The Most-Loved Objects of 54 Creative Minds

The handmade briefcase Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon picked up in a small alley in Tokyo during a Japanese tour; an architect’s 25-year-old Roman espresso pot featuring a silhouette that resembles Sophia Loren; the apron a chef stole from her Italian mother-in-law on a summer visit to Puglia; a fashion designer’s misshapen Comme des Garçons dress from 1996; a writer’s pair of skateboard rails saved from the ’80s. Inspiration can arrive in the smallest, most unexpected places, and as Salone del Mobile—one of the most important dates on the design world’s calendar—comes to Milan, an exhibition, “Source Material,” looks to the influence of material objects on the creative minds of their owners. For the exhibition, curators Jasper Morrison, Jonathan Olivares, and Marco Velardi asked 54 creatives (among them, Artsy’s founder Carter Cleveland, who cites the book that spawned his obsession with physics—and part of his inspiration for Artsy) to consider their most valued and influential objects.

Edwin Heathcote, Architect and Design Critic for the Financial Times

Espresso Pot

Regarding the irreplaceable coffee pot he’s used for the past 25 years, found in a small hardware shop in Rome—and cannot part with despite the fact that his Nespresso brews superior coffee: “It has a feminine shape, bulbous, breasted, and waisted, a little Sophia Loren perhaps, very different to the more angular traditional types. Its handle is a perfect fit for my forefinger and it pours beautifully, drip free,” Heathcote says. “It appeals to me partly because of its shape, partly because of its ability to make good coffee for two (or for one greedy espresso addict), and partly because of the ease with which it can be repaired and its parts replaced.”

Justin Vernon, Musician and Frontman for Bon Iver

Leather Briefcase

Having grown up in Wisconsin, Justin Vernon recalls a scarcity of artisanal objects and an early fascination with Japanese art, aesthetics, and craftsmanship—so it’s no surprise that years later, touring in Japan as part of a band called Volcano Choir, he fell for a briefcase in a small alley in Tokyo: “It carries my songs, my cigarettes, my computer, and my camera. It has been in over 40 countries and had many an after-show drink spilled on it. It just emanates the idea of ‘handmade,’ and each day, when I pick it up, it makes me want to live more to the standards of longevity that it was built with.”

Michael Maharam, CEO of Maharam

Super Egg, 1965, by Piet Hein

“When I was a boy, the most fascinating place I knew was my father’s desk drawer—it was filled with the most unimaginable, exotic treasures,” Maharam recalls, and specifically, the peculiar silver egg-shaped object he later swiped as a teenager. “The Super Egg was popularized in the mid-’60s by Danish poet and scientist Piet Hein,” Maharam says. “It wasn’t until my early twenties that I came to learn the story of this coveted object and to acknowledge it as the source of my earliest awareness of the elemental nature of things, which would come to define my aesthetic ideal.”

Carter Cleveland, Founder and CEO of Artsy

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

Though he always loved art growing up, it was Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe—a book he read twice, at age twelve—that kicked off Cleveland’s obsession with physics. “The thought that reality has eleven-plus dimensions, but only four that are perceivable at human scale, really blew my mind,” he says. “One of the things it talks about is predicting the existence of all these particles, like electrons and neutrons, based on different permutations of various properties,” (for example, spin, charge, and mass.) “I often cite this example as part of the inspiration for Artsy, which can be seen as something that must exist at some point, given its combination of properties,” he says. 

Michelle Elie, Fashion Designer

Comme des Garçons dress

“I can clearly remember standing for a good hour contemplating the window display of Comme des Garçons on Wooster Street in SoHo,” Elie says of the progressive line of bulbous, padded, and deforming dresses the label’s founder, Rei Kawakubo, debuted in 1996. “Upon first seeing and touching the unusual shapes and forms hanging still on the rack, I was dazzled and, I must admit, disturbed and confused,” she said, though she eventually tried a few pieces on. “For me, this was a shock that left a lasting impression, changing my ideas of what clothes could be, or rather what clothes shouldbe.”

Jonathan Olivares, Writer and Designer

Skateboard rails

“These plastic rails are some of the first things I can remember assembling as a young boy,” Olivares says of the nylon skateboard rails he’s cherished since the ’80s. “Putting a skateboard together was a terribly exciting affair because there was so much potential in it,” he says, citing skateboarding as his first interdisciplinary activity and one that taught him to question an object’s use (handrails, walls, stairways). “Years later, I would remember these plastic skateboard rails when working on stacking bumpers for my aluminum chair,” he says. “We adapted them to protect the chair from the abuses of stacking life, and created the first stacking rails.”

Marco Velardi, Editor-in-Chief, Apartmento

Disegnare Colorare Costruire book series curated by Bruno Munari

“I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized this collection of ten books would be with me for the rest of my life,” Velardi says of the series Disegnare Colorare Costruire, though he imagines it was in his early twenties, packing books and magazines to return home from studying abroad in England. “Making boxes to send back home I really understood how much printed matter meant to me,” he says, and in particular, this collection gifted by his father at age five or six. “I realized how much these ten little booklets meant for me and probably subconsciously influenced my own interest in publishing, design, and many visual aspects of my working life.”

Andrew Stafford, Author

Scale furniture

At the end of World War II, Stafford’s grandfather, “an engineer, a maker, and a man of habit,” was deployed to the Baltic port of Lübeck, Germany, where he fashioned a set of doll’s furniture for his eldest daughter—which was later passed on to Stafford and his brothers. “When we were kids, my brothers and I regularly played with this heavy wooden furniture; it was perfect for Action Man HQ,” he recalls. “Looking closely for the first time in forty years, I discovered they’re made not from wood, but from an industrial phenolic composite called Tufnol—a tough, waterproof, wear-resistant insulator. The table is flat-pack, predating IKEA by a decade; the bespoke cupboard pulls are turned aluminum.”

Jasper Morrison, Designer

French curves

When Morrison first began working as a designer, he relied on a set of French curves (perhaps better known as ship’s curves, used for drawing lines while boat-building) to draw his projects, like the door handle he designed for FSB in ’89. “Nowadays computer drawing programs are equipped with everything you need to achieve a smooth and precise curve,” he says. “But the feeling you get when creating them is a detached one compared with the physical sensation of running your pen along a well-curved plane of wood. It’s no exaggeration to say that these shapes helped form my sense of line and appreciation of shape itself.”

Thomas Demand, Artist

Pencil sharpener

“Pencil sharpeners represent the beginning of a day at the desk, or the procrastination period before sketching out a new scheme. They make an old cheroot into a fresh and new outset,” says Demand, who holds onto a sharpener inherited from his father—once reserved only for special occasions. “I remember that, for undisclosed reasons, I was only allowed to use it on family holidays, and just for our best pencils, not some chewed-up stumps. It has a color scheme unlike any other object we had, and the golden-colored Perspex container casts the shreds in a light like a sunset would do.”

Source Material” will be on view at Kaleidoscope Project Space, Milan, from April 8th through 12th, 2014. 

Photographs by Giandomenico Frassi