Designer Chris Schanck Brings his Detroit Aesthetics to Basel, Wrapped in Aluminum

Tiffany Lambert
Jun 17, 2014 3:21PM

Detroit-based designer Chris Schanck embraces contradiction in his work, finding a comfortable place between the distinctions of dilapidation and assemblage, individual and collective, industrial and handcraft, romanticism and cynicism. His efforts deviate from the mass-produced, instead reviving mundane materials by transforming them into startling, limited-edition pieces of furniture.

A Texas native, Schanck spent 14 years in New York working as a model-maker and artist before eventually making his way to Michigan to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he studied in the graduate 3D Design program. Detroit’s polarized history (urban blight and now resurgent art scene) is somewhat paralleled in Schanck’s work, particularly in his well-known series “ALUfoil,” which is made from discarded industrial bits he has scavenged, then wrapped in aluminum foil and shellacked with resin. It’s a process that is improvisational yet refined. “The work is made through a cycle of additive and reductive techniques—materials shaped from trauma and neglect inspire it and I work and re-work the pieces until I find that balance,” points out Schanck. Colors were originally selected to “mimic natural materials or metals found in earth,” such as ocean blue or gold. But Schanck plans to explore “what would happen when I remove that reference,” as he says. “My hopes are that contrasting a more natural form with an unnatural color opens the door to further interpretations.”

The designer continues to reconfigure and adapt the “ALUfoil” collection. His latest rendition, to be shown at Design Miami/ Basel this week, was commissioned by Johnson Trading Gallery, who represents such artists and designers as Aranda\Lasch, Katie Stout, Max Lamb, Rafael de Cárdenas, and, also from Detroit, Jack Craig. Called Alufoil Mirror, the piece investigates a form outside of the furniture—desks, chairs, tables—that makes up the rest of the suite. “The work is actually very flexible and can take on almost any typology,” notes Schanck. “I want to push the scale to monumental proportions, I’m willing to try anything. I want to do an interior, maybe a casino.”

Community is also central to his open approach. “Design was a way for me to get out of the box of an independent artist practice, so collaboration is an important part of the process.” All of Schanck’s projects are created by a patchwork of locals and students from the surrounding Detroit metropolitan area. “They’re all incredibly bright and ambitious, so I can’t keep them long. They ask for things I wouldn’t have thought of alone and the work gets better through these collaborations,” he adds.

Not unlike his diverse practice, Schanck finds inspiration from a sweeping and surprising spectrum of figures, from artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Jeff Koons (“He seemed to hate authority as much as I did”), to designers Max Lamb and Gaetano Pesce, to singer Robyn and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  “Eleanor Roosevelt created Val-Kill industries, which was a small furniture factory in Hyde Park, NY that trained local immigrant farmers in making furniture to supplement their income,” Schanck explains. “Val-Kill seemed to be a place where community and maker culture could blend with beautiful results, a model of what a studio could become.”

In addition to his presentation at Design Miami/ Basel, Schanck has two upcoming shows at Johnson Trading Gallery and Almine Rech Gallery in Belgium later this year, which will feature new work. On top of operating his communal studio, Schanck is a professor of art and design, a post he holds in high regard. “Teaching makes me a better designer. My design students are amazing and optimistic about helping to design a better world, when all I wanted was to burn the world at their age.”

Schanck weaves many threads into a rich, unconventional practice. “I appreciate my life and built environment best when it has contrast. The historical and contemporary are the sweet and savory of life, there is room for all, I think.”

Visit Johnson Trading Gallery at Design Miami/ Basel 2014, Booth G15, June 17th–22nd.

Follow Johnson Trading Gallery and explore Design Miami/ Basel 2014 on Artsy.

Tiffany Lambert