Beret Not Required
When designers put on their artist hat, creativity knows no bounds
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 8/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
"You cannot be an artist and an architect," Thierry W. Despont recalls being told shortly after he graduated from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But he never stopped painting and sculpting, and he encourages designers at his New York firm, the Office of Thierry W. Despont, to attend weekly figure-drawing sessions that he sponsors. Four years ago, he went so far as to lease a dedicated art studio, 15,000 square feet on the ground floor of an old manufacturing building a few blocks away. What developed there was a series of whimsical "masks" assembled from wrenches, industrial salvage, sea sponges, and the like, all found at Paris flea markets and on eBay.
A knock on the door of Despont's art studio one scorching afternoon is answered by his indispensable nephew, Chris Kelly, one of two full-time art assistants. Despont arrives a minute later. Whipping off his trim suit jacket and loosening his navy blue tie, he proceeds through the vast array of works slated for a solo show opening at the Marlborough Chelsea gallery on October 16. The exhibition will feature selected masks; a new series of insects, created in the same manner as the masks; and a vintage glass-fronted cabinet of curiosities, containing both of the above. One of his large-scale paintings of planets, the subject of their own Marlborough shows over the years, will accompany the sculptures. "Once you start trusting your mind and exploring your imagination, you stumble from one thing to another," he says. At the center of the studio is the large paperboard model he used to design the Marlborough installation—right down to tiny, meticulous scale representations of his art.
Lorcan O'Herlihy, a Los Angeles architect who also shows his art at commercial galleries, tries to paint twice a week on his roof. Unlike some, he draws a mental line around his art, as if he's decided to segregate the left and right sides of his brain. He even abandoned architecture altogether for several years in the 1980's to paint in New York. Now he exhibits his controlled, abstract oil paintings everywhere from Italy to Japan. "It's not just a hobby," he says. "I paint because it frees me up to look at composition, proportion, and color—and because I need to, psychologically."
Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects is now building a Walt Disney Company animation studio with Stephen Kanner, who admits that he joined his father's and grandfather's firm, Kanner Architects, because he couldn't imagine art as a "viable lifestyle." Ironically, he was introduced to painting by his father, whose 1960's canvases featured pop imagery in the manner of Ed Ruscha, and today's typical oil by the younger Kanner might showcase a stripe of asphalt under clear blue L.A. skies. He gives some of the pieces to clients as a housewarming gift, modestly saying, "I wouldn't want to charge." Other pieces, produced during family time with his kids, lean more to the paint splatters of Sam Francis. Kanner recently asked his 13-year-old daughter to help make colorful glass-mosaic collages as the basis for a rug collection.
Kevin Walz periodically sells his drawings and paintings through the same New York showroom that represents his furniture and lighting: Ralph Pucci International. Walz, too, trained originally in the fine arts, and he used to teach drawing and painting in Rome. He generally approaches design like an artist. The "canvas" he used for one series of drawings is actually denim, found at a store where he likes to buy upholstery. Earlier drawings, which investigated subtle distortions in perspective, resulted in the not-quite-parallel legs of tables and chairs shown last spring at Pucci.
Very, very few architects have attained the pinnacle of art-world prestige, an exhibition at a cultural institution. (Two notable recent exceptions being "Santiago Calatrava: Sculpture Into Architecture," at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006, and "Richard Meier: Art and Architecture," at London's Louise T. Blouin Institute in 2007.) Many, many more think little about showing or selling. Creating art is a personal pleasure.
When Jeffrey Beers "became a little frustrated as an architecture student" at the Rhode Island School of Design, he says, he signed on to apprentice with glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. After college, Beers cofounded Urban Glass in Brooklyn, New York, and he now finds himself there at least once a month to blow prototypes for Jeffrey Beers International projects alongside more artistic efforts: curvaceous, often symmetrical pieces in what he describes as sunset tones. "It keeps my mind open," he says, crediting the sessions for the signature curves of his fluid interiors. "Nothing is more spontaneous than glassblowing."
David Martin rediscovered watercolor with like-minded Southern California architects on day trips to Catalina Island and longer excursions to New Mexico and Italy. Today, he considers art central to the culture at AC Martin Partners. Rosa Cornejo, a member of his design staff and the daughter of a celebrated Ecuadoran watercolorist, Diego Cornejo Menacho, teaches lunchtime classes for staff, friends, and occasionally clients—passing the mantle to her father when he comes to visit. "Some people in the accounting department aren't bad at all," Martin marvels. On a more pragmatic level, he calls watercolor a "loose and moody" way to communicate "ambience" to clients: "In the age of computer drawings, a simple watercolor can be much more powerful."