Courtesy of Thom Browne.
How to take the news that this year’s Design Miami/ Basel would feature fashion icon Thom Browne curating a “grid of important desks”? The concept, which is included in the Design at Large section of the fair, isn’t as left-field as it seems at first glance. Indeed, as Browne tells Artsy, the installation has its roots in a 2009 performative fashion show at Pitti Immagine Uomo in Florence, Italy. That event presented smartly coutured workers laboring in a faux-office outfitted with “1950s desks,” aiming to conjure an “atmospheric sense of pent-up masculinity and menace,” according to the New York Times.
“I thought a similar concept would be interesting to explore at Design Miami/ Basel, considering their immense expertise and resources in the art and design realm,” Browne says. This time around, there will be a new performance element; Browne has enlisted female students from local art and architecture schools to help enact what he calls a “quite simple” choreography. As a companion piece, he will also exhibit a sculptural set—a slightly eerie landscape with trees and animals—that was used for a 2014 fashion show.
The rather narrow focus on desks (and attendant chairs and lamps) is a diversion from the previous iterations of Design at Large, a special component of the fair that was launched in 2014.
Courtesy of Thom Browne.
That first edition was helmed by the then-creative director of Barneys New York, Dennis Freedman, who mingled art and design in equal measure, mixing a textile sculpture by Sheila Hicks with architecture by Jean Benjamin Maneval, among others. In 2015, the reigns were handed over to hotel powerhouse André Balazs, who thought on a large scale; his installation included a Jean Prouvé gas station and a VW Camper bus. And in 2016, Cabana magazine editor Martina Mondadori Sartogo used the Design at Large space to go equally splashy, with huge pieces by Ron Arad, Tom Price, and others.
Visitors to this year’s Design At Large installation might find Browne’s presentation to be slightly quieter and more contemplative, but not without its own drama. His desk extravaganza brings together specimens “chosen solely based on their design significance within the past century,” he says. “My choices were based less on personal tastes and more so on how each desk shaped and progressed a particular design idea.”
The final installation spotlights pieces designed by the likes of Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, and Pierre Jeanneret, provided by fair participants like Galerie Downtown, Galerie Patrick Seguin, Jousse Entreprise, and Galleri Feldt, among others.
Each desk is astutely paired with a complementary chair and lamp, a ready-to-go trio for any collector who’d simply want to import Browne’s vision into his or her home office. In one instance, a simple lamp by Joe Colombo illuminates a chair and desk by Charles and Ray Eames. Another tableaux might especially appeal to fans of Danish design, bringing together a 1953 desk by Finn Juhl with a Poul Kjærholm chair (1964) and Poul Henningsen lamp (1927).
Portrait of Thom Browne courtesy of Circe.
As a fashion designer, Browne is known for advancing certain key trends: slightly abbreviated pant legs (meant to show a bit of skin or sock), or reimaginings of the traditional suit (worn with shorts, and tie tucked directly into the waistband).
But when it comes to desks, Browne is all business. “I appreciate when a desk is designed in a utilitarian way,” he offers, “that all features should be useful to its owner. I’m typically most drawn to uncomplicated and purposeful design.” (What about that 21st-century healthy innovation, the standing desk, I wondered? “I’m not a big fan.”)
In keeping with that affection for the pared-down and useful, Browne notes that in his own office he favors a desk by the late French designer Jacques Adnet. “I think a desk can change you,” Browne says, “if you let it.”