The last time I saw Murray Moss, he was downstairs in his Soho shop, composing a tableau of furniture that looked as it if had been salvaged from a particularly gruesome house fire. The pedigrees of the pieces were still discernible within their blackened skeletons – a Mackintosh chair here, a Sottsass étagère there.
I found the whole scene slightly chilling, but Murray was his customary cheery self, and told me not to worry. Nobody had torched his inventory —- or, rather, the torching was strictly by design.
I've since come to appreciate designer Maarten Baas’s work, so was delighted to hear that the 29-year-old Dutch wunderkind’s latest masterpiece, an artfully incinerated Steinway, had been the centerpiece when Moss’s newest outpost on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles opened last week.
"The sound is gorgeous," says Moss, who runs what International Herald Tribune critic Alice Rawsthorn calls "the world’s best design stores." The hippie piano tuner Moss had called in to tune the instrument was so smitten he wanted his picture taken with the smoky Steinway. The soundboard couldn’t be removed during the scorching process, so Baas fireproofed it, then torched around it "lovingly," Moss says.
The result, he claims, is like what happens if you electrify a guitar — it's the same instrument, but altered to create a new sound. Moss brought the young designer from Holland to play at the opening, in which the Steinway was set in the middle of a grove of 18 chandeliers. The assembled Angelenos were charmed. One guest has already approached Moss about buying the piece, which has a price tag of $155.000.
The fact that you can actually play the thing means the piano circumvents the "Is it Design or is it Art?" debate so beloved of the Art Basel crowd. (Of course, I'd still be leery of pulling one of those Macintosh chairs up to the table for dinner. Sure, they’re sealed in epoxy so their charcoaled surfaces won't deteriorate, but they look like something out of an Addam’s Family Thanksgiving.) But Baas's work raises other interesting questions about what constitutes design. Does altering someone else’s work count as design? Can design be a process?
Moss clearly thinks so. He was, after all, the guy who goaded Baas into setting design icons aflame. Moss had first seen the young designer's work — two pieces, a burnt generic chair and a chandelier that had formed his thesis project from the Design Academy Eindhoven — in Milan several years ago. "What struck me was the metaphor," Moss says. "Here was this kid from design school, who had studied and been influenced by all these masters, and now he was asked to go out in the world and invent something new." Moss met with the young guy, and proposed that he do an exhibition that, essentially, burned his college education, in a fearless head-on confrontation with the history of design.
Baas took the bait, burning the pieces that were most important to him — Rietveld, Corbusier, Eames.
"It wasn’t nihilistic," says Moss. "It was about ingesting, digesting, and reproducing through his own voice." The power of that process only becomes clear when the object’s genealogy is still evident.
Moss featured the work in a show called "Where There’s Smoke," which opened in May 2004 and touched off a frenzy of sales (Kanye West, among others, collects his work) and requests that Baas torch other stuff. He was in danger of becoming Burning Man incarnate.
But lately, Baas has moved on from "Smoke," launching a well-received line of wobbly looking chairs, tables and shelving called "Clay," made of, well, clay, and most recently a line of oversized tables, chairs and cupboards out of wood and metal called "Sculpt."
Still, when Moss asked that he flame-broil a Steinway, he couldn’t say no. "Maarten is like family," says Moss. "He had never been to L.A., and I wanted him to see the piano in its resting place."