Art And/Or Design

Designer Stefan Rurak on how art drives his design

“It was the act of pushing my body to uncomfortable extremes, testing my limit, that was paramount to me. This is when I knew that this was a viable path to making a happy living, a journey where I could create art objects that had a great utility assigned to them.”

MH+D ASKS RURAK TO TELL US MORE.

Q. What came first for you, art or design?

A. Where I am today as far as my “design theory” or “art” is largely informed by my past and the journey of how I got to this place. In my younger days, I cycled through many media, beginning with the simpler ones that require little material such as drawing and painting. I eventually progressed to silkscreen and film photography. These latter media relied heavily on tools and processes to achieve the end aesthetic goals I desired, and I bookmarked it. So I guess the desire to create art meant embracing design.

My ideas about art directly impact my performance and translate into how I create my furniture. Furniture is art. I see no delineation. It is all one. In fact, art can be anything and everything. This is the beauty of art. One can say, “That is bad art” or “That is good art”; however, one cannot say with any merit, “That is not art.” So I see what I am doing as more difficult and more satisfying than conventional art, as it makes an emotive/aesthetic statement and satisfies a utilitarian end.

Q. What artists and art movements have influenced your design aesthetic?

A. In school I was enthralled with the process of film photography: the magic of developing film, all the analog ways of printing and manipulating the print, and most importantly, the taking of the image with the tool itself, the camera. I was learning about art history, and specifically the period of the late ’60s, early ’70s caught my interest. It was my education in the history of modern performance art that changed the way I thought about art and what art could be. I became inspired by artists such as Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, Janine Antoni, and particularly Chris Burden. Performance seemed to undermine everything I thought art was, up to this juncture. I thought art was an aesthetic object, but this new way of thinking made me realize that art could be anything and is everything. Piero Manzoni canning and selling his shit, Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, Chris Burden crawling through a parking lot of broken glass. These were such radical and liberating acts.

Q. Can you explain how performance art led you to furniture design?

A. In the process of creating and staging my own images, I realized that the actual act of creating the image was perhaps more important than the image itself. It was a performance. And while the image was important as an aesthetic document (the lighting, the composition), it was just that: documentation. So I began staging my death, fitting into small places (trunks of cars, fridges, garbage bags), and documenting all of it.

After working odd jobs and making art at night while living in New York for three years, I found myself in a shop for the first time, and everything clicked. The machines, tools, and processes reminded me of creating silkscreens and photo work. I liked the physical aspect of the work—lifting, pushing, bending, bleeding, sweating, the intense focus on every action, every move—and the concentration required echoed my passion for meditation. Everything connected during these initial encounters working in the shop, and that is when I decided this path was most likely the one for me. I suspected it would be easier to make a living selling these pieces than trying to sell paintings done with my body parts.

I think the backstory is important because it is the way I approach my work. It is art but veiled in utility. The pieces serve a function, but they are literally wrapped in “art.” My “panels” are simply meant to hang on the wall, but they utilize all the same materials, tools, and processes that I apply to my functional work. But they only serve one purpose, an aesthetic one, whereas the furniture serves two, aesthetic and functional.

Q. Your material selection is unique. Why do you use the materials you do?

A. The materials I use are important: concrete, mortar, cement, steel, and wood. These are the oldest and most basic building materials. They are simple and easily accessible. I really value these proletarian materials, although economically they are of lower value than say marble, brass, or bronze, materials that carry a high inherent worth. I like taking things that are worth little and investing them with myself, my energy, passion, sweat, and power, and transforming them into something the market receives as worth. If I started with inherently valuable material, the worth would be predetermined, but by starting with these basic materials I am able to elevate them, and the work is thus a true reflection of the performance.

MH+D is proud to partner with acclaimed architectural photographer Trent Bell on his architecture, design, and photography podcast. To hear Bell’s conversation with Rurak, please visit trentbell.com/podcast.