Daniella Ohad Smith
BRIDGING THE CLEAVAGE BETWEEN ART AND DESIGN
You were born in 1952. Was this a good vintage year for an avant-garde, forward-looking designer to be born? Some of the most notable minds of our time were born in that same decade, Ron Arad in 1951, Jasper Morrison in 1959, just to name two. History has shown us that some extraordinarily gifted designers or architects didn’t make it only because they were born in the wrong time.
To me, working as a designer has always been a constant struggle. It was a struggle for me as a young designer out of school and it is as difficult today with all the success I have achieved in the field. It is a daily struggle, working around the clock whether in creating, thinking or just being critical about my own work, always trying to improve, to do better.
Funding your work must be a great challenge.
Funding too, but mainly communication. Communication has become so central to the world and to the business of design, so much more than lets say, thirty years ago. It takes a great deal of time and effort to engage with that aspect of the profession.
Design is everywhere today. We are all constantly experiencing design in a revolutionary way. This revolution started in the 80s when design became incredibly popular, something a wide portion of the population became conscious of. With this revolution, the role of the designer has changed. Some believe that designers have the responsibility to shape the world; others believe that their job is to help us cope with change. How has the role of the designer changed since you came out of college?
On the one hand, designers ought to take that responsibility to shape our world and by that, I mean to enable the population to achieve a better life. Yet, although many believe that the role of the designer is fundamentally moral, this is not my own agenda. Throughout the twentieth century, there has always been design that reached to the masses, that was reasonably priced. My design doesn’t fall in this category.
Would you like to see your products mass-produced?
I have designed a variety of products for mass production. I have done the “Deci Dela,” perfume bottles for Nina Ricci. Among the most exciting projects is the project I did for a beverage produced by Pernod-Ricard Group, the second largest beverage group in the world and the promotional glass I designed for Chivas Voilà. I find that design for mass production is the best way to become visible, and I love seeing designs used by so many.
The market for contemporary, sensational furniture of interesting, exciting, stimulating forms has flourished thanks for a few art dealers, visionaries who had recognized a shift in the market for design. Gallery Neotu produced editions of your furniture as well as of objects by Jasper Morrison and others for the upper reaches of the market. The whole idea of a gallery that addresses the top end of the design market is new. David Gill in London, Gallery Kreo in Paris, Gallery Mourmans in the Netherlands, Cristina Grajales in NY, are among the leading forces in the field.
In the early 80’s I had worked with Neotu. The founders of this Parisian gallery and its New York-based branch, Gerard Dalmon and Pierre Staudenmeyer, were the true pioneers. They were the first to recognize the significance of design in our culture and its potential in the art market. They sold furniture and other items by designers, artists, and architects—representing Jasper Morrison, Ron Arad, myself, and many others. The gallery initiated and funded production. I believe it was the first gallery one of its kind to engage with this type of production and promotion of design. They were instrumental in establishing some of the young, essentially unknown designers of the 1980s and 1990s, bringing them to the mainstream of design.
Your work was shown at Design Miami by the New York-based gallery Paul Kasimin Gallery. What do you think of the state of the market? We constantly read about the tremendous effect of the recession on the market. I think that the recession has transformed the field of collecting design, and that the market is reinventing itself. Furniture for hundreds of thousands of dollars, which were present in all the previous fairs, is had to find these days.
My pieces are not that expensive, and although all of it is done in by hand, they have never reached those numbers. I have to admit that I haven’t seen any substantial change in the market so far. I am pleased and fortunate to work with Paul Kasmin Gallery, as he is a fine art dealer. Therefore, by representing me, Paul is announcing my work as “art,” rather than functional design, issuing me with a “passport” to the art world. My design is becoming accessible to his clients who are those not typically searching for design, but who perceive my furniture as a work of art.
Tell me about your taste in period design, about design that you admire, about what is moving you, what is inspiring you?
My taste is highly eclectic. I am moved by so many movements and periods that it is hard to count. I grew up in a family with a great appreciation for the arts, and art has always been central to the shaping of my own identity. My parents had been antique dealers in the Swiss town of Lugano, and they dealt with a wide variety of art ranging from Asian art to furniture of the Renaissance. I went to an art school very early on, at the age of 14. My taste is colorful, its dynamic, and it constantly keeps changing. What I like in a given moment, whether it is material, style, or mode, may not appeal to me at all in other moments.
You were educated at the Centro Scolastico per l’Industria Artistica in Lugano. Tell me about the agenda of this institution. What type of school is it?
It was founded in the early 60s with a methodology based on that formulated at the Bauhaus. It has a great Swiss identity, and from the very beginning, the school came to embrace all the richness of Swiss tradition and particularly its tremendously rich graphic design.
Are you still connected to Switzerland?
My parents have passed away but I travel to Switzerland on a regular basis.
One of the most striking chapters in the history of Swiss design was manifested in the sanatorium, which had been among the earliest and most ambitious manifestations of modernism. With its clarity, rationality, and concept of hygiene, modernism was the perfect fit.
Switzerland has been known for its tradition of sanatoriums since the 19th century, when those unique institutions were established for the treatment of tuberculosis for the privileged. The sanatoriums were a combination of grand hotels and spa, prevailing the culture of the body. They were typically designed in functional aesthetics, with what I believe reflect the progressiveness of the Swiss nation. The Swiss are super progressive and I feel fortunate to be brought up in such an atmosphere.
In 1973 you moved to Paris. Why?
In my twenties, upon graduating from the school of design, I was working as a textile designer in Italy. I knew that it was in Paris that I could find some great job opportunities for designing textile for the fashion industry.
What do you think about Paris today as a center of contemporary design?
There is a lot going on in Paris, but I consider myself both different from other designers as well as isolated in the design arena. It’s my choice and there is no suffering here. My approach is different than any of the living designers I know.
If I tell you that to me, you are a kind of Jacque Ruhlman of our time. Am I completely off?
In some ways it is a great complement, but in others its not. The use of traditional approach in making objects, the high quality of the decorative arts, Ruhlman had that obsession with quality, with refined finishes, with the most expensive and unique materials. Today, we cannot even dream to achieve that level of quality that he had mastered in the 20s. Although there are craftsmen out there who have the skills, the culture of making objects this way has been lost. I work in the studio, with many techniques of handcraftsmanship, but I am trying to tailor those skills to the world of today. In this respect, I believe, you may compare me to Ruhlman. Yet, I am not looking into going sixty years backwards.