By Philip Berger
Reflections—the September exhibition at Chicago’s Volume Gallery of work by the architecture firm Krueck + Sexton—will be gone by the time you read this, but you can get a good sense of it by looking at the video on the K+S website.
As the video attests, the gallery installation—with its mirrored floors and walls surrounding the pieces exhibited—was, at least to a design geek, thrill-inducing. The mirrored surfaces captured the extreme reflectivity of the chairs’ highly polished metal frames and multiplied the sinuous fluidity of the forms, much like gems in a jewel box. Their hypermodernist, high-tech-machine aesthetic is still stunningly futuristic thirty years after their initial design. While eminently utilitarian, these are highly refined products of collaboration between seasoned design talent and expert fabricators.
Architect-designed furniture has been common since the beginning of the twentieth century, but the K+S designed chairs are more than mere furniture. They are brilliantly devised, expertly executed artworks. Artworks, of course, that you can sit in.
The earthy ceramic pieces by Anders Ruhwald—the show that preceded Reflections at Volume—seem to have little in common with the high-gloss luxury of the K+S chairs. Yet taken together, the exhibitions offer a strong indicator of how, in its reasonably short history, Volume has become a significant force in the contemporary design arena—both as market makers and market movers, helping simultaneously to develop that market and define it.
The presence of the K+S chairs and Ruhwald’s constructions in Volume’s exhibition schedule suggest the evolution of how we view art and, certainly, design. Today our understanding of “art” extends well beyond the traditional media of painting, works on paper and various forms of sculpture. Innovations in media and technique have further blurred the divisions of contemporary “fine art”—usually items that stand on their own as artistic creations to be appreciated for their aesthetic and intellectual value; and “craft”—usually three-dimensional objects that have a functional purpose: furniture, ceramic and glass vessels, jewelry, textiles.
Contemporary design works often engage several of these disciplines, and occasionally more. It’s a continuously expanding field of artwork that is developing new audiences and new opportunities for designers. Like many artistic movements, a lot of the activity is centered on the coasts. But Volume has managed to make a significant mark in and from the heartland.
Broadly speaking (very broadly), contemporary design as a collecting category is focused on production of Designed Objects. Yet defining the DO category, even broadly, is no easy task.
It’s well worth noting that the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s design program operates under the umbrella of AIADO: Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects. SAIC dean Jonathan Solomon explains that “at the time of the formation of the program , faculty chose ‘Designed Objects’ over traditional disciplinary terms like ‘Industrial Design’ or ‘Product Design’ to make it clear that SAIC is interested in objects and their design broadly, even objects that are not industrially produced, or objects not sold as products.”
Helen Maria Nugent—the professor who was director of the DO program at SAIC but this fall was recently purloined by California College of the Arts to be its dean—won’t claim ownership of the term, but says “we landed on Designed Objects precisely because it was not already being used by other schools and programs. It also met my objective of opening up the field of exploration to allow students and faculty to expand beyond what is typically identified as industrial or product design, or commercial design.” She adds that “the term is a great conversation starter—what do you teach? What kind of objects do students make? It’s much more engaging than people assuming that they know what industrial design is.”
Tim Parsons, who succeeded Nugent at SAIC as DO program director, happily endorses the notion of SAIC as the term’s progenitor. “We used it not because it was the most popular, but because it was the most accurate for what we were trying to describe. We wanted to go even further from the market implication of a product so we could focus on what ‘objecthood’ might mean.”
Nugent offers that, however it is defined, the contemporary object design discipline allows designers to “use ideas of ‘art’—limited editions and multiples—to expand and explore their own territory,” which for some reason is “confusing in the context of design but not in the art world.”
The best contemporary design objects possess qualities that transcend mere utility or visual appeal. While contemporary design work can certainly be beautiful and useful, it doesn’t have to be. But it has to represent an idea. The most interesting contemporary work is “more concerned with concept, material study or problem solving in design than ever before,” says Claire Warner, who runs the gallery with business partner Sam Vinz. Volume, Warner says, “shows work that is not production work—which simply means it is the result of experimentation and pushing the boundaries of one’s practice and the discipline of design.”
What’s helped advance the contemporary design market most is the tremendous interest in design work from historical eras. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, collectors emerged for a wide spectrum of design works: from European Art Nouveau, the English Arts & Crafts and American, the work of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, through Bauhaus and International style pieces from Mies van der Rohe and Corbusier to the explosion of demand for mid-century French and Italian design and the still-fervent interest in American design of the same period. And if you’ve followed this development at all, the story inevitably leads to the Chicago auction house Wright, which today is arguably, the most influential force in the secondary market for modern design work.
