this show, collection, is titled “Pro Forma”
This is Interview2 of a two-part interview with Sam Vinz of Volume Gallery in Chicago and Alex Williams of Rich Brilliant Willing in New York. The interview took place on March 17 on site at the new installation called “Pro Forma”.
In LAST WEEK’S EPISODE [ Interview1 ]
[DA] Let’s talk about the design gallery which seems like a very niched concept. How old is the design gallery concept?
[SV] There’s been a particular iteration of them for the last 20 or 30 years. In New York in the 70s you would find galleries that concentrated on 20th century, mid-century modern furniture. And on through the 80s and 90s. And there was a historical perspective. But then contemporary pieces presented themselves in a gallery setting and I don’t think that concept is all that old, 15 to 20 years old. And it is a niche market with collectors who have always done it. And we’re trying to extend and broaden the model. Claire and I feel that young designers need the opportunity to explore different processes and materials and then take what they learn and fold it back into their studio work for their production design.
[DA] The nature of the collection is so few pieces are produced and the unit price is expensive. Is it because of the limited edition or the materials or both?
[AW] It’s a combination of things. For us, this is our first collection and our names are just getting out there and we’re trying to say something with the work obviously. And part of it is these objects have a lot of inherent value. They’re large, they’re heavy. The value is related to the weight of the materials, the leather, the brass, the fact that they’re all handcrafted.
[SV] When it comes to the cost of the piece, the amount of hands that goes into making these pieces is significant. Each of the pieces has at least two to three stops to make. And the fact that we are trying to make heirloom quality objects that will last for 100 years. That’s where the limiting comes from. And we can only get so many pieces made during this production period because the fabricators are very busy doing other projects, because they’re excellent resources and in demand.
[AW] But I think it’s important that the price be a reflection of the work, not the other way around, not shooting for a price category. Trying to build something that justifies the price is like working backwards.
[DA] Let’s talk about the studio mix. There’s a cheeky saying that if you want to be a famous architect you have to design a chair. And the thought that just occurred to me. If you want to be a famous designer you have to make art. Have you heard of that phrase?
[AW] I haven’t heard is quite like that before.
[DA] When you started your studio to make money you started to make your own objects. Then people started asking you to design their objects. And now you are making art here. Right?
[AW] I guess it’s all about intent. If calling it art is convenient, ok. For our case it’s work, furniture, it’s beautiful furniture that we’re extremely proud of. It’s the kind of work we’ve always wanted to be making. And Volume gave us the opportunity to make it. The distinction isn’t that important.
[DA] OK, agreed. Some will call it art and some will call it beautiful, well-made furniture. In 2008 you did work for Innermost, a company based in London and Hong Kong and that work was shown in Milan. Now that you have experienced working with a European company here’s a question. American designer Todd Bracher has chosen to live and work n Copenhagen and he says he sees a huge divide between the European and American design worlds. In a Metropolis article, which RWB was also included, he says, “With the American bit, it’s really two months of heavy market research, psychological research, anthropological research, and then we start to look at what it looks like.” The market-driven focus comes from American companies’ desire for long-lasting huge sellers like the Aeron chair. “Whereas in Europe, it’s a one-to-four-year life cycle, so they want something really interesting and beautiful.” Would you agree with that?
[AW] It’s a little difficult to say. We actually met Innermost in New York. We were exhibiting with several other designers with a group we helped found, The American Design Club in New York. We were showing early prototypes from our Klinker series. Steve Jones from Innermost was there and he happened to see it and expressed an interest in developing a collection around it. Interestingly, within the last few weeks actually, the collection is now just available here in the States. Klinker has done very well in Asia and has been the primary market for it. Getting back to your question. We are starting to work with more and more European clients now. I think the disposable, almost fashion aspect of the consumer culture, does exist. But it’s only one segment that supports the design industry and always has. I think we have the same thing here in the United States only it’s different. We have this sort of disposable need and desire for a stream of new things but it manifests itself in a different way.
[DA] Sam, you were quoted in TimeOut Chicago that designers have distinctive cultural identities?
