Out of Africa
Jessica Dheere -- Interior Design, 9/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
No matter how finely woven, a Zulu basket is not Africa. Nor is an antique clay pot from Burkina Faso—with a spherical surface perfectly pinched by long-gone fingers to form hundreds of identical nubs. Not even delicate sterling-silver insects or white porcelain tea lights, inscribed with the quotation of your choice, can serve, on their own, as icons of such a diverse and ever changing continent. That fact is what Amaridian, a SoHo gallery by EOA/Elmslie Osler Architect, emphasizes with every handmade piece on display and, ultimately, with the crafting of the space itself.
The name Amaridian elides the Zulu word for ancestral spirits, amadlozi, with the geographic term meridian. And the gallery's South African owners, Fraser Conlon and Mary Slack, envisioned a cross between a fine-art gallery and a retail store, a place that would specialize in contemporary and traditional sub-Saharan art and crafts while, Conlon says, "countering the typical African-curio experience." He talks about moving beyond "the whole pity-for-Africa" sentiment perpetuated in the news: "There's an emerging contemporary culture in Africa that has to be experienced in a different way."
Eager to make the point, Conlon and Slack prepared an extensive brief for Robin Elmslie Osler, an architect known for innovative treatments using simple materials. (The two had become friends years earlier, when he was Tom Ford's publicist at Gucci, and she, volunteering as an organizer of the Architectural League of New York's Beaux Arts Ball, asked Gucci to be a sponsor. No sponsorship materialized, but they learned that they shared a neighborhood and artistic tastes.) The brief listed 18 African architectural precedents—but a literal translation wasn't the goal. "It was all about presenting Africa in a new light," Osler says.
Her 2,000-square-foot space encourages visitors to get close to the pieces, even touch them, an experience that often disproves initial assumptions. Giant "stones" turn out to be felted wool pillows. Tables' wood-grain tops are cool to the touch because they're actually fashioned from steel.
From a distance, wallpaper in the back office appears to be a run-of-the-mill Victorian floral. Closer inspection, however, reveals a more menacing pattern of flora and fauna native to South Africa. A reverse surprise awaits anyone who approaches the gallery's central feature, a floor-to-ceiling lengthwise partition the gray of cast concrete: Brush against the surface, and you discover that, far from being rough, it's actually velvety.
Osler says she selected the surfacing—a composite of recycled newspaper that architects use for models and pinup boards—precisely because "you don't know what you have until you get closer to it."
Unfortunately, the material is heavy and difficult to trim on-site. So Osler's team first cut 4-by-8-foot sheets into 2-inch-wide strips, stacked them, and glued them together. The combination was glued to a plywood backing to which were affixed two French cleats, one at the top and the other at the bottom. Then the finished panels, trimmed to fit, could be hung on the cleats' counterparts, screwed to struts in the wall. The resulting "gravitas," as Osler puts it, obliquely references the stacked stones of the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, one of the examples of African architecture mentioned in the project brief.