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Art-house chic

Celebrated artists are applying their sensibilities to interior design, and creating artworks with a practical purpose, says Nicole Swengley.

December 16 2011
Nicole Swengley

Artist-inspired products have been the staple of museum and gallery shops for years. But a recent shift in expectations means that consumers are no longer satisfied with reproduction artworks on mugs or tins. What they want are products that artists have designed specially. These products often have a cachet and backstory all of their own, making them the perfect gift or stocking filler for someone who appreciates the aesthetics of, for example, Julian Schnabel, Peter Doig, Jasper Johns or Tracey Emin.

In a sense, these are mini artworks but with a very practical purpose – espresso cups, plates, cushions, towels, bed linen, rugs, textiles and even car-tax-disc holders – that combine visual creativity with the practicalities of everyday living. These homewares can be as humble as a tea towel, as intimate as a pillowcase or as functional as a teapot. Many are limited editions with original imagery created by artists who have developed or approved the products as a “canvas” for their work.

One of the drivers behind these mini masterpieces is Damien Hirst. Back in 2005, he founded Other Criteria, a London-based publishing company, with Hugh Allan and Frank Dunphy. The idea was to work with artists to produce original artworks, prints, books, homewares and jewellery. Hirst’s intuition was spot on (if you’ll excuse the pun) since the demand for affordable products that clearly bear their creators’ DNA has steadily increased.

The company now has a retail store in London and an online shop. Here you can buy a wide range of artistic homewares, from a mug designed by Sarah Lucas and Olivier Garbay (£12.30) to a set of Superstition plates created and signed by Damien Hirst (£10,500). Limited editions attract the most interest – there’s a particularly nice line in beach/bath towels by Julian Schnabel, Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig, Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha and Tracey Emin (£62 each). Demand is also strong for unlimited pieces, such as John Isaacs’ Let the Golden Age Begin cushion shaped like a life buoy (£385). Hirst has created popular products as varied as a deckchair (£310), small “spot” clock (£305), Beautiful Inside My Head Forever wallpaper (£205) and even a wheel cover for your 4x4 (£925).

“People find the idea of artists applying themselves to a utilitarian product intriguing, while the artists are excited to bring their fine-art sensibilities to something practical,” says Hugh Allan.

“I enjoyed crossing over into the realms of interior design,” says Berlin-based artist John Isaacs. “As an artist you’re dealing with ideas and issues that you feel are important, but a small gallery show won’t be seen by too many people. I feel it’s an achievement to reach a wider audience. I think art is in the eye of the beholder. It’s so often about context – seeing it in a gallery is different to seeing it a domestic situation. My cushions have a pop-culture quality that transcends what you’d normally think of as art, but my approach was exactly the same as when I work with clay or wax. I wanted to give them a physical substance, and a sense of quirky materiality that makes them utilitarian yet cosy at the same time.”

Not surprisingly, art-gallery and museum shops have embraced this trend with gusto. Which is why Tate offers a Grayson Perry scarf (£67.50), a pillowcase set by David Shrigley (£45), a sculptural pillow by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (£125), a limited-edition tin plate by Sir Peter Blake (£60) and limited-edition cushions (£45) by Kozyndan, the Los Angeles-based art duo Dan and Kozue Kitchens.

Tate recently developed an earthenware collection with artist Mark Hearld, who is known for his depictions of British birds. It is decorated with specially commissioned illustrations and made in Britain by Burleigh Potteries (bowl, £15.95; mug, £16.95; plate, £19.95). Jo Mazzotta, senior product developer for Tate Enterprises, visited Hearld at his home in York at the project’s outset.

“My job was to ensure that the product ideas we had would be right for his style of illustration,” she says. “The ‘made in the UK’ aspect was important so we chose products that could be made in Britain at affordable and accessible prices.

“When working with any artist, the trust factor is key to a relationship working successfully,” Mazzotta adds. “They have to trust that you are going to do their work justice, and that the suppliers we choose are good enough. From the quality of colour reproduction to the handle of a fabric, all this attention to detail pays off ultimately.” And Hearld confirms: “There were no compromises. We went to great lengths to get everything just right, which made the project very satisfying. I derive a lot of pleasure from objects around me, so I really relished designing something ordinary, yet beautiful, that people will use on an everyday basis.

“I usually work on paper, but I genuinely enjoy the crossover idea of artists working as designers.” Hearld adds: “One discipline feeds into another, and this creates richness in your work. It was a lovely experience – I got a buzz out of designing something that everyone can buy.”

Turner Prizewinner Grayson Perry is flying the flag for artist-craftsmen at the British Museum with products for the exhibition Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. These include mugs (£8.99), tea towels (£5.99), embroidery kit (£24.99) and a silk scarf (£80) each designed – but not signed – by the artist. “I find the craftsman’s anonymity especially resonant in an age of the celebrity artist,” he says.

