As the enfant terrible of American design opens his first solo show in Shanghai, TDE revisits an interview published in our first print edition.
BROOKLYN-BASED ARTIST Misha Kahn has undoubtedly become the darling of the collectible design world. His particular blend of free experimentation, formal irreverence and the whimsical application of virtual and analogue processes lines up with the current mood – an approach that captivates collectors with its sincerity and open expression of personality.
The designer combines disparate found materials and diverse cultural references in surprisingly cohesive assemblages; a controlled chaos of sorts. These amorphous furnishings seem to distil the collective reflections of a society simultaneously in the throes of disillusionment and exuberance.
Represented by powerhouse gallery Friedman Benda, the 30-something-year-old maverick has established himself with immersive exhibitions that repeatedly challenge convention. His show, ‘Soft Bodies, Hard Spaces’, in 2020, explored the tensions that exist between the rigidity of our built surroundings and the porosity of the natural environments we yearn to reinhabit. Though the exhibition was cut short due to the pandemic, it offered an early glimpse of Kahn’s career-shifting foray into digital production, something he has since explored in depth.
During the past year, the rising star also collaborated with Dries Van Noten on limited edition printed silk garments and a special carte blanche showcase in the Belgian fashion designer’s Los Angeles flagship. The Design Edit contributor Adrian Madlener caught up with Kahn to discover how his work and ideas have been evolving.
The Design Edit (TDE): What have you been working on?
Misha Kahn: During the first wave of the pandemic, my partner and I ended up driving to my parents’ house in Duluth, Minnesota. We stayed there for over six months. During that time, I began dipping my toes into virtual reality (VR), developing different shapes and designs using that technology. Still, it wasn’t until we returned to New York that I began harvesting the fruits of that weird labour and making new pieces.
TDE: Are you able to apply your usual level of improvisation to this body of work?
Misha Kahn: What we usually do is low-tech. Working with this medium was completely different. Programming a KUKA Robot to create the work, you end up spending so much of your time planning things out rather than just making and learning as you go. Yet, some aspects of experimentation have been amplified. So much of design is directional, but in my studio, we’re lawless. We might print something from a digital model and add analogue elements by hand. Seeing the quick results is like therapy.
With this latest body of work, I’ve been trying to mine for shapes that resemble bones or organs because figurative art and design tends to be all about the body’s exterior. I like creating forms that are almost lethargic, which brings me back to the inflatables I first worked with. I’m able to translate these qualities in the digital form but ultimately it looks different.
TDE: With this new focus, what projects have you developed?
Misha Kahn: I recently made a series of ten NFT animations for a show at Christie’s, ‘Furniture Unhinged’, and last week, my show ‘Startling the Echoes’ opened in Shanghai – a collaboration with Objective Gallery and Friedman Benda. For my shows in the past, I made chaotic spaces, which felt like seeing the objects in the studio. This time around, I’ve tried to do the opposite and recreate a VR environment where the pieces are digitally inflected.
The experience of spending so much time in the void of VR is meditative and removed from the present, but totally free. Getting to present this work, I wanted to bring people into this “studio” – an alternate reality version of objects shown on worktables with smudges of paint, or wood shavings lying about. This is the work conjured in the void, which is free to exist outside of a trajectory of history and the magnetism of logic. The objects are lucid and floaty, any moment where they grasp at a reference is a hazy image through the fog.
TDE: Where do you see collectible design going in the future?
Misha Kahn: On the one hand, there’s definitely more enthusiasm for special objects than there was when I started out years ago. The amount of people who work in the field and engage with it has ballooned. But on the other, there isn’t really a vetting process based on what people will consume. There’s a lot of amazing new work out there but also a cacophony of garbage.
I worry about my work getting devalued, and that’s why it’s essential to keep moving forward and trying new things. Part of what has always interested me was a way of getting to new textures and shapes, and this kind of collagey spirit. It’s always been a gateway to new forms, allowing the material to guide the entire process. I want to move on a bit from only doing that and find ways to combine this approach with one that allows me to have more control over the final outcomes. Working with VR has given me this opportunity.