[SV] I said that? (group laugh) Well, I think it’s true. You can tell an Italian designer from an English designer, from a French designer. I don’t know what it stems from, not knowing whether it’s a cultural or national identity per se. It may be a design identity that’s been engrained in a particular country.
[DA] For instance.
[SV] With the French there has always been an element of whimsy. That can be seen from Serge Mouille to Bouroullec. I think in Italian design there has always been a clean, hard, minimal edge, and dating from the 40s until now. With English design, British design, they pretty much have stamped themselves as “British” design, for you. With American design, there’s some sort of independence you can see, more individual statements.
[AW] The most obvious thing for me is, whether you like it or not, if you’re a young designer say working in Paris, Milan, London, you can reference certain periods that you can’t readily reference here. Of course there are important milestones here but the playing field is more wide open. So that means the American designer is looking for references outside of design. And that’s one of the most interesting aspects of American design.
[DA] Alex, what, who, inspires your firm?
[AW] All kinds of things. And people. Of course we have our design heroes (DA failed to follow up on that one ) and many of them are European. But just going to work, all the things going around us in New York City. And of course we are inspired by industrial processes, finishes, techniques.
[DA] Alex, what are the key characteristics of the Pro Forma series?
[AW] Pro forma is a term that we lifted from our experience with international shipping. And the words more or less mean “for the sake of form”. Another meaning is the invoice that accompanies an international shipment, the declaration of its theoretical value. We’re using it as a pun to refer to the fact that the collection is conceived from a form taken out of context. The form is air shipping containers that you may see when you’re boarding your plane. They all have these weird blunt noses and chamfered edges, and sometimes they’re curved a little bit. And there’s a perfectly good reason why and that’s so they fit more efficiently into the curved fuselage of the airplane. But when you see them in context, sitting around in a pile, you wonder why does this box look like this and have this quirky little detail. And we started there to explore these forms and how they play off of each other. We started thinking about the world we live in now. We live in a global culture where everyone’s constantly on the move, and these containers started to be symbols for these cross cultural exchanges. There are people who live in more than one city and their stuff moves around with them and they own fewer objects. These containers for the global citizens became steamer trunks in concept. Air freight containers are made of dinged up aluminum and nylon straps and these kinds of industrial materials. We take the opposite approach using steamer trunks as objects of luxury travel for an era that no longer exists.
[DA] Alex, how does Pro Forma represent your own philosophy on the state of design?
[SV] Good question.
[AW] I think the most important part about design is that you can’t really nail it down. And that it means completely different things to different people and it’s constantly in a state of flux. And that’s very exciting. And now we’re at this moment where a lot of people think that design all of a sudden means something specific. Like there are a lot of problems in the world that need solving and a lot of important things need to be designed. I think people are striving for a little uniqueness and there’s an urgency to this striving as a means of shaping your voice in a crowded world. I think what we’ve tried to do here with Pro Forma is to make the most of a situation and that we make a beautiful collection of work that we hope will last for a long time with the resources at hand.
[DA] Sam, what did you learn from this whole process?
[SV] This the first time we worked with a group of designers first of all. And second of all we worked with designers outside of Chicago. There was a less casual relationship arranging meetings and Skyping, that kind of stuff. And this forced us to be more organized on that level and that’s a good thing.
[DA] What part of what you do satisfies you the most?
[AW] Being able to work for myself, to go into work every day, and for the most part, do what I enjoy doing. To not have a boss and get paid to be creative basically.
[SV] Ha, I say almost the exact same thing. The most important thing is that we are sort of writing our own rules and it’s been really enjoyable to do that. It makes a 12 hour day not like a 12 hour day.
[DA] What’s happening next?
[AW] We’re showing a bunch of new work at the ICFF (Contemporary Furniture Fair) in New York in May. We’re showing an exciting collection of pendant lamps at a little shop in New York called Partners in Spade. And we’re designing our first office for a foundation in New York which is really exciting.
[SV] There’s a show opening on April 30th, by a Minneapolis designer named Jonathan Muecke The name of the show is “Objects” and he’ll be showing what he calls eight different projects.
[DA] Sam, Alex. Thank you.