Boym Partners' designs are the peak of piquant.
By David Sokol
Constantin Boym and Laurene Leon Boym have a knack for keeping one step ahead of the rest of us. Before adaptive reuse seduced designers sensitive to overabundance, the Boyms had transformed thrift-shop teacups and dishes into the beautifully mismatched towers of Salvation Ceramics for Moooi, and reconceived modest plumbing as vases for Benza. The sense of Americana that has yielded a preponderance of antlers in design is a spirit that first percolated through the Boyms’ blood, yielding projects like Upstate Plates and the “Searstyle Furniture” exhibition.
While such second looks at common elements of American life are still refreshing, the Boyms have since shifted their laser-beam focus onto new subjects. The Ultimate Art Furniture collection, in which paintings comprise furniture, quite literally deciphers the realignment of the design world with the art market. Another self-produced project, Souvenirs for the End of the Century, offers a truly modern contemplation on cognitive memory and the compulsion to collect. A more recent iteration of the souvenirs series is the, still-evolving, Buildings of Disaster collection that surged into the public consciousness after September 11, when the Boyms Partners were inundated with requests for their bonded-nickel replicas of the Twin Towers, even by survivors of the World Trade Center disaster.
The way in which Buildings of Disaster transformed from ironic commentary to beloved memento approximates the Boyms’ own trajectory. “The margins have moved,” Constantin explains, “design has become a much more inclusive discipline and that now includes more extravagant pieces.” Laurene adds that consumers have widened their scope to embrace narrative-based and conceptual design, too. “Now you can do an object that doesn’t refer to design itself, but to a subject like death or souvenirs, and people understand these objects because they’re acclimated to society.” Although the Boyms continue to make provocative designs, the times are catching up to this power couple. Once considered left-of-center visionaries, they are now comfortably ensconced as deans of a new American design. Nikki Style: In order to push some of your experimental designs beyond the prototype stage, you’ve become your own client.
Laurene Leon Boym: We’ve had enormous success doing independent projects before anybody [else] had that idea. It was new for designers to say, “I’m going to get out of the loop and produce my own thing.”
NS: I’ve heard other designers say that now, manufacturing on your own is the only way to realize progressive concepts in America.
Constantin Boym: I don’t think it’s the only way, but it’s the way we chose for ourselves, and we are continuing to move even further in this direction. I think being your own client and promoter gives you more creative freedom and actually speeds up production. One of the most intoxicating aspects of the Art Furniture is the fact that three or four months after I conceived something, it was on the shop floor at Moss.
LLB: The thing is that designers have dropped the ball. The idea of the authority of the designer, from the days of Charles Eames or Paul Rand, doesn’t exist anymore, because designers are so not sure about their own opinions. I think it’s very important for designers to take the reigns and start making decisions for the public. Basically, designers should know what people want before they know they want it. That should be a designers’ role in society—not just a tool of capitalist culture.
Basically, designers should know what people want before they know they want it. That should be a designers' role in society-not just a tool of capitalist culture.
CB: The Internet made it possible to reach a great amount of potential consumers without leaving your own studio.
NS: U.S.-based designers feel compelled to go into manufacturing just at the point when this country boasts more choreographers than metalsmiths—what’s the state of fabrication here?
CB: You make things in this country not for cheaper or more convenient labor, but for the uniqueness of the skills that are available here. We saw this chair at the Cooper-Hewitt made from Texas longhorns, a piece from the 1920s; those masters are in El Paso, still probably making chairs like this. All it takes is research and effort and it’s possible to get these people to make new, avant-garde pieces.
LLB: This is the tip of the iceberg, too, and the beginning of a new era for design. We still use the usual channels in China, of course. We produced our Babel Blocks in China; I coordinated the whole production over the Internet.
NS: Designers have followed you into the production business, but they’ve also appropriated themes, such as material salvage and souvenirs, that ostensibly trace to you. Is that frustrating?
CB: When I did [the collection] Recycle in 1988, the statement was so unusual that older people were actually correcting me, saying the word “recycle” doesn’t exist. But ideas are part of a culture, and I’m very open to other people taking them over.
LLB: That’s what makes it interesting. We’re not talking about plagiarism, but about creative interpretations of the same ideas. To be sure, I think it’s interesting to be out in front.
NS: How do you stay there?
CB: When something has been taken over and explored thoroughly by a new generation that gives us not just an opportunity, but a necessity to move forward. The Art Furniture was still about recycling, but of paintings that had been disposed to flea markets and yard sales, brought over and reconfigured in a different way. That was new. But maybe even that will be overtaken soon — that’s how the creative process works.
LLB: I think that’s how our work and agenda as designers is characterized—by this curious moving forward, this quest for the ultimate expression of what’s inside us and what’s there in society. We keep seeing things differently and framing things differently, and the fact that our design is not driven by a formal methodology gives us a lot of latitude.
NS: Speaking of Art Furniture, it is a cunning commentary on the art market’s embrace of contemporary products—at exactly the moment that Marc Newson breaks seven figures on the auction market. Since your work forecasts and responds to cultural phenomena, what occurrences do you foresee broaching in the near future?
CB: The convergence of art and design. It’s very much a new thing. It’s still emerging and I think this is what’s going to be around us for the next five years or so. What was exceptional, now, becomes the norm and even the stodgiest companies are producing limited editions. It’s interesting to see how objects and art come together.
Another area of interest is something we’ve been exploring for years, and that is the design object that’s not functional in the direct sense. You cannot hammer nails or brush teeth with the Buildings of Disaster series, yet people buy complete collections. Collecting as a function is little understood in the 20th century, but I think it’s going to be more important. People collect “stuff” and that’s reason enough to produce collectibles.
NS: Are there any specific forthcoming plans you can reveal to Nikki Style readers?
CB: We are planning to open a gallery of design arts in New York, near the New Museum. The gallery would show our own work, but also that of like-minded designers. Boym Space is the tentative title. It’s a space in the physical sense but also the mental—it’s our point of view, our humor, our paradoxes, our investigations, which characterize our, and others’, work with curated stories and different events.
LLB: It’s a cultural destination.
CB: And I think our studio would essentially merge into that. The creativity would be expressed through the studio: This will be our client and our exposure to people at large.
LLB: Both of us have always done quite a bit of public service. I think it’s time to take that ability to connect with other like-minded designers and bring it into a different realm. Also, we have such a rich cultural history on the Bowery; we’re really interested in championing that legacy of cross-pollination with other cultural disciplines, through the channel of design.