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Exhibitions

Misha Kahn: Soft Bodies, Hard Spaces

A wild imagination, no boundaries and technical prowess produces an extraordinary show, from a rising US star of collectible design.

Friedman Benda, New York
27th February – 4th April 2020

By Judith Gura / 9th March 2020
Misha Kahn, ‘Moon Child’, 2020 COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

Misha Kahn, ‘Moon Child’, 2020
COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

MISCHA KAHN’S work could be said to live up to expectations ….if one could know just what to expect. The latest products of his prodigious talent and fertile imagination are starring in an ambitious new exhibition at Friedman Benda in New York City’s Chelsea area. For his third show with the gallery, titled ‘Soft Bodies, Hard Spaces’, the 30-year-old artist/designer is showing an assortment of works, made over the past two years, that show off the versatility of a designer without a predictable style or trademark look.

Installation view COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

Installation view
COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

Entering the gallery is like walking into a cloud. The walls are covered, floor to ceiling, in fluffy white wool that provides a backdrop for some 30 objects a tossed-salad of furniture and accessory pieces so diverse that they might have been the work of a handful of designers instead of one. Materials and fabrication techniques are varied, and contrasts are many: hard versus soft, textured versus smooth, straight versus curved, bright versus pastel.

Installation view COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

Installation view
COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

Among the most intriguing are several works in which irregular shapes of poured glass are fitted into frameworks of heavily-textured cast aluminum, the glass elements executed at a guest-artist residency at The Corning Museum of Glass. “They were fun to make,” he says, of experimenting with the taffy-like elements of liquid glass, counterpointing the translucency and opacity of the unexpectedly compatible materials.

Misha Kahn, ‘Storage for Light, Emotions, and Transient Thoughts’, 2020 COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

Misha Kahn, ‘Storage for Light, Emotions, and Transient Thoughts’, 2020
COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

In an altogether different direction are several curvy, colourful and comfortable-looking seating pieces – such as the fluid-form chairs made of foam and cashmere wrapped over a stainless-steel frame. Another chair is shaped of carved and moulded foam and cast fibreglass. And an imposing overscale sofa would seem to have been assembled from a series of odd-shaped, colourful pillows.

Misha Kahn, ‘Pig of the Sea’, 2019 COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

Misha Kahn, ‘Pig of the Sea’, 2019
COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

A series called ‘Claymation’ blends virtually fabricated forms with 3D scans of carved objects. And several works, including a twisty-form chandelier, are of the polished bronze seen in a number of Kahn’s much-admired prior works, but the designs for two of these were first carved in virtual reality: “VR opens up new possibilities. What was interesting was bringing materiality back,” Kahn enthuses.

The show delivers maximum impact in a relatively modest space. “I keep adding things,” the designer laughed while overseeing the installation. “I like a crowded show … I just hope it will all fit.” Every piece is named, cleverly though sometimes obscurely – titles include ‘Lone Pickle in Empty Fridge’ and ‘A Loose Understanding of the Spacetime Continuum’. Kahn explains that he chooses names “verging on the edges … a little bit more romantic than they should be,” emerging from an incomplete narrative.

Misha Kahn, ‘Lone Pickle in an Empty Fridge, 2019 COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

Misha Kahn, ‘Lone Pickle in an Empty Fridge, 2019
COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

KAHN IS AS intrigued by fabrication processes as he is by design, experimenting in the 5,000-square studio he moved to recently in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, where a number of young artists have found studio space in old industrial buildings. The space allows him to do more of his own fabrication, including metal casting (in converted ceramic casting equipment – an adventurous idea), even down to the metal screws on the new cabinets. Using both analogue and digital production, Kahn declines to set a hierarchy of materials. He’s willing to work with whatever comes to mind, finding new ways to create different effects.

Installation view COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

Installation view
COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

As Kahn explains, he had a long lead time to plan the show, “I knew I had a couple of years, so I let myself get distracted and went through several series of pieces.” Most of them are one-off, which he finds more challenging than limited editions. “When something starts being easy, I get bored with it.” With such a variety of offerings, it’s almost impossible to pick a standout piece … though the designer thinks it’s what he considers the most complicated work, a cast aluminum table made in Mexico, assembled from an extraordinary 120 individual pieces.

THE 30-YEAR-old Minnesota-born artist studied furniture design at Rhode Island School of Design, and is one of the rising stars of a generation of risk-taking young Americans looking to do things their own way. After graduation, a Fulbright scholarship took him to Tel Aviv for a year, after which he moved to New York, renting studio space with a friend. He supported himself by working first for an animatronics firm, and then with a prop stylist, where “I learned how to make lots of different things really fast.” Meanwhile, he began making his own designs using whatever cheap materials he could find. Almost surprised, he says modestly, “they just took off.” After exhibiting at friends’ shows and an early Sight Unseen presentation, he was invited to contribute to a MAD MUSEUM biennial, where gallery owner Marc Benda saw his work, and a relationship began that has resulted in two successful prior shows, and considerable support. The gallery facilitated a trip to South Africa, where Kahn worked in a bronze foundry that was open to new ideas, generating a number of works. He credits Benda for helping him know when to stop experimenting and to consider a piece finished.

Misha Kahn, ‘Don’t Even Get Me Started’, 2020 COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Timothy Doyon

Misha Kahn, ‘Don’t Even Get Me Started’, 2020
COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Timothy Doyon

Most of his pieces begin with a pencil sketch, though he also likes working digitally: “With the computer, you tend to take bigger risks, since it’s easier to delete and redo.” Other pieces begin with cardboard models, and one of the most striking works in the show –  a colourful abstract, highly-textured tapestry executed by fibre artist Mags Stevens – began with a design sketched in virtual reality, a process that currently intrigues him, and which he plans to explore in further work. Other ventures include an ongoing project with women in Swaziland, weaving objects from scrap fibres … something to be anticipated for a future show.

Kahn says that preparing for the current show was definitely the hardest he has ever worked. To judge from comments at the opening-night crowd, the effort was definitely worthwhile.

Misha Kahn, ‘Ammonoid Alpha, 2020 COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

Misha Kahn, ‘Ammonoid Alpha, 2020
COURTESY: Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn / PHOTOGRAPH: Daniel Kukla

Friedman Benda – presents an international, multi-generational roster of established and emerging designers who create historically significant work.

Article By

Judith Gura
Judith Gura was a New York-based writer and lecturer with a special focus on contemporary design. She covered the design market for two decades, and published a number of books on modern design, furniture and interiors.