Not at all coincidentally, Wright figures prominently in the genesis of Volume Gallery itself. Both its principals worked there, Warner for several years and Vinz for a mere fourteen days before they both were laid off in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis that severely damaged the art market. At the time, they barely knew one another, but reconnected in 2010 through Jonathan Nesci, now a rising design star, but once a laborer in Wright’s restoration area during Warner and Vinz’s tenure. Each of them had separately approached Nesci about opening a gallery with an inaugural show of his work, so he connected them and that’s precisely what happened.
Buzz about the enterprise was good from the start, and the gallery was fortunate to gain almost immediate credibility, when Wallpaper magazine got the idea to write a story about it although it hadn’t even opened. “We really had to scramble to live up to the advance word,“ says Vinz.
Since March 2010, when it took over Andrew Rafacz’s gallery space to mount its show of Nesci’s metal tables, seating and case goods, Volume has evolved into a major player in the contemporary design world, providing a platform for an impressive roster of influential contemporary designers—from Chicago locals like Nesci (who has relocated to Columbus, Indiana) and Felicia Ferrone, co-director of UIC’s graduate design program, to national and international design figures like Thaddeus Wolfe and Jonathan Muecke, as well as collective producers like Rich Brilliant Willing, Snarkitecture and Norman Kelley; it’s also shown objects designed by important architects like Krueck + Sexton and Aranda\Lasch.
More than anything, Volume and its cohort—New York galleries like R & Company and Carpenters Workshop Gallery—have helped fuel awareness of and demand for this kind of work, in itself creating opportunities for designers, who find a wider range of business models than ever before.
While people have many different motivations for studying design, Helen Maria Nugent explains that “not every designer wants to be a gallery designer” and show works through a place like Volume. At SAIC, says Nugent, “the DO program was committed to expanding our ideas of what a designer is. Interaction design is the term we use now to recognize that the field of design blurs between areas”: graphics, technology, experience. It’s an approach she says is “applicable to the complexity of objects that we are designing today.”
Nugent suggests that the most important thing about the DO program—and probably any design program—is that it helps students develop their own point of view. While she acknowledges that many design graduates will go on to actual jobs in the corporate world, “People are entrepreneurs.” she says. “That’s where the world is now.”
Few designers exemplify this entrepreneurial model like Jonathan Nesci, who, at thirty-eight, is increasingly influential for his work as well as for his professional acumen. “Not too long ago,” he says, “furniture designers had one path to having their work produced: getting a job with a furniture company.” But he’s enthusiastic about the avenues the expanding market has opened up. While he continues to show experimental, editioned work through Volume and other galleries, he produces his own line of furniture that he sells to designers and architects.
Nesci sees the emerging alternative channels for design work as “part of a cultural shift—not unlike the craft beer market and the make-sell online platforms. We are all participating in the proliferation of social networks and crowd-sourced businesses.”
With respect to the schism between art and craft, Nesci has definite ideas about craft, and it’s not about the actual making of the objects. Even though he doesn’t build his work himself, he considers himself a maker; he calls the circuit of fabricators with whom he collaborates his “craft surrogates.” His goal, he says, is “to connect my mind with their mind and hands.”
Another Volume artist, MInneapolis-based Matt Olson, says his approach to distributing his work is almost defiantly non-standard. “The market is not something central to how we bring a project to life,” he says.
ROLU—Olson’s now-disbanded studio practice whose banner he exhibited under at Volume—“limited me to the fabrication abilities of the studio,” he explains. It started out as a “quest for an organic business model,” he says. “Even though I wasn’t building the work, I watched it being built every day.” It was “not just a fabrication thing, but more about bringing the work to life.” But ultimately he felt it just wasn’t sustainable.
Olson is now operating independently as Office of Int.\Est.\Ext. (from the screenwriter’s instructions for “Interior Establishing Exterior,” styled OOI\E\E and pronounced like the French word “oui”) and his latest work leans toward the wildly conceptual and non-commercial. Consider his “Donald Judd Birdseed” furniture: Based on Judd designs, it’s rendered in a medium composed of birdseed suspended in a glucose-based matrix. There’s a great backstory that connects the work to a librarian at the Walker Art Center who had a collection of bird’s nests; the pieces are intended to sit outside and disappear over time. He admits it’s not for everyone. “I continue to sit in a pretty odd space with respect to galleries and collectors—the work not meant to be used in the way that most furniture is.”
Maybe not, but it’s of a piece with other work Volume shows, like the gallery’s 2013 exhibition of Wrong Chairs, by the architectural collaborative Norman Kelley, a collection of aggressively nonfunctional variations on the classic Windsor chair. The show made an impact on Chicago design guru Dana Arnett for “creating discourse around the formal conventions of design. It was as much about a conversation created as a result of that exhibition, as the work itself. That rebellious deeper sense of inquiry or debate is essential,” he says. “You don’t see it enough in the design community.”
