One of the most effective ways to give an interior a new dimension is by combining architecture, sculpture and art in one focus piece,” says London gallerist David Gill. But how does one achieve such a feat within the confines of the home? Gill points to a glamorous solution – by hanging a sculptural cabinet on the wall.
He cites a vibrant work by Cuban-American artist Jorge Pardo, recently installed in the living room of a Georgian London home owned by one of his art-loving clients. Meretricious Untitled 6 (price on request) is a six-drawer wall cabinet‑cum-bookshelf, its façade transformed by the artist into a canvas framing a compelling image of a mother and child in acrylic paint. The overall effect is dramatic – the lines of the cabinet blur and the contemporary artwork comes to the fore. “It hangs on the wall and presents a narrative like other paintings, but it’s also a piece made for the living environment and is fully functional,” says Gill.
Mexico-based Pardo, whose work is included in the collections of The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, New York’s MoMA and Tate Modern in London, is renowned for fusing fine art, architecture and design – even treating entire buildings as artworks. His cabinet is part of a series, crafted in tzalam wood and coloured steel and featuring portraiture and landscapes, which is intended to be viewed as art. “I began with the idea of creating a very eccentric ‘support’ for a picture. A piece can have multiple meanings if it seems to jar in its aspiration to be a painting,” he says.
Pardo’s ethos is shared by many boundary-pushing furniture designers. In Ireland, Zelouf & Bell is working on a commission to create a large wall cabinet for a Los Angeles collector’s brutalist-style apartment – its doors (front and reverse) are inlaid with a bold, geometric motif in polished aluminium. Inside is a sliding door in intricate black bolivar and nickel marquetry; below this is a flap that opens to become a bar top decorated with a black and silver arabesque pattern. “The piece reflects the owner’s sensibilities as art collector and practical city dweller,” says co-founder Susan Zelouf. “She prefers her artworks to be functional and to earn their place in her home.”
Zelouf notes an increasing demand for creative cabinetry among her discerning clients, many of whom are art collectors. “They are discovering a new medium – artful cabinets with a purpose,” she says, adding that her peers are responding in kind with evermore imaginative concepts. Rupert Senior, the recipient of 16 coveted Guild Marks from The Furniture Makers’ Company, is one such designer/maker. His spherical Moon cabinet (£45,000), launched at Chelsea Harbour Design Centre’s Evolution of Tradition show last October, is an artistic interpretation of the moon inspired by the work of artist Ben Nicholson – and a rare piece of burr-ash timber that serendipitously came into his possession. When the cabinet doors are closed, the swirls of the burr ash, pitted with craters hand-covered in 24ct yellow gold, palladium and “moon” gold leaf, resemble the surface of the moon. But the piece then opens, revealing these “craters” to be a part of larger spheres representing the planets of the solar system. At the centre of the arrangement lies a black hole. “I’ve always been intrigued by Ben Nicholson’s artwork, especially the way he layers ideas into one abstract composition by combining a still-life foreground with a landscape background,” says Senior. “It’s this layering of composition that I’m exploring with the Moon cabinet, only in a three-dimensional form.”
His design is a tour de force. The door construction uses carbon fibre to create its curve, with the ash then bent and laminated to it, a complex process that required numerous mock-ups before the technique was perfected. The piece fulfils its purpose as a functional key cabinet beautifully – even if the polished, stainless-steel key-hangers, which are hidden behind the craters, evoke mini-satellites spinning off into space.
The idea of the high-concept wall cabinet is also being explored by furniture-designer Jake Phipps. His Urchin cabinet (£62,640) is a response to his memories of collecting seashells as a child, and what he calls “the bilateral symmetry of the urchin shell”. The doors are adorned with 70 curved and faceted polished-brass panels that surround a central convex mirror. Pushing the key-latch pops open this centrepiece, which pulls back a full 90 degrees to become a polished-marble worksurface. And the cabinet’s glamorous wood interior has a series of glass shelves with a mirrored compartment at the epicentre. “I focused on the idea of encapsulation,” says Phipps. “As a boy, we’d take family holidays along the Dalmatian coast, where I’d dive for urchin shells. I’d sit and study them, my eye always drawn to the void at their centre. I replicated this in the cabinet by fragmenting the reflections of the space around the piece, so the viewer’s eye gravitates to the central mirror. It’s the heart of the cabinet – not just visually but also physically, as a means of opening the cabinet doors.” Phipps’ focus echoes the symbolism used by the 15th-century artist Jan van Eyck in his famous The Arnolfini Portrait. “The painting also features a mirror, which expands the space beyond the immediate scene,” he explains.
