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Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral? Focus on Organic Materials at Design Miami/ Basel

Ancient Techniques and Organic Materials at Design Miami/ Basel: From Icelandic Rope-Making to Forms Made from Volcanic Lava

Now in its tenth edition, Design Miami/ Basel has gained a reputation for premiering new work by up-and-coming designers—often created specifically for the fair—making it not only a superb venue for collecting design, but also a chance to take the pulse of the contemporary design world. This year, one of the most standout trends is the use of ancient techniques and organic materials, from Icelandic rope-making and Korean lacquerware to the use of fossils, sheepskin, and lava. This fascination with the ancient past is part of a larger cultural turn. Witness: Carpenter’s Workshop Gallery’s current show, “Organic,” which includes a moose antler, a birch branch, and leather from the Amazonian pirarucu fish. It is also evident in some of today’s most interesting artists—from Thomas Houseago’s imagined Neolithic sculptures to Carol Bove’s urban flotsam, turned into artifacts through her use of tasteful museum plinths.

Indeed this sensibility has historic roots in mid-century art and design. Take, for example, architect Phillip Arctander’s 1944 Clam chair, a newly minted icon of mid-century design that invites touching with its biomorphic curves and luscious shearling upholstery (it’s worth nothing that a pair of these chairs fetched a handsome 47,000 euro at auction last November). When it first premiered, the chair was space-age in form, yet the sheep’s wool was stone-age to the touch. It jived with cultural currents that understood making and craft as a universal urge spanning from prehistory to the modern age. A major exhibition at the ICA in 1949 summed up this ethos nicely: “40,000 Years of Modern Art.” An appropriate title for the prevailing winds today might be “40,000 Years of Modern Design.” But there is also the fact that these materials and techniques offer unique possibilities—surprising textures, formal serendipity, and curious natural properties. They pose difficult challenges which, when mastered, can have a huge payoff.

Animal Fur: The Haas Brothers

Take, for instance, the Haas Brothers’ “Beast” series, in which they transform fur from various animals (Wyoming Buffalo, Finnish Reindeer) into simplified, cartoon-like animal sculptures. The material itself was the inspiration behind the series, but fur is so difficult to upholster with (the pieces are irregular and stitched together, the hide is difficult to puncture, attach, and manipulate) that they almost nay-said the idea. For the punningly titled Hairy J. Blige, the California-based duo used the salt-and-pepper fleece of cold-hardy Icelandic sheep, the direct descendents of the breed brought to the island by Vikings over a millenium ago. They’ve been an important part of Iceland’s heritage, providing a food source through the grueling winters and soft but hardy wool (some claim it’s like knitting with air). There is the added bonus that the spindly fibers are self-cleaning (you’re only supposed to wash an Icelandic sweater once a year).

Mother of Pearl: Kang Myung Sun

Kang Myung Sun’s “Glitter” series updates traditional Korean lacquer and mother-of-pearl inlay technique in simple, sensuous forms. Mother-of-pearl—“nacre” to scientists, najon in Korean, has been used in Korea since the 8th century for intricate inlaid lacquerware. In 1124, the Chinese envoy to the Korean court marveled at the craftsmanship of the country’s artisans. And yet, after all these years, we still don’t understand entirely how it forms. Part organic, part inorganic, this compound is produced by mollusks as part of their inner shell. Kang’s slow and methodical process is exacting, leaving little room for error. She starts by creating an undulating base of wood layers, sanded down and smoothed. Making calculated cuts of the mother-of-pearl, she then applies it in long, narrow strips, one by one. Areas are covered in black urethane, traditionally used in lacquerware, applied to achieve a flawless, mirror surface.

Oyster Shells: Rowan Mersh

Some designers use natural materials to draw attention to natural disasters, such as Rowan Mersh’s Placuna Phoenix. Mersh uses materials as diverse as toothpicks, leather, and dentalium shells—a genus of white, tusk-shaped shells. By arranging his objects in repeating rhythms he mimics the natural growth of coral, lichen, or other fractal patterns, making any clear distinction between the natural and man-made elusive. Toothpicks are arranged to resemble sea urchins; a wall of shells looks like crushed velvet. Placuna Phoenix is a sculptural wall consisting of some 40,000 windowpane oyster shells harvested in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan from the shallow waters around the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan swept through Southeast Asia in 2013, devastating large portions of the area—particularly the Philippines—and is one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, making concrete the effects of climate change on an unprecedented scale.

Volcanic Lava: Studio Formafantasma

In a similar vein, Sicilian-born Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi of Studio Formafantasma collected hardened lava from the 2013 explosion of Mount Etna in Sicily, one of the last two active volcanoes in Europe, to create their De Natura Fossilium collection. “Mount Etna is a mine without miners,” they have said. “It is excavating itself to expose its raw materials.” The designers have fully exploited the material properties of the basaltic lava. Melting rocks found at Mount Etna they created vessels of mouth-blown volcanic glass; they spun volcanic fibers into textiles to create wall hangings, and cut and carved the basalt rock. In the final series, polished, geometric forms—as if evoking some brutalist future—are juxtaposed with craggy rocks, like some pre-human fossils from the center of the earth.

Natural Fibers, Fossils, and Traditional Rope-Making

A few other objects bear mention: Porky Hefer’s Kubu rattan chair Fallen Bird’s Nest is made from the Kubu natural fiber, prized for its strength and signature dusky color. German artist Rebecca Horn has created a suite of jewelry that integrates fossils and Etruscan-inspired lapidary. In the 1970s, Horn occupied a unique position in the newly forming genre of performance art with her investigations into the interface between the body and machines. Like her “body extensions,” the gold metalwork becomes a compelling prosthetic for natural fossils. Lastly, Brynjar Sigurðarson traveled to the remote village of Vopnafjörður in North East Iceland, where he learned the age-old technique of rope-making from a shark hunter. He integrated this technique into his “Silent Village” furniture series.

Explore more Organic Materials at Design Miami/ Basel