The ephemeral nature of Olson’s Judd pieces and the provocative subversion of the Norman Kelley work pose interesting counterpoints to the sophisticated elegance of Krueck + Sexton’s chairs. But they, too, have great backstories—and creators who have always been avatars of experimentation. K+S hasn’t had as high a profile as many architecture firms with similar tenures (it was established as Krueck & Olson in 1976, renamed K+S in 1991, when Mark Sexton joined Ron Krueck as a partner). But it’s consistently produced a portfolio of high-art architecture, which, regrettably, is not for everyone, either. Its most prominent works in Chicago: Crown Fountain (for which it just won the Chicago AIA Ten Year Award), the Spertus Institute and Hubbard Street Dance Center.
In the late 1980s, the firm gained attention for a series of ultra-luxe residential interiors projects. The throne-like Chicago chair and the armless dining chair in the Reflections exhibit were used in multiple jobs, but the Lounge chair was never produced. Offering limited editions of the chairs—which remain astonishingly futuristic in appearance—acknowledge their place in Chicago’s cultural history and also its legacy of architectural design. The prototypes for the editions shown at Volume in the fall were fabricated by Tesko, the same Norridge metal shop that made the originals.
“We never thought of them as anything but elements of architecture and space,” says Sexton. “It wasn’t until we pulled them out, free of elemental identity, they took on something of their own.”
While he and design partner Krueck are thrilled that this opportunity presented itself, Sexton doesn’t expect the DO projects to supplant the firm’s architecture work. “Making pieces like this is daunting—it’s exceedingly difficult and expensive.”
Dana Arnett’s firm VSA Partners is what used to be called a graphic design firm, but like many in the industry, Arnett shuns labels. “It’s about a larger definition of design,” he says. “Big D—focusing on human-centered activity where outcomes can be spread across many forms and functions.” He thinks the market for contemporary designed objects is an important part of that definition. “Volume has tapped into what’s happening in the world now,” he says, “the breaking down of boundaries based on media and methodology. We will continue to see all kinds of new media enter into the realm of fine art and design—a level of intrigue that will continue to stimulate the art market.”
The emerging practitioners who grew up as digital natives don’t think about boundaries, he says. “They have a whole new toolbox and challenge the limits every day.”
The proliferation of design work on the market suggests the demand is there. But identifying and reaching out to new collectors—young people with the wherewithal to collect art—is increasingly challenging. Lifestyle analysts have convinced us that young people aren’t interested in acquiring things, they want to acquire experiences. So if they do want to buy things, they want things that have some meaning attached to them.
Deborah Colman’s Pavilion Antiques shop shows an adroitly curated selection of objects with a concentration on work by twentieth-century Italian and French designers who haven’t oversaturated the American market. But she’s personally a great believer in contemporary designers, and bought one of the first pieces from Jonathan Nesci’s first Volume show in 2010.
“Jonathan was very purposeful,” she says. “He had a vision and wanted to be in a ‘design gallery’ and that’s what he did. But we believed in his work and thought he was really going places.” In buying early, she admits she was partially motivated by the notion that “this guy is gonna be important, so I want to have an early prototype.”
Colman thinks it’s important to show contemporary pieces in her store along with historical work because they can see a similarity in motivation over all the periods: “a recognition of people doing something with materials—an intention particular to their moment in time, their politics and environment.” Mixing design history with the present makes perfect sense to her: “It’s like an art collector who has Picassos and buys Cattelan and Koons.”
With so much fine work in so many categories on the market, building a collector base is never easy. While designers are taking advantage of the ease and reach of modern platforms like Instagram and Facebook in individual marketing vehicles, some Volume audience development efforts are more personal and old school. Their aim is to build a version of the centuries-old tradition of artistic patronage. “We approach it in a similar way as building the market for our designers, it requires trust and strong relationships with everyone we work with,” says Vinz. It boils down to the distinction between a buyer, someone who may be “consumed with the investment and quick salability of work,” and a patron, who cares about “building the career and supporting the individual behind the work,” committing to acquiring not just one piece by a creator “but several through different moments in their career.”
Much of the audience for contemporary design, like the audience for contemporary art, simply isn’t in Chicago, so Volume appears regularly at the important design fairs—Design Miami and FOG in San Francisco. Yet Vinz and Warner believe in Chicago. “Being in Chicago is a huge asset for many reasons, mostly because you can experiment more here,” says Warner. “We do not have the overhead that we would working in New York, so we can show more experimental work and slowly grow the market. The higher the overhead the more expensive the work you need to show. It does not leave room for contemporaries to grow. In Chicago, we can show work that can appeal to any level of buyer.”
Philip Berger writes about design for Newcity. He has a day job at a law firm, too, but art, design and style are his passion.