Bangles To Benches: Contemporary Jewelry And Design At High Museum Of Art

Israeli-born British designer Ron Arad is known for his interesting, innovative designs in a variety of disciplines, such as this highly polished aluminum piece “Blo-Void I,” 2006. Made in the Netherlands, it was purchased through prior acquisition from Beth and Sam Scarboro in loving memory of Grace and Dewey D. Scarboro, and bequests of Kate Session Marsh and Mrs Norman Powell Pendley. —High Museum of Art photo

 ATLANTA, GA. — America these days seems awash in new and innovative design ideas and high-tech work by adventurous artists, while at the same time other designers remain committed to objects created in traditional forms from natural materials. Contemporary jewelry and design reflect both Twenty-First Century concepts — idiosyncratic styles, unusual materials, technology and manufacturing processes — while some pieces retain aspects of the past — historic forms, processes and materials.

Featuring works by nine contemporary designers from the museum’s permanent collection that range from high-tech pieces created on computers to evocative, handcrafted, low-tech designs in traditional media, “Bangles to Benches: Contemporary Jewelry and Design” is on view at the High Museum of Art through June 8. The works by the highlighted craftsmen, some of the most important and compelling designers working today, document the amazing breadth and depth of their intellects and creative talents.

“Contemporary jewelry and design represent both the ideas of the moment — innovative materials, technology and manufacturing processes — and remnants of the past — traditional forms, processes and natural materials,” says Sarah Schleuning, the High’s curator of decorative arts and design, who organized the show. “Featuring works ranging from high-tech pieces created on a computer to lyrical, handcrafted, low-tech designs in traditional media [the exhibition] is drawn primarily from the High Museum of Art’s renowned contemporary design collection and reflects the international nature of the field.”

In the exhibition, innovative contemporary jewelry is paired with other design objects, such as chairs and sofas, by the same designer. Examination of these works “reinforce and explore ideas of production, material, intent and form,” says Schleuning. “By showcasing wearable designs by these artists alongside their works in other mediums, we…celebrate the breadth of their influence.”

The featured designers, a diverse lot, include Israeli-born, London-based Ron Arad; Brazilian brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana; Australian native Marc Newson; Dutch innovator Marcel Wanders; Mexican designer Hector Esrawe; another Dutchman, Joris Laarman; the only American-born, Johanna Grawunder; British international star architect Zaha Hadid, born in Iraq; and the late Italian designer Ettore Sottsass Jr. How and what these creative minds have produced suggests what is possible and conjures up visions of what the creative dexterity of contemporary designers will dream up next.

Arad (b 1951) became one the most influential contemporary designers by virtue of innovative architecture, industrial design and limited-edition studio pieces that blur the line between art and design. He aggressively pushes the boundaries of material and process by combining precious metals and plastics with cutting-edge technology. [See Antiques and The Arts Weekly, August 18, 2009]

According to curator Schleuning, Arad’s “use of transparent materials and curved, hollow spaces in both his furniture and jewelry designs reveals his keen interest in visualizing volume.” She says, “These concepts are exemplified by the designer’s ‘Blo-Void,’ an appealingly curved, delicately balanced piece made of mirror-polished aluminum alloy and anodized woven-aluminum mesh, and ‘Hot Ingo Earrings,’ a playful, handcrafted, necklace made of laser-sintered polyamide and platinum, combined with cutting-edge technology to create an extendable, flexible spiral through 3-D printing technology that allows a set of earrings to be designed according to the wearer’s desire.” A later “Silicon Necklace,” consisting of jagged pieces of silicon strung together on thread, suggests a throwback to the past.

Wanders (b 1963) designs interior, architectural and industrial projects. He began to develop new processes and approaches to furniture and jewelry design two decades ago with the formation of the influential Droog Design organization. “Just as Ettore Sottsass Jr changed the approach of design in the early 1980s with the Memphis collective,” observes Schleuning, “the Amsterdam-based Droog group did so again in the 1990s under the leadership of Wanders” and others.

Wanders first attracted international attention for his intriguingly webbed “Knotted Chair,” produced by Droog in 1996 and now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wanders continues to design furniture and jewelry made of a range of materials, practices, intentions and forms, while maintaining an element of surprise in each piece, for manufacturers worldwide.

Wanders’s “Trinity 1,” a deceptively simple silver piece, can be worn as a necklace, bracelet or ring. Similarly, his playful “Nose,” made of gold-plated silver, can serve as a necklace or as a witty golden clown nose.

It contrasts with Wanders’s prototype “Crochet Chair” made of hand-crocheted fiber and epoxy resin, which looks heavy, but is practically weightless. Notes Schleuning, the chair “offers a contemporary twist, wherein the upholstery — the traditional decorative element — also functions as the structural element.”

A quite different approach to sofa design has been taken by the Brazilian Campana brothers (b 1953 and 1961), who work with common, found or recycled materials, such as scrap and waste products, including cardboard, rope, cloth, wood, plastic tubes and aluminum wire. They address issues of form and function only after examining the inherent qualities of these everyday substances. Reflecting their self-described “zest for life,” their eye-popping “Sushi” sofa, consisting of rubber, fabric, carpet and stainless steel, is gaily decorated with appealing, colorful Pop-Art-like circles. They also craft leather and magnet “Bone Structures” necklaces that can be worn in a variety of ways.