As this piece shows, the fine line between art and design is becoming ever more blurred and, like artists, furniture designers are finding new ways to explore with a palette of mixed materials. Vincenzo de Cotiis, a Milan-based architect/artist, excels in this respect. His limited edition wall cabinets (prices on request) combine such materials as stone, polished brass, silvered brass, smoked glass, recycled wood and resin to create a patina that appears as though weathered over time. “My work recalls nature in the abstract. It’s an aesthetic infused with ‘perfect imperfection,’” he says.
“Vincenzo starts from an idea, then embarks on an artistic journey before function comes into play,” says Loïc Le Gaillard, co-founder of Carpenters Workshop Gallery, which staged a solo show of de Cotiis’s handmade designs in London last September. The exhibition, entitled En Plein Air, recalled the moment in art history when 19th-century French artists abandoned their studios to paint outdoors. The work, says Le Gaillard, references this through the pigments and composition. “Vincenzo expresses himself through texture and patina. There’s an incredible chemistry with the materials – you want to touch the surfaces. It makes the work so addictive, like the weathering of sculpture over time.”
Bespoke furniture maker Kent Townsend also references momentous moments in art through his expertise with wood. Based in Salida, Colorado, Townsend employs traditional cabinetmaking techniques and hand skills to create complex forms. In the past, he has drawn on the beauty of nature and Asian art, but his current muse is art deco, which is given a “modern twist” to create strikingly sophisticated designs such as his fluted rosewood wall cabinet with sterling-silver pulls ($29,000 for the five-drawer version; $19,000 for the two-drawer version).
New York gallerist Cristina Grajales believes the impact of high-design cabinets is elevated by hanging them on the wall. “They are so graceful to the eye because they appear to float,” she says. “I’ve commissioned simple designs in wood from Mira Nakashima [daughter of the legendary furniture maker George Nakashima] that are just magical when they are placed in certain settings.” Currently, Grajales’ gallery has a miniature (26.6cm x 22.8cm) handcrafted maple wall cabinet (price on request) by woodworker Gael Appler with slatted sliding doors. “I was immediately struck by the beauty of its movement,” she says. “It reminds me of ocean waves and the many secrets held by the sea.”
French cabinetmaker Jean-Luc Le Mounier’s Papillon (from £100,000) – a standout at Design Miami/Basel in 2018 – takes the idea of “floating” and “secrets” to a new level. Crafted in black and gold straw marquetry, it takes the form of a butterfly whose wings disguise two cleverly hinged doors. Inside, the doors open to reveal a delicate, lacy bronze “gate”, recalling the shape of the exterior, that encloses two shelves and hidden compartments. “I continually explore new ways of woodworking elevated to an art level,” says Le Mounier, who is represented by New York’s Todd Merrill Studio. “I design to surprise and seduce.”
For Zelouf & Bell, there is no better way to add an element of the unexpected than to fuse art, design and sculpture into one statement piece, from its Scullied bar cabinet (€19,700), referencing Dublin-born artist Sean Scully’s Wall of Light series and inspired by a talk by Scully on the relationship between artists and alcohol; to Riley’d (€18,120) in which marquetry creates a simple optical illusion in homage to Bridget Riley’s 1961 painting Kiss; to its collaboration with contemporary Irish artist Peadar Lamb, who made the monochrome stained-glass panel for its backlit Nighttown wall cabinet (€22,890) – a nod to Ulysses in Nighttown, a play based on James Joyce’s Ulysses described by a critic as “weird, sexy and a little dangerous”. “One might say,” jests Zelouf, “that the writing is on the wall.”