19 Oct 2019 • Book
An English artist uses modernist furniture as a medium for abstract sculpture
London-based Michael Samuels, who has an MA in sculpture from the Royal College of Art, uses furniture that was once the future – early mass-produced modernist pieces for the home, such as those made by G Plan – to build architectural constructions that render the functional nonfunctional and seem to reflect on past and present conceptions of domesticity. His works appear in the Commes des Garçons Dover Street Market stores in London and Ginza, and have featured in group and individual exhibitions.
So why the obsession with modernist furniture?
MICHAEL SAMUELS: I started using pieces of furniture initially as alternatives for plinths, but then I began to approach them as a medium in their own right. First of all it was 1960s domestic Formica furniture and now it’s G Plan. The Formica was all about the palette of colours and history.
You switched to G Plan because . . .
After working with Formica furniture, I was looking for something less colourful and a bit more sophisticated. G Plan appeals because of the tonal palette, but also because of the history and the possibility of exposing the veneer and mass production of each piece. It was the first readily available modernist furniture in the UK, and it became a staple of British households. I like its simplicity and how it is very evocative of a certain period in British domesticity.
Where do you get the pieces from?
I used to run around to second-hand shops, but now I just spend an unhealthy amount of time on eBay.
Who or what inspires your approach?
No one really, unless subconsciously. I try to steer clear of looking for influences or of being influenced, in order to maintain some originality and a unique visual language. It’s easy to see too much these days, so I try to limit what I see.
I’ve always wanted to use something very domestic. I think it helps the audience relate to the work easier
What techniques do you use to construct your sculptures?
Fundamentally, it’s about the aesthetics and whichever way I can achieve something without dwelling on the idea of permanence. Often the quickest and most direct way to build a structure is with the use of clamps. I find the more time I take the less successful the work becomes, so haste is the key.
Can you continue taking the work in new directions?
Absolutely. I haven’t even scratched the surface. I’m waiting for the opportunity to have a gigantic space in which to push it further.
You’ve got a long-running relationship with Commes des Garçons. How did that begin?
I got a polite email asking me to design a space for the London shop. They had seen my work online. In terms of commissions it’s very easy, as there are few restrictions. Basically, it’s do what you like and we’ll help you.
How long do you think you can continue working with this material?
The moment I get bored in the studio is when I know I have to move on.
How do people tend to respond to your works?
In all manner of ways. I enjoy watching people engage with them, but I guess it’s evenly split between people who like them and people who think: Oh no, what a waste of good furniture. I’m always interested in how people contextualize my work. Often what I see is completely different to what someone else sees.
What are your pieces saying?
I’d like to think that they continue an investigation into abstraction and the pictorial plane. Using everyday materials makes them more familiar, but essentially it’s about abstraction.
The inherently domestic quality of the material seems key to your work.
I’ve always wanted to use something very domestic. I think it helps the audience relate to the work easier, as a lot of people will have had some experience with the material. Traditional sculptural materials do not appeal to me, as they usually come with their own baggage, and for me being domestic makes it less masculine. Office furniture would not have the domestic appeal I am after.
On his blog, graphic designer Richard Hogg showed off a great router shelf you made. Are you planning to do any more functional furniture?
Richard is in the studio next door to me. It was a simple solution to a problem and a bit of fun. As much as I like rendering functional objects nonfunctional, I have no qualms about making some works slightly functional, hence the work with Comme des Garçons. I like the challenge; I’ve always liked design and architecture, so this just furthers my practice and makes it a bit less limited.
Would you object to anyone using your art pieces as furniture?
No. Once they own it, they can do what they like with it. I’m not precious.
This piece was originally featured in One Artist One Material. You can purchase a copy here.