Lately it feels like the difference between art and design is becoming less distinct. Artists like Sterling Ruby produce couture fashion lines and tastemakers like Virgil Abloh make furniture that barely fulfills its function as such — more domestic sculpture than actual chair. In 2019 Abloh worked with IKEA to produce a line of absurdist objects that included a giant IKEA receipt and a plush green carpet complete with his signature Off—White air quotes reading “wet grass.” The millennial obsession with textured ceramics completes the accessorizing: We want to be surrounded by things that make us think, that entertain our eyes.
Well before Abloh, IKEA’s Art Event series has cultivated artist collaborations since 2015. It’s a chance for the furniture brand to create something slightly different, more provocative than its usual functionalism. This year’s Art Event, starting April 1, they’re releasing products including a ghostly wall clock by artist and architect Daniel Arsham; a lamp in the shape of an allen wrench by the Japanese designers Gelchop; and a wall-mounted cabinet of miniature drones by the German and Swedish duo Humans since 1982. There are elements of Surrealism and humor to the collaborations, testament to our exhaustion with Instagram minimalism and a desire for more texture in our spaces, though these designs are still relatively stark.
According to Henrik Most, IKEA’s creative leader, surprise was part of the plan. “The artists added their unique spin to recognizable objects, shifting our view of what a simple clock or lamp, flashlight or throw, vase or picture is,” Most said. “Each of these pieces has a vision of its own.” The German artist and illustrator Stefan Marx’s blanket is particularly striking, with its messy handwritten message apt for the past year of quarantine: “I wait here for you forever as long as it takes.” At $24.99, it might be more impressive a wall hanging than on the couch.
The Rotterdam-based designer Sabine Marcelis created a lamp that looks more like an early Robert Irwin piece, a light installation that goes on the wall. The circular, rounded form might be minimalist, but the lamps glow with changing colors of light cast behind them and through a slit on the front of the piece. Marcelis was inspired by Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases and cut paper, bringing artistic influences into the functional realm.
Arsham might be the name most familiar to the art world, for his design practice Snarkitecture. The cold geometry of Snarkitecture installations gives way to something a little softer and more playful in Arsham’s IKEA wall clock, which is cloaked in what looks like a shroud, a piece of white cloth billowing in nonexistent wind. It’s a visual metaphor for time flying by but also something of a memento mori worthy of Magritte. Unlike a piece of anodyne abstract Instagram art, the clock is a provocation.
Most, the creative leader, said that the ultimate message of the series is that there isn’t a line between visual art and functional object, that anything can be either, or both. “We want to show that the traditional idea of art being high-end and design being part of the mass culture simply isn’t relevant anymore,” he said. “The two go fantastic together.”
Art and design might meet most directly in Humans since 1982’s drone pieces. They recall the artist James Bridle’s “Drone Shadow” public installations in which he drew the life-size outline of a drone on a city street, visualizing the actual physical scale of these weapons being used by the United States. The duo’s work often works through recontextualization; in this case, the miniature drones become decor, turning what was once a foreign machine into a domestic presence, like a pet or picture frame. We’ve become accustomed to the presence and role of drones in our lives, to a certain extent accepting them. Though mounting some on a wall might still be too discomfiting — the role of art is ever to leave viewers just a little bit unsettled.