A captivating view of American craft today marks the 40th anniversary of the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Encompassing works by 40 artists under the age of 40, the exhibition opening July 20th recognizes the boundless ingenuity, expanded boundaries and future direction of today’s evolving craft world.
“It’s not often we have the opportunity to synthesize developing trends,” says Nicholas Bell, the Renwick’s Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator of American Craft and Decorative Art, who organized the exhibit. “It’s really eclectic and that’s what’s exciting.” Following is a sampling of artists making waves in this exhibit and beyond.
WHEN MATH MEETS ART
Erik Demaine, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, discovers connections between mathematics and art. At age 22, he received a MacArthur Fellowship for computational research “solving difficult problems related to folding and bending.” He is a pioneer in the theoretical field of computational origami, which proves the possibility that any square piece of paper can be folded into any shape.
In practice, Erik pushes the sculptural frontiers of paper folding in collaboration with his father, Martin, a glassblower, artist and—like Erik—a computer scientist. The fun for both lies in the puzzling mathematics of their art: “There are relatively simple rules,” Erik explains. “You have a square piece of paper. You can’t stretch or tear it. You can fold anything you want, but it’s not so easy to do.”
Their complex sculptures are balancing acts of curves, involving cutting a hole in a circular piece of paper, then scoring, creasing and interlocking circular forms. “We weave it together by twisting, pushing, then letting go,” says Erik, making it all sound simple. “We want it to be in an equilibrium state. It’s more natural.”
Vivian Beer compares her slick, streamlined seating to hot rods. Both are curvy and welded from sheet metal. And she sprays real auto-body paint on her lounge chairs, in colors she describes as “super-glammed-up with a glinty glimmer you can see through.” The sparkle comes from crushed glass in the paint, applied in layers with a final coat of high-gloss acrylic urethane. She assigns sassy names like Smoking-Jacket Red and Pinky-Red Pearl to the custom-mixed hues; once, she pulled a shade of bright orange directly from an ’80s Mazda catalog.
“I can look back in history and pick a color that is awesome,” says Beer, whose metal furniture plays on icons from pop culture to decorative art. The whiplash lines of “Slither.walk.fly,” displayed in the exhibition, revisit Art Nouveau’s sinuous curves, anthropomorphic forms and decorative ironwork. Ideas also happen around her—for example, the observation of a bridge’s construction that inspired a new concrete-and-steel series.
“That’s the great thing,” says Beer. “The work can reference the long arc of history, but in the end it’s furniture—a simple thing to touch and sit on and a pleasure to live with.”
Matthew Szösz’s sensuous, puffy-pillow forms don’t look like glass, nor are they made like familiar blown- or molded-glass pieces. Armed with three art degrees but apprenticeship-trained and largely self-taught in glasswork, Szösz invented his own audacious technique.
He manipulates hot glass straight from the kiln, protected like a firefighter with Kevlar mitts, respirator, face shield and reflective silver-coated jacket. In a lightning-paced process, he blows air between pieces of fused glass and coaxes them into final form—all within 30 seconds. He says about 80 percent of production ends on the scrap heap.
Szösz mainly uses simple, salvaged window glass. Besides its low cost, he likes its subtle variations and the way its surface changes to a stony-looking, opaque skin that wrinkles and cracks as pieces are stretched and bent.
“I have a general idea of what a shape will look like, but it is the glass itself that determines the final appearance,” Szösz wrote by e-mail from Australia, where he was completing a residency at the Canberra Glassworks. “If there is no surprise for me in the development of a piece, that is a disappointment.”
Christy Oates used to live in a tiny apartment with little space for furniture or storage. Unlike most students in her situation, Oates was studying for a graduate degree in furniture design; Murphy beds, futons and folding chairs just wouldn’t do. As she observes, “They’re not really aesthetically pleasing.”
Oates’s novel solution became her master’s thesis project at San Diego State University three years ago. She designed a suite of furniture that hides away in plain sight, collapsing and flattening like origami. The pieces fit discreetly into what looks like a wood puzzle mounted on the wall. When needed, sections of the graphic wall hanging pop out and open up into a three-dimensional chair, table, desk, bench or working lamp.
Many prototypes were required to determine the placement of cuts, made using a laser cutter with help from a computer-aided drafting program. Oates has pursued mass-manufacturing techniques and technology in kaleidoscopic designs based on traditional wood-marquetry patterns. “I’m using manufacturing tools to create one-off pieces,” Oates says. “Being part of the DIY [Do It Yourself] movement, I question the line between artwork and mass-produced products.”
Matt Moulthrop, the third generation of legendary wood artists in his family, apprenticed in the workshop of his grandfather, Ed. Today he turns wood on a lathe using tools designed by his grandfather and adapted by his father, Philip. And he continues to extend the range of the family’s technical and aesthetic DNA, creating large-scale, thin-walled vessels of deceptively simple form and breathtaking beauty. Their handiwork reveals the richness in common wood forms, such as maple, oak, pine and holly, native to the area around their studios near Atlanta.
Matt received an MBA from Georgia Tech, but at age 23 decided to turn wood full time. (“Have you lost your mind?” he remembers his grandfather asking in reference to the now-useless MBA.) Twelve years later, Matt has added to his family’s line by developing a new, glass-like finish, and he will soon introduce more sculptural work that pierces through the solid shapes.
“It’s amazing that I’ve been able to pursue this,” he says. “You have to love it, because it’s not easy, and there’s an element to it that couldn’t be passed on or taught. We’ve all done something different.”
Ten years ago while working as an architect, Lara Knutson attended a lighting seminar where she heard about how reflected materials can increase lighting efficiency. Surfing the Web to find out more, she discovered an industrial fabric made by 3M that is typically used on safety or sports gear worn at night. The fabric catches light due to a layer of microscopic glass beads backed with mirrors. Knutson ordered samples.
Exploring the possibilities on nights and weekends, she developed a technique that exploits the material’s changing appearance in different environments. “It can look flat and gray,” she explains from her New York studio. “But when the light flashes just right, it’s like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It’s really kind of alive.”
At first, Knutson wove threads from the fiber into jewelry that she sold in museum shops. Then she enrolled as a graduate student in industrial design at Pratt Institute, while continuing to work with this fascinating material. “I’m finding the beauty that wasn’t meant [to be] at all” Knutson says. “By diving deep, I’m seeing I can take it so much further.”
Daniel Michalik’s first encounter with cork seemed like kismet. He stumbled on it as a graduate student looking for a thesis project at the Rhode Island School of Design. By chance, he found a supplier willing to sell lots of cork at very low cost—a winning combination that, he notes, “gave me the freedom to experiment and not fear failing.”
The soft, pliable material yielded more than he imagined. Like wood, which he had worked with before, cork can be glued, carved and turned on a lathe—without wood’s resistance, warping or movement. “I was thrilled by the instant gratification of the material,” he recalls.
A ground-up product of tree bark made without toxic adhesives, cork’s sustainability was another bonus. Michalik buys the material from eco-friendly Portuguese forests. His pared-down designs are easily assembled without hardware or adhesives. He recycles all waste back to his supplier in Maryland. And everything he creates—from furniture to new, smaller housewares—is made in his Brooklyn studio, a green alternative to offshore fabrication.
Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
THE EXHIBIT AND MORE
“40 Under 40: Craft Futures” runs from July 20 to February 3, 2013, at the Renwick Gallery. For more information, including special programs, visit americanart.si.edu/renwick40. The Washington Design Center’s related 2012 DreamHome: Design Craft features eight rooms inspired by works in the Renwick exhibition and created by emerging interior designers. It is free and open to the public weekdays through November 30. dcdesigncenter.com