Art works

When artists are asked to design functional outdoor objects, the results can be spectacular and tremendous fun, says Helen Chislett.

November 13 2009
Helen Chislett

Sculptural objects in the garden can be compared to punctuation points – whether it be the full stop that holds the eye from straying to an unsightly view beyond, a comma that marks a pause between one area of the garden and another, or the exclamation mark of something dramatic and unexpected as you turn a corner. However, there is increasingly a role for sculpture that goes beyond the merely decorative in the form of seating, tables, games, bird feeders, swings, gates, fences, balustrades or even barbecues. Andrew Duff, director of garden design at the Inchbald School of Design, believes that the idea of sculpture with function taps into the current demand for increased value, whatever the purchase. “People are paying far more attention to the detail of what they are buying,” he says. “There is nothing new about the idea of functional sculpture – look at the fountains of Versailles – but there is something particularly appealing right now about owning something that is both beautiful and usable.”

It was this that inspired landscape designer Nathalie Karg to launch her business, Cumulus Studios, in New York last year. Frustrated with the dull predictability of the outdoor furniture available for her designs and originally having worked as a curator in her native New York, she hit on the idea of inviting contemporary artists to design functional outdoor objects. The first Cumulus collection launched in March, featuring 18 designs by 16 international artists, including a fountain constructed from used tyres and plumbing by Rob Pruitt; a stainless-steel garden umbrella with laser-cut text by Jan Mancuska; Ugo Rondinone’s scarecrow of wood, jute and bottlecaps; and nine aluminium side tables by Liam Gillick, each coated in a different bold colour.

Karg has been hugely encouraged by the artists’ response to the brief that asks them to produce anything they want, so long as it is functional and for the outdoors. She then funds production of the designs, which are either one-offs or limited editions. “The artists can go as crazy as they want,” she says. “I am opening a door for them, which allows them to have enormous freedom and fun producing these great ideas.”

Prices are influenced by the materials used and how small an edition is produced. Aaron Young, for example, has devised his own version of the ubiquitous tyre swing – a used tyre hung on a chain, but the chain is made in 24ct gold. In an edition of 10, it is priced at $16,800. From Rirkrit Tiravanija comes a ping-pong table of flawless mirror-polished stainless steel in an edition of 10 – a piece of perfectly executed workmanship that caries a price tag of $55,000. Pentti Monkkonen is creating a fabulous barbecue/smoker in the form of an old-fashioned locomotive on a railway track, which costs about $5,000 (edition of five). In contrast, Charles Long has produced a charming hand-painted ceramic bird feeder in an edition of 50, which costs $900.

The collection has been so well received that Karg is already curating the second, with many artists asking to be involved: “People love the idea that they can have a great piece by a well-respected artist that they can also enjoy using, whether it is furniture, a game or something a bit crazy, such as Jim Drain’s female, bikini-clad garden gnome.”

It was the same desire to produce something fantastic but usable that inspired Stephen Myburgh and Caroline Fletcher to set up Fletcher & Myburgh – now Myburgh Designs – 10 years ago, producing astonishing swings in hand-beaten copper. Fletcher was running a metal workshop in London’s Ladbroke Grove when they met, while Myburgh had learnt the craft from working with other people – he is now one of the most experienced copper workers in Europe.

The idea for “magical swinging chairs” came from Fletcher, who now runs the PR side of the company. From the moment they showed the first one at Chelsea Flower Show, they knew they were on to a winner. “Every adult who tries one giggles and smiles, because you can’t help but release your childish side,” says Myburgh. “They look big and heavy but they move as though they are light and floaty.” Their client base was originally focused on City workers relocating to the country, but now includes European royalty and “extraordinary” people.

The organic shapes are reflected in names such as Pumpkin, Moon, Lavender Bubble, Jasmin or Lily (£3,200), and many are produced in limited editions. The most expensive, and the most show-stopping, is Pumpkin, of which Myburgh will make no more than 11; so far he has made six at £18,000 each. The price reflects how difficult it is to make. “Each Pumpkin takes about six weeks to make and there is no way of writing the process down and asking someone else to do it,” he explains. “It is also possible to accommodate bespoke requests – we have made one for a family that includes their crest worked into the copper and a time chamber welded into the base, in which they have sealed personal mementos.”

