Striking out independently with a solo show, the designer discusses his new compass setting.
“THE WHOLE SHOW is about understanding our relationship to clouds and how we can nourish our soil, which clouds are so precious for,” says Leo Orta about the unifying thread of his upcoming exhibition ‘Why do clouds cry?’ at La Patinoire Royale – Galerie Valérie Bach in Brussels.
On a scorching August afternoon, Orta, 29, is standing in his studio in Les Moulins, a former paper mill in the commune of Boissy-le-Châtel, an hour east of Paris. It’s been the hottest summer in France since 2003 and on the way to meet him, the train sped past horses grazing in sun-parched fields.
The urgent issues of climate change and sustainability are conveyed throughout the transversal showcase of work, ranging from furniture to sculpture and painting. There’s a cloud-shaped table on a tangled loop base; a roughened bench and stools evocative of a grotto; a blue-and-white ‘Oiseau Chaise’ (‘Bird Chair’) in a riot of curvy shapes and a lovely series of side lamps, each featuring a cloud as a lampshade. One lamp has a small figure holding a container above their head to catch the rain in order to water the soil; another has a figure planting seeds in a garden.
Antithetical to slick design made in a foundry, Orta has sourced materials locally – retrieving throwaway cardboard pulp from nearby factories and using soil from the surrounding countryside. “As a designer, it’s about questioning where we get supplies, after Covid and during the [Russia-Ukraine] war, and how to work in the countryside with agriculture, farmers and local industry,” Orta asserts. “Understanding the trajectory of all of these materials is very interesting in my new practice and for my own conscience. I want to work with what’s around me. How can I work with clay from the river?”
This will be Orta’s first solo show since the breakup of OrtaMiklos, the entity that Orta formed with Danish designer Victor Miklos Andersen. The duo started collaborating whilst students at Design Academy Eindhoven (during which time Orta interned at Atelier Van Lieshout) in the Netherlands. From the get-go, their projects were characterised by an irreverent desire “to disturb the conventional ways of showing design”, Orta recalls. Cue wearing masks during performances in a quest for anonymity and creating humorous objects with spontaneity.
Six years after joining forces, and with exhibitions at Friedman Benda under their belt, the duo no longer shared the same vision. “With the growth of our projects, we’d lost the friendship and initial excitement, and our relationship had turned more into a work partnership where we weren’t so aligned,” Orta recounts.
Since striding out independently, Orta has been inventing his own sculptural techniques as well as focusing on ecological concerns. Citing an example, he says: “We used cardboard pulp a lot at OrtaMiklos but we mostly painted it. I wanted to return to how it looks naturally and how a material can express itself without being cold.”
Orta’s socio-critical consciousness is heavily influenced by the practice of his parents, the visual artists Lucy and Jorge Orta who are known for their activism in addressing social and environmental issues. “The work of my parents has always been super inspiring and astonishing to me,” says Orta. “But it’s been hard for me to be a creative because I thought I’d be following in one of their footsteps. So it was very important to do things differently and question my own perspectives about how I can engage.”
This desire to branch out from his parents’ approach prompted Orta to express himself through graffiti, illustration and then design. He has also been inspired by Éric Lenoir, proponent of the “punk garden” about letting biodiversity develop with minimal ecological impact.
Orta’s studio is located on the same site at Les Moulins as that of his parents, next to an outpost of Galleria Continua. He has curated several shows there and also organises an artists’ residency. Gesturing at the box of yarn spun at a local farm, he explains that he is keen to invite artists who will engage with the environment.
Incidentally, Lucy and Jorge Orta are having an exhibition, running concurrently to their son’s, at La Patinoire Royale where they will unveil a new series of paintings and textiles about flora and biodiversity. Their show is on the ground floor, Orta Junior’s is on the first.
“I’ve been following Leo via his parents since the beginning and I’m fascinated by his universe and originality,” Bach enthuses. “He belongs to the new conceptual generation after Atelier Van Lieshout or Droog Design that propose useful objects for our daily lives, mixing aesthetics and spirituality. We can perceive a reading of our contemporary society, where the living being is at the heart of his practice.”
For Orta, the exhibition represents the first step in his new direction of creating work that reflects eco-responsibility. “The whole idea is to make a piece of work that means something,” he insists. “I feel very confident that everything that comes out of me is me. All the decisions that I make have to be pure and authentic.”