The Royal Academy has taken a different approach by adding limited editions, with numbered, signed certificates of provenance, to its range. Among these are decorative plates painted with Gillian Ayres’s bold abstracts (£195) and silver brooches by artist Bill Jacklin in the shape of skaters (£600) or dogs (£450) accompanied by the elongated shadows they cast. “People want exclusivity,” says Ella Riley, buyer for the Royal Academy. “They’re excited they’ve got an affordable piece of art in a different form.”

The artists, too, appear to enjoy these projects. “It’s pleasurable, and no different to producing work on canvas or paper,” says Ayres. “The plates are beautifully produced – you can see brush marks in the ceramic from my original painting on paper. And I like the idea that it reaches a lot of people who might think a plate is more fun than a painting.”

“Gillian Ayres approached us with the idea of doing large, decorative platters,” says Riley. “She created bespoke artwork to fit their dimensions and the plates are printed with her signature. Mary Fedden is very particular in how she likes her work to be perceived and was involved in product design and specification [teapot with detail from her painting Charlotte’s Jug, £195]. We also worked with Robert Scott who, with his brother, runs his late father William’s estate. He felt an image from the 1971 painting Multi Blues would work well on a fine-bone-china plate [£98].”

Indeed, where it’s too late to work with an artist, some product developers find that a collaboration with the organisation responsible for their artistic heritage can work well. The Conran Shop, for example, worked with The Picasso Foundation to develop vibrant tapestry cushion covers (£75) depicting the artist’s abstract portraits of women, including lover and muse Dora Maar. The designs are woven in France and have proved so popular that a second series has been introduced.

Meanwhile, online shop Culture Label has a selection from museum and gallery shops, including the Saatchi Gallery, Institute of Contemporary Arts and Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, along with work from artists. Among the latest arrivals are Jon Burgerman’s espresso-cup set (£42), David Shrigley’s duvet-cover set (£180), Katy Leigh’s Pink Cheeks plate (£70) and Girls salt and pepper pots (£15 a pair), and Tracey Emin’s Docket & His Bird mug (£12.95) featuring drawings of her cat. Peter Tullin, who co-founded Culture Label with Simon Cronshaw, says traffic has trebled in the past six months: “People are looking for products with a ‘soul’ and a backstory.”

While artistic homewares are a natural proposition for design-conscious stores, other companies choose art as a way to express their corporate values. Coffee specialist Illy, which commissioned Italian architect Matteo Thun to design a porcelain espresso cup in 1992, has invited more than 70 artists to decorate them. The latest of these signed limited editions are by Anish Kapoor and Francesco Clemente and were unveiled during the London Design Festival in September (set of two cups/saucers, $90). These join designs by Julian Schnabel featuring his surfer character Chuck (five espresso cups/saucers, $120; two mugs, $60), delicate, floral cappuccino cups by Taiwanese artist Michael Lin (six cups/saucers, $120) and German artist Tobias Rehberger’s bold, optical effects (six espresso cups/saucers, $150; six cappuccino cups/saucer, $175).

Kapoor’s design is intriguing since the saucer’s platinum-like surface surrounds a cut-out circle. Place the saucer on top of the cup and its reflective surface, coupled with the cup’s internal platinum surface, reflect and diffuse the light with the result that the hollow space inside the cup is not immediately apparent. As a microcosm of Kapoor’s work, it’s as sensory as any of his large-scale pieces. For a bigger impact, though, take a look at the artist-designed rugs from Christopher Farr and The Rug Company. Farr has worked with artists Gary Hume, Gavin Turk, Bill Jacklin and Gillian Ayres on limited-edition pieces (£4,500 to £18,000), while The Rug Company offers Zap and Palette, two bold abstracts by artist Fiona Curran (£755 per sq m) and a wall-hanging by Rob Ryan (£995). “Artists are free to be unapologetically uncommercial, which is invigorating,” says Christopher Sharp, CEO and co-founder of The Rug Company. Farr agrees: “In the artist’s mind there is no separation between a painting and a rug – it’s just a different form. Unlike product designers, who respond to a brief, an artist will articulate in their own personal way,” he says, “which results in greater creativity.”

Anyone seeking the perfect stocking filler might check out Pretty Taxing’s car-tax-disc holders (£40) in limited editions of 500. Designs include Gavin Turk’s nibbled biscuit, Mat Collishaw’s Butterfly, Peter Blake’s Heart in a Star, Abigail Lane’s Skull and Sarah Lucas’s King Richard Toby Jug. An even more modest gift can be found at Victoria Miro Gallery. Grayson Perry’s illustrated tea towel (£11.50) may be humble, yet it shows in an enchanting way that engaging with art – however informally – has a value beyond price.