Russell Baker, Allahppliqué, 2013
Pine, paint, tape, cushion, hockey sticks, pom-poms, leather, fabric. 1 of 1.
I ended up buying this chair at the auction I wrote about previously. I had no intention of buying anything nor any budget to buy but that is why they serve you champagne at auctions. Though I guess if I’d thought about it the chances of leaving without this chair were always going to be small. The proceeds go toward building a new Presentation House Gallery in Vancouver.
I know Russell as a fellow designer. Like me, he comes from a visual arts background. He himself makes chairs (and other furniture) and is also a writer and art critic. His company, Bombast Furniture, is named for the cotton stuffing inside upholstery. The street meaning of “bombast” does not apply to his furniture, though, which is not loud and which is carefully designed and constructured to last at least 100 years.
There is humour in Allahppliqué but of course that doesn’t make it frivolous. I could talk about this piece at length but instead I will let Russell do it. Below is the text he wrote to accompany the chair. It stands as a statement about design in general, and I love it for its re-statement of the original critical or revolutionary impetus in Italian design.
Allahppliqué: Toward a Radical Bricologic
It was while I was sitting in front of the Hermes boutique in Terminal 4, Heathrow, when transiting from Tangier (aka the Interzone) to Vancouver, that I first intuited that Enzo Mari, the man who famously called Rem Koolhaas a “pornographic window dresser” to his face—it was while sitting in front of the Hermes boutique that I realized Enzo might never have heard of Dina, the greatest living belly dancer in the Arab world. How this (merely probable) fact might relate to my project, I was at that time unsure. (How does one account for solitudes of this nature?) When I subsequently passed the Hermes boutique at YVR upon my return home, I had a better idea of how, precisely, the Enzo Mari/Dina axis (as I now refer to it privately) related to my project.
To back up a few steps—and for the purposes of clarity—I should add that before my departure for the Interzone I had been invited to participate in a fundraiser auction for Presentation House Gallery. The Gallery had offered me an Enzo Mari “Sedia” chair and invited me to do whatever I wanted to the chair. Upon completion, my manipulated version of “Sedia” would be offered at auction to supporters of the gallery in a relatively standard dinner-format fundraiser.
The “Sedia” is of course the most famous manifestation of Mari’s legendary DIY project (“Autoprogettazione”) from 1974. “Sedia” is a form rich in associations, and has been variously interpreted; it has been read as a gesture of disgust, as an offer of freedom, as a shot over the bow of the good ship consumerism from “the critical conscience of Italian design.” It is also, now, repackaged and delivered in a ready to assemble (RTA) format, something different than it once was.
My challenge, as I understood it, was to reinvigorate or reactivate the revolutionary potential lurking beneath various layers of historical accretion that had attached to the “Sedia” since its original appearance. As Mari has himself observed, the chair found its way very quickly into the arena of pure kitsch — was assimilated almost immediately into the marketplace as an (admittedly exemplary) manifestation of the decorative category “rusticity”. How then to reactivate a revolutionary object that had, by its creators own admission, enjoyed such a fleeting moment of relative power uncontaminated by market forces? To put it more simply, how was I to save “Sedia” from becoming just another signifier of belonging for an ever-growing group of puritanical internationalist consumers whose apparent appreciation of “simplicity” so perfectly paralleled an earlier generation’s drive toward “rusticity” (cf. Terence Conran, terra cotta, balsamic vinegar, Jennifer Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous). No small challenge indeed!
To understand the “Dina Thing” (by which I mean my unconscious concatenation of Hermes, Enzo Mari, and Dina) you would have to have had the experience of being shadowed by CIA operatives in Cairo, just before the so-called Arab Spring; to be innocently enjoying a belly dance extravaganza, at four in the morning, in a night club that seemed the perfect meeting place for secret agents, crooks, fellow travelling fruits and gamblers — a veritable Eldorado for the fun-loving but decidedly dishevelled Gulf State “Haute Volée.” (Boy can they drink!)
Such was the experiential ground of the symbolic fusion that linked Hermes, Enzo Mari and Dina in my mind. For it was upon identifying the CIA operative in that bar, and realizing that his reason for being there was me, that I came to a rather concrete understanding of the new geopolitical realities. (It didn’t make me feel safer.) That I had somehow been mistaken for a “person of interest” in the most serious of international conflicts in our time for simply expressing a passing interest in the Islamic world (how else can I characterize my interest in Dina?) was food for thought. Could the dominant world order (symbolized here synecdochically by the “global” brand Hermes), be so fragile that my peripatetic, merely touristic wanderings through the Islamic borderlands actually attracted official attention? If this were so, might there be in this fact a clue as to how to reactivate “Sedia”?
What I was looking for was a recipe for (market) unassimilability that yet might somehow simultaneously invite a higher union. Was such a thing even possible?
—Tangier, Morocco. October, 2013