The least expensive design is Jasmin at about £3,200, and the average spend is between £5,000 and £6,000. As well as swings, the workshop accepts some bespoke commissions, such as balustrades and water features. Myburgh is also investigating using fibreglass but copper is, unsurprisingly, the number-one choice for most clients. “Copper does not deteriorate, so these pieces are family heirlooms,” he says. “You can commission something from us that could live in your family for 1,000 years or more.”

The appeal of longevity, a kickback against the recent excesses of a throwaway culture, is also at the heart of Carved Oak, a collaboration between painter Jessica Zoob and sculptor Karl Smith. A former theatre designer, Zoob brings an artistic eye to the project, while Smith brings his understanding of and passion for working in wood. Indeed, each bespoke commission begins with a trip to the Sussex oak wood where Smith sources “standing dead” trees – 200- to 300-year-old oaks that have died of natural causes and are waiting to be felled. As Zoob says, “We don’t chop down living trees and there is virtually no carbon footprint involved with our work.” Clients are invited to join them in the woodland and be involved with choosing the trees, an important step because it is the size and shape of a tree that will suggest how best it should be used.

The Bench, the first of Carved Oak’s designs, is a mammoth structure made of solid oak and sea groynes measuring about 2.7m wide and 1.8m high. Smith spent hundreds of hours sculpting the seats, both to echo the human body and the contours of the Downs that surround his workshop. Zoob describes it as a “lifetime” piece: “It is a place for children to play on, where young lovers might sit and sip champagne, where a married couple could talk for hours.” The draw is not only in how it looks but in how it feels. “It is very tactile and sensual, because Karl is so instinctive in the way he works. He will also carve text into the wood if desired, or we can add special touches such as inlays of shell.” Each one is, of course, unique and costs about £15,000 to £20,000.

Andrew Duff suggests visiting sculpture parks to pick up inspiration before making a purchase. The Cass Sculpture Foundation in Sussex and the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden in Surrey both sell work by the artists they show. “Find ideas and decide whose work you like,” he says. “But remember that it may be cheaper to commission an artist directly.”

Seating is a particularly strong point at the Cass Sculpture Foundation, with designs ranging from Alex Welch’s sinuous, faux metal Bench (an edition of three, £27,600) to Helaine Blumenfield’s elegant Spirit of Life Bench in white carrara marble (an edition of two, £27,600) and Julian Mayor’s steel Contour Chair (an edition of 50, £2,530). “Seating is important to us because it provides an entrance level for much younger artists who are still building up their skills and confidence,” says founder Wilfred Cass. “Even very young artists of 19 or 20 can produce an interesting chair.”

However, seating is by no means the only example of sculpture with function at the Foundation. For example, entrance to the park is through Wendy Ramshaw’s striking circular Gate (edition of three, £74,750), while a more recent addition is Robert Frith’s undulating aluminium Honeycomb Goodwood Fence (£8,625 per m). The Foundation has commissioned 20 works this year, which will be on display in time for its 20th anniversary in 2012, and has also launched a pioneering lending programme, with over 60 works available on loan for a monthly fee.

Hannah Peschar’s 10-acre garden, designed by her husband Anthony Paul, also includes some wonderful sculptural seating, including Paul’s own Wave bench in green oak (£1,587), Jeremy Cosmo Davies’s Elliptic Bench I in steamed ash and douglas fir (£2,530) and Andrew Trotman’s Leaf Spring Bench and Unzipped Bench in unseasoned native timbers (both about £3,450). None of these are in limited editions but are made to commission. Among her own collection is Interlocking Seats by Alison Crowther (from £6,900 to commission), an artist who is well regarded for her extraordinary seating in unseasoned oak. Perschar also cites a circular frame in beautifully crafted oak by Henry Swanzy (edition of eight, £5,060) as sculpture with function. “It may not be obviously functional,” she says, “but when you look through, it frames a view, creating a sort of painting from the landscape”.

It is the tactile quality of sculpture that has always appealed to Perschar – “I always get ticked off in museums for touching everything” – and it is the interaction of nature and art that continues to intrigue her. “By putting a work of art near something such as tree bark or moss, the beauty of the natural world hits you even more,” she says. “It is that juxtaposition which is so magical.” Add to that the enjoyment of actually being able to use a work of art, and the experience becomes even more enchanting.