Newson (b 1963), based in London, is a highly successful industrial designer of furniture, jewelry, clothing and aircraft. He made his name with biomorphic designs, emphasizing smooth flowing lines, translucency, transparency and an absence of sharp edges. Newson’s lighthearted prototype “Embryo Chair,” with its hollow leg opening, rarely used neoprene upholstery and undulating curves suggest his continued dedication to biomorphic forms.

Newson also focuses on light, reflection, hollow forms and negative space, as seen in his aerodynamic sterling silver bracelet and ring, “Orgone 1” and “Orgone 2.” Named after the furniture from which they take their name, these objects give interior negative space as much attention as the exterior.

Mexican designer Esrawe (b 1968) creates works that are characterized by dynamic movement, innovative forms and use of traditional materials like wood and brass. On view is his appealing “Centipede III” bench, crafted out of birch plywood with wood veneer. “The bench,” notes Schleuning, “delights with its playful rhythms and repetition of forms inspired by the eponymous insect.”

The youngest designer in the exhibition, Joris Laarman, born in the Netherlands in 1979, is an artist and entrepreneur who has become a contemporary leader in experimental designs inspired by cutting-edge technologies. His Laarman Lab in Amsterdam collaborates with craftsmen, engineers and scientists on utilizing emerging technologies, such as 3D printing, simulation software and robotics, on projects.

Several projects in the High exhibition demonstrate how Laarman blends new technology with life sciences, creating functional pieces of surprising natural beauty. His “Ivy” Climbing Wall System made of composite concrete is at the same time a curvilinear architectural element and perhaps a means of exercise or transportation. Some of his pieces, resembling amoebic forms, can be affixed to unappealing room fixtures such as radiators, transforming them into works of art.

The only American-born designer in the exhibition, Johanna Grawunder (b 1961), is a native of San Diego and a graduate of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, with additional studies in Italy. She worked for Sottsass Associati in Italy for a number of years, concentrating on architectural and interior design projects.

Today, Grawunder maintains studios in San Francisco and Milan. Her work includes large-scale public installations, limited edition lights and furniture, custom commissions and commercial product designs. The High exhibition includes an earring, bracelet, brooch, pendant and ring that show her predilection for the reflective qualities of highly polished, elegantly curved surfaces, and for various hues of gold — green, pink, red, white and yellow. In larger works, Grawunder favors simple materials in brilliantly lit, straightforward forms. Her vivid, striking “Mirror of Italy” features a vertical mirror flanked by equal sized panels of green and red, made vivid with fluorescent lighting. It resembles the colors of the Italian flag.

Sottsass (1917–2007), inspired by Pop Art and Minimalism, designed some of the most interesting pieces of the 1960s–1980s. Working for many years as a designer for Olivetti, he introduced color, form and styling to office equipment that brought it into the realm of popular culture. Outshining the typical drab typewriters of the day, his bright red plastic portable Valentine typewriter in 1969 became a fashion accessory, a design statement rather than an office machine. 

Sottsass’s intriguing quartz “Necklace” resembles a stylized electric panel with round forms connected by gold bands. By contrast, another necklace, designed 17 years later, features an adventurous mixture of materials in an attention-grabbing piece. The designer used bold, brightly colored laminate for the surface of furniture designs, as in his “Wardrobe” (also known as “Superbox”), an expertly composed mixture of unusual materials, vivid color and architectonic form that would dazzle in any home.

Through his association with Sottsass Associati, a major design consultancy, and the Memphis Group, an international group of energetic and flamboyant architects and designers, Sottsass continued to influence a broad range of designs until his death.

Best known worldwide as the architect of fluid, high-profile buildings with unusual forms, Hadid (b 1950), was born in Iraq but is now a British citizen. The first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, she designs buildings that are distinctively futuristic, with powerful, curving forms in elongated structures with multiple perspective points and fragmented geometry that evokes the chaos of modern life. Two notable US designs are the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.

Hadid has also undertaken a variety of interior work, creating fluid furniture installations and unusual sofas, as well as designing high fashion clothing for Lacoste and new designs for a brassware manufacturer. As might be expected, her designs for jewelry and tea services feature unexpected shapes for such traditional objects. On view in the exhibition, her “Glace Collection,” including idiosyncratically shaped “Jet Cuff,” “Ring” and “Pendant,” was commissioned by Atelier Swarovski, which enabled her to use Swarovski crystals to underscore her fascination with light and reflection.

This rewarding snippet covering a range of contemporary creations makes this, as curator Schleuning puts it, “an exciting time to explore the breadth of design. We have enjoyed great visitor feedback about the diversity of material, scale and exploration of ideas in the show.” The objects displayed suggest that bold experiments in technical processes to form fresh, new designs for jewelry, furniture and other decorative objects lie ahead. “Bangles to Benches” whets one’s appetite for what is on the horizon.

The High Museum of Art, part of The Woodruff Arts Center, is at 1280 Peachtree Street NE. For information, www.high.org or 404-733-4444.

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