WORDS: Yahdon Israel PHOTOGRAPHY: Julien Roubinet
Whenever art seems too simple, there's the ubiquitous notion that a child has made it. It's a revealing sentiment that often says more about the person observing the work than the person who made it. If art was truly as simple as it looked, more people would do it. Plain and simple. The truth is: art is a serious endeavor.
Few people understand this because very few people commit themselves to what art exacts. The common assumption of art is that it's as good as the questions it answers. But what most artists discover in the process of creating is that art is about the questions. Possibilities are endless when we allow ourselves the freedom of asking. These same possibilities are bleak when we don't.
This is probably why Albert Einstein is often credited with the quote that "play is the highest form of research." It takes a certain level of genius to see that not only is play necessary; it's a prerequisite for discovery. If there's anyone who understands this, it's creative director and lighting designer Chad Phillips.
For almost twenty years the Nashville, Tennessee native has made a lifelong habit of taking play seriously and it's been working. While working with brands such as Moss, Kidrobot, Nike and the Smithsonian has informed how he makes, he's found a way to remain true to why. Art is about the questions. Ones Chad asks of himself and his work but also the ones he answered for us when we visited him at the Wintercheck Factory in Bed-Stuy where he and his friend's art exhibit, "Touching", opens this Friday. In addition to talking to us about his first make, he gave us a sneak preview of his most recent collection of faux fur lamps, the inspirations behind it and why, no matter what's going on in our lives, we must always make time for play.
What was the first thing you remember making?
The earliest, earliest, thing that I remember making was in high school art class. I made a 3D ceramic version of this really famous Matisse, Yves Klein Blue colored nude painting. I did it in white rather than blue. I was just really into it. It's beautiful.
I still have an Yves Klein Blue obsession, which is very of the moment, but it's just such a good blue.
What was the experience that made you want to be a creative director?
The thing that brought me into this world was my boss, Mike Smith, in Tennessee, and my friend’s dad. Mike Smith was my boss at a used record store. I learned about furniture from him and I bought stuff. And then my friend’s dad was a huge mid-century furniture collector so I learned a lot about furniture. Being around that stuff just really made me appreciate objects and things, which turned into a desire to want to make them.
Because I wanted to make furniture, I moved to New York in 1998 and started working with this major design store called Moss. I worked there for about four years—making lamps on the side and other products—then I left and started working at Kidrobot.
When I started with Kidrobot in 2003, they had just moved to New York to start a store. Before that there was only the store in San Francisco and the their website. In my seven years there I'd done everything from buying, to graphic design, to photography, to merchandising the website, to hiring staff. By the time I left we had stores in London, Dallas, Miami. Kidrobot was where I became a brand manager and creative director. It taught me a lot.
My mother had this thing about quality furniture. We’d be on the street, she’d see an antique piece on the sidewalk and take it home. At the time I saw it as her digging through the trash but she knew the value of what she was grabbing. So we would have all this quality furniture in our house, and people thought we had money but it was just because my mother had a really good eye. What grabs your eye?
For me, furniture and design is about the story. Even these lamps that I’m making, I’m making because I wanted to create something that’s totally different than what’s happening. I've always been intrigued by a uniquely interesting visual story and seeing how people take these things we see every day and take them into a different direction.
So walk us through the story of each of these lamps.
1) The grey one is a prototype for a chair. I make a lot of lighting and I like the idea of it also being a light because you wouldn’t think of it that way. This brings an artistic perspective to the idea.
2) With the blue lamp I wanted to revisit the spray foam that I played with when I was younger. And it’s funny because it’s a very old school material. One of the through lines in all of my pieces is faux fur. Because it’s soft and fuzzy, it’s typically the last thing you’d associate with lighting. And the first I always get is, “Isn’t that a fire hazard?” And it’s like, “Yeah maybe but art has its risks.” But this one is so low powered, you can barely tell it’s on but I like that.
3) The third lamp is a collaboration with Daniel Michalik and the project is called "Menace Mineure." We used trophy tubing. We wanted to use material that no one uses to renew the way its seen. At first you don’t realize what it is. But there’s something I like about the garishness of it; the way it has this over the top maximal idea that plays off this very minimal design. So it’s playful but also serious.
All of these lamps aren’t exactly kid friendly but was a part of what informed my creative process: "Let’s make these things that visually are childlike but have an adult seriousness to them."
What's one of your most memorable makes?
Defintely the Kidrobot Nikes. We were approached by Barney’s and the head of Special Projects of Nike at the time (2005). I was talking to my boss about how we could black out the swish logo and put the Kidrobot logo there. It had been the first time this had happened. To me that was something I had an influence on that I was proud of.
Why do you make what you make?
For me I just want to make stuff. I make all these drawings and I have all these ideas. I’ve worked in the furniture and design world for almost twenty years and for me, seeing the stuff that’s made and seeing the direction of things makes me want to throw a monkey wrench in the system and make things that are going in a different direction.
And this is pulling from different parts of my brain and life. My Kidrobot background, my design and furniture background and then it’s also having a playful approach in bringing those things which don't exist into existence.
What is your creative process in making?
With art you’re always asking questions. There’s always the through line of trying to figure something out. Since I use fur often, I always want to see what I can do with it. I look to see how I can play with form and proportions. If I’m going to make something, it's not going to feel or look like something I've seen before.
What or who are some of your inspirations?
Gaetano Pesce. He’s an Italian architect and designer who makes a lot of things with resin. When I used to work at Moss, Pesce lived around the corner from the store. We used to see him all the time and he'd always bring stuff in, which gave us an appreciation for what he was doing.
There was an energy to it then when I started working at Kidrobot, I found an even deeper appreciation for what he was doing because when you’re working with plastic you see how controlled that environment is. This is when I really understood how much he went against that control. If you look at some of his pieces, the interest to him is when the unexpected makes itself present.
What is the last thing you made?
The last thing I made was the gray lamp that I'm also prototyping as a chair. I want to continue playing with faux fur, form and proportions and see what comes out of it.
What do you feel like you learned about yourself and others from what you make?
I think I’ve learned that I’m way more esoteric than I thought. I’m way more far out there than I think I need to be at times. And I think what I’ve learned about people is, the people you would expect to know what you know don't; and the people you wouldn’t expect to know actually do, sometimes.
How do you reconcile being so far out there with what’s going on around you? How do you reel yourself back in?
In every capacity where I worked for other brands there was always a certain set of parameters. And working within those parameters, you learn them and apply them to other parts of your life. But with these lamps, I wanted to go as far and as crazy as I could.
If there's anything you wish you would’ve known sooner, what would it be?
If I would’ve just kept making stuff. Basically what happened is I stopped making physical stuff and started doing digital stuff—Photoshop, illustrator, websites. I don’t regret any of it, and I’m glad that I have those skills but when I started physically making things again I was reminded of how good it felt to actually do it.
When I first moved here I had a tiny apartment with my girlfriend at the time, and there was no space to make anything. My second apartment in the East Village had some space. That’s where I started making lights. I used to blow the fuse in that apartment all the time but the thing I would say is don't let whatever limitations you have prevent you from doing what you want to do. There’s always a way to do the thing you want. You just have to find out how to do it.