Today’s design mentality often revolves around the idea of a seamless end-user experience: A good product is simple and intuitive, and meets the user’s expectations of how it should work. But in New York in the late 1970s, a group of artists and designers who identified with the Art et Industrie movement were more interested in challenging the idea of comfort and usability than conforming to it.
“It was a departure from the standard that we all knew about: Form follows function. That was the idea everyone had in the modernist era,” says Hugues Magen, owner of NYC gallery Magen H, whose new show Art et Industrie puts on display more than 50 pieces that emerged from the movement. “With Art et Industrie, [that idea] was kind of pushed aside and we were bridging the conversation of art meets design and design meets art. There was a lot more freedom for creating pieces that were functional and were also art.”
Functional, perhaps, but these pieces weren’t designed to be familiar. They work as intended, but not always in the ways that one would expect: Forrest Myers’s pink “Champagne” chair, for example, is a giant coil of copper rendered roughly in the shape of a big, inflatable armchair. Ron Arad’s wicker Rocker is suspended in midair thanks to two warped aluminum anchors.
Then there’s James Hong’s Solar Powered Electric Chair with Gucci Straps, a tongue-in-cheek critique of capital punishment and a piece of furniture that wouldn’t be most people’s first choice of seating. Hong’s fully functional electric chair is designed with inspired morbid touches like black lacquered wood and a black velvet cushion.
That sense of discomfort, Magen says, is sort of the point. “You’re confronted with, ‘What am I supposed to do with this object?’ And you’re left on the fence,” he says. “It forces you to reexamine your vision of things. Art et Industrie was a great provider of those ideas.”
When asked which piece in the show best exemplifies this unconventional thinking around functionality, Magen points toward Forrest Myers’s Untitled Wire Couch. Using the rusted springs of an old mattress, Myers originally made the sofa because he and his wife needed somewhere to sit in their SoHo apartment. When he exhibited it at the gallery run by Rick Kaufmann, the movement’s director, he gave it an exorbitant price tag in hopes that he could bring it back home with him, but the piece sold anyway.
Check out more pieces from Art et Industrie, on exhibit at Magen H Gallery in Manhattan until December 5, 2015, in the gallery above.