan's Hyundai Pavilion, interior view

Once viewers are inside the pavilion everything changes. All the interior surfaces are made of white Corian, a synthetic stone-like product manufactured by DuPont and usually used for table and counter tops. The floor of the pavilion gently slopes to the middle of the room and is engraved with a complex network of narrow, shallow channels all leading to that central point.

Asif Khan's Hyundai Pavilion, interior view

25,000 individual droplets of water are released into these channels every minute from tiny, computer controlled spigots located around the room. The droplets of water are released in response to haptic sensors that monitor the movement of visitors walking through the space. As the droplets navigate their way to the lake at the center of the floor their journey looks surprisingly like an aerial view of an urban landscape with the channels acting as streets and the water drops serving as automobiles and buses.

Asif Khan's Hyundai Pavilion, interior view

Khan says of the pavilion’s interior, “The water installation visitors discover inside is brightly lit in white. As your eyes adjust, you feel for a moment that the tiny water drops are at the scale of the stars. A water droplet is a size every visitor is familiar with. In the project I wanted to move from the scale of the cosmos to the scale of water droplets in a few steps.

In addition to the visual poetry of this architectural installation Asif Khan has created a subliminal message that gently celebrates Hyundai’s research efforts to develop a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The black facade and star-like lights suggest the universe – the source of all hydrogen. And, as Khan says, “The droplets contain the same hydrogen from the beginning of the universe as the stars.”

Here is a short video tour of the pavilion created by the folks at the online architecture and design magazine

For those of you reading this in e-mail you can see the video here.

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Golden Thrones

At the start of every week I begin to investigate a topic for my Thursday post. Usually I’m at a loss for an idea and just as I’m ready to panic one emerges. On Monday, after several hours searching online for inspiration I realized I had hit a wall and the best solution was to go on a long walk. As I waited for my walking partner to get ready I leaned against the wall in my living room and stared mindlessly into space. That was when I noticed the small shaped wooden panel wrapped in lead and partially covered in gold leaf. Made by an artist friend, I’ve had it for years and like all things that become familiar I’d forgotten how much I like it. Gold and lead. Heaven and earth. Alchemy.

Here was an idea – the use of gold, either cast as solid metal or used in fine sheets. There is a long history of the use of gold – employed and revered by ancient civilizations, found in religious paintings and manuscripts, topic and material in conceptual works of the 20th and 21st centuries. A year’s worth of blog postings would barely scratch the surface. Time to narrow my focus. I could look at an artist like Yves Klein or perhaps discuss Joseph Beuy’s performance piece, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.” Maybe the solution would be an investigation of Indian miniatures.

roll of gold leaf toilet paper

I began to type into the google search bar variations such as “art and gold” and “gold objects.” Still too broad. Things got interesting when I entered “odd gold objects.” That was when I found a roll of toilet paper worth over a million dollars – can this be true? What else? A solid gold coffin. Numerous edibles, from pills to cheese. Solid gold shirts costing close to half a million dollars.

From all this wealth of information and imagery I’ve plucked one contemporary artwork to discuss today. More will follow in a future post.

artist Maurizio Cattelan's 18-karat functioning gold toilet

After showing you an image of gold leaf toilet paper, which may have been an advertising ploy, it’s only natural that I’d select artist Maurizio Cattelan’s “America,” a fully functioning 18-karat gold toilet, for further discussion.

Cattelan is known as a joker who uses biting humor to interrogate difficult social and political situations. He conceived of “America” in 2015, about the time Donald Trump decided to run in the presidential election. It’s not clear if this project was a direct response to Trump, who is famous for his bad taste – gilded and gold objects everywhere, including a private jet with solid gold sinks and faucets (the Guardian has even described his Trump Tower penthouse as “something that King Midas threw up after a big night out on the shandies”). Regardless, the timing of the piece, like that of much of Cattelan’s work, was perfect, appearing to predict and respond to the future.

The toilet cost millions of dollars to produce and was designed as a year-long installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Available for public use and installed in a gender neutral restroom with a guard outside the door, over 100,000 people stood in long lines to make use of this golden throne. Cattelan called the toilet “one-percent art for the ninety-nine percent.”

There is an excellent article about the project written by Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector, which I suggest you read, but I want to include this short excerpt – “America,” like all his greatest work, is at once humorous and searing in its critique of our current realities. Though crafted from millions of dollars’ worth of gold, the sculpture is actually a great leveler. As Cattelan has said, “Whatever you eat, a two-hundred-dollar lunch or a two-dollar hot dog, the results are the same, toilet-wise.”

The story doesn’t end with the deinstallation of the piece. Like many Presidents before him Trump requested the loan of an artwork from the Museum, to be hung in his private quarters in the White House. Being Trump he wanted an exorbitantly valuable painting, “Landscape With Snow,” by Vincent van Gogh. Spector politely informed him that the painting was already committed to another show and was overwise not allowed to travel. Generously, she offered him Cattelan’s “America,” the perfect reflection of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” philosophy.

Ballsy. Makes me believe that maybe good and great things can happen in America again if we all stand up whenever and wherever we can and yell, “You are an obscene and ignorant fool who needs to be removed from office!” Let’s unseat him from his golden throne.

