Speaking Across Time
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 8/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
With an eagle eye and a little bit of luck, you can uncover many valuable finds at a flea market—even a lifelong friendship. It was 15 years ago that a nascent furniture designer and a fledgling dealer in primitive art bonded over their mutual love of tribal antiques while hawking wares at New York's famed 26th Street market.
Staying true to those roots, the two have since moved on to bigger things. Tucker Robbins designs sculptural furniture in tropical hardwoods: ebony, satinwood, acacia. Bruce Frank deals in museum-quality African, Asian, and South Pacific artifacts from the 17th to 19th centuries.
Despite an ongoing intellectual exchange, however, it wasn't until now that the friends initiated a formal collaboration, an exhibition underscoring how Robbins's rough-hewn furniture and handcrafted lighting connects to the primitive art objects that inspired the designs. "I was eager to do something that had a bigger impact and reflected deeper thinking than a typical product launch," says Robbins, whose 17,000-square-foot Long Island City studio is hosting the exhibit through September 15. And Frank got the chance to display pieces more monumental than those permitted by his own premises. (Just try setting up a 12-foot-tall Y-shape Indonesian tree of life in the town-house home of Bruce Frank Primitive Art.)
The duo's stylist friend Carlos Mota oversaw the pairing of Robbins's chairs, tables, and pendant fixtures with 100-odd objects from Frank's collection. "We highlighted the most important pieces while creating an overall compositional balance—thin with fat, high with low," says Mota. "And everything pops against the beautiful, strong colors." For the drywall enclosure framing masks, swords, and a dozen other tribal artifacts and ceremonial objects, Mota chose a punchy green; a nearby wall's hot pink sets off the Indonesian tree of life. Bird-of-paradise blossoms and bushels of fruit transform 19th-century Sri Lankan canoes into tropical cornucopias.
Highlighting stylistic similarities between traditional and contemporary, the show ultimately plumbs more conceptual depths. "Primitive cultures had no written language. They communicated through visual forms," explains Robbins. His pieces, though functional, are likewise vessels of expression. And then there are the shared materials. "The starting point for these works of art was incredible natural forms," says Frank, gesturing to a shaman's cane formed from a twisted tree root.
Wood's unique character is what gives Robbins's furniture its one-of-a-kind quality. "The forms and proportions are consistent from piece to piece, but each section of wood has its own mind," he says. "I try to make a minimal impact on the material." But a maximal impact on the tribal way of life, increasingly threatened by modernization. By fabricating his pieces in Indonesia, Cameroon, and the Philippines, Robbins ensures that villagers' livelihood and craftsmanship are preserved.