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IKEA Update

Yesterday on a walk with a friend she told me about a recent purchase of a new lamp. She was less than pleased and thus began a discussion of what went wrong. She’d purchased the reading light from a retail chain known for cheap prices but good design. In ads the items always look great but in person the materials used and the production quality tell a different story. The products are often versions of pricier things found in better stores. This led us to a discussion of the difference between this store and one like IKEA, which also produces inexpensively made goods.

In thinking about why one works when the other doesn’t I realized that in one instance an attempt is made to copy the style of an existing object while in the other the design is closely linked to the materials and the means of production. In this latter instance the works don’t mimic more expensive items. Thus, there’s no comparison made and the piece stands on its own.

After returning home I took a hot shower. Warm and clean I sat in my most comfortable chair, actually from IKEA, pulled out my iPad and discovered that Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, had just died. And that leads us to today’s post, a re-post of an article we published in June.

A Brief Look At IKEA Design

Editors Note: This may seem like an ad for IKEA but for those of you interested in the field of design this post will give you an idea of the design concerns of one company. Aesthetics are only part of the picture. Issues of resourcing, global economies, and environmental impact are of equal concern.

Whenever I drive on the freeway, north out of Oakland, I pass a giant IKEA store with its instantly recognizable blue and yellow exterior.

I’ve spent hours inside this Emeryville IKEA wandering along their convoluted pre-determined shopping path on my way to the big warehouse and checkout area. Over the years I’ve come to own a fair number of their items – large and small and they are in nearly every room of my house.

exterior view of an IKEA store

So that brings me to the point of this blogpost… Lets take a quick look at IKEA and its design vision.

They were founded in 1943 in Sweden by Ingvar Kamprad (the “I K” of IKEA).

There are approximately 200,000 employees and over 390 stores located in 48 countries. In 2016 IKEA generated nearly $39 billion USD (34.2 billion Euro) in sales.

The company’s products are so ubiquitous in Europe it has been estimated that 1 out of every 10 people living there was conceived on a bed sold by IKEA.

IKEA is also the third largest consumer of lumber and wood byproducts in the world (behind Home Depot and Lowes but ahead of Walmart).

The overall esthetic of IKEA’s products is minimalist, inspired by Scandinavian Modern Design. Their items celebrate functionality and downplay embellishment. They have uncluttered lines, basic patterns and simple color/value combinations. The metal, wood, plastic or fabric used to make a typical IKEA product is never disguised, but rather featured as a main component of the design.

IKEA desk and chair

This sparse, straightforward look helps give the company’s products a universal appeal. With few exceptions, what they sell in China and Australia is the same as what they sell in France and the United States.

The clean functional look of IKEA furniture also helps individual pieces fit into a wide range of home decor styles. My house, for example, is furnished with an eclectic mix of antiques, collectibles, original artworks and purely functional objects my wife and I have acquired over the years. The clear acrylic chairs and the bold black and white rug we purchased from IKEA are perfect counterpoints to a large traditional dining room table we inherited.

Although the overall design of most IKEA products is consistently spare and functional the company works with in-house and freelance designers to keep their inventory fresh. They regularly produce a PS Collection of more adventurous items and this year they are collaborating with costume designer and fashion activist Bea Åkerlund (think Madonna, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga) to produce accent and display objects.

In order to keep their design and marketing efforts on track IKEA sends teams of researchers into the field to conduct home visits with customers. During their visits the team asks about a wide range of topics that might include how the customer interacts with their own home, what new products would make their daily life more productive or rewarding, and the customer’s impression of their last visit to an IKEA store.

In 2015 IKEA produced a report titled Life At Home. This document is based on a survey of over 8,000 people in eight cities around the world. It found – among many interesting insights – that morning is the most stressful part of the day for urbanites and that New Yorkers prefer to select their next day work clothes the night before. It also found that 52% of the people surveyed enjoyed cooking in the company of other people. The results of the survey have already influenced the development and design of new products.

This concern for how a product fits into the real world also influences the way IKEA approaches the sourcing of raw materials and their general emphasis on sustainability. For example, IKEA uses recycled PET plastics from disposable bottles to make quilts and pillows. They use bamboo when possible to create a hardwood alternative for furniture. They also design and sell water-saving kitchen faucets and energy-saving appliances. All of the lighting IKEA sells is LED that uses 85% less energy and lasts up to 20 years.

IKEA kitchen design

One part of IKEA design that gets a lot of attention is their flat packaging. It originated in the 1950s when an employee removed the legs from an end table in order to fit it into their car. Compacting the form of a piece of furniture for shipping and handling soon became a major goal.

Today when you buy a piece of IKEA furniture from their store it comes in a plain rectangular cardboard box. Inside the box is the unassembled piece of furniture and necessary hardware arranged in the most efficient way imaginable. The packaging is so efficient there is never a need for extra padding. It is a brick.

In addition to the furniture and hardware in the box there is an assembly instruction sheet that uses hieroglyphic style diagrams. Using the diagrams as a cryptic guide customers work their way through the assembly process and become active partners in creating their new piece of furniture.

The picture-only instruction sheet is one more concession to IKEA’s international marketing efforts and efficient use of resources. It is also the inspiration for many stand-up comedians and online commenters both positive and negative.

The emphasis on affordable, minimalist design influenced by customer input – what IKEA calls “democratic design” – combined with sustainability and efficient packaging/handling is a complex endeavor. I think IKEA does a spectacular job of orchestrating and managing all these design challenges.

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