Daniel Arsham: The Conflict and Collaboration of Design

June 9, 2022

Daniel Arsham: The Conflict and Collaboration of Design

Ian Semivan

Ian is a content creator at StockX with a focus on trading cards and collectibles.

We sat down with Daniel Arsham to discuss his influences, process, and experiences that helped to shape his featured design at Milan Design Week.

We sat down with Daniel Arsham to discuss his influences, process, and experiences that helped to shape his featured design at Milan Design Week.

This article is part 1 of 16 in the series: Art & Residence

When it comes to art and design, few contemporary individuals have impacted our culture as much as Daniel Arsham. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Arsham is launching the Art & Residence program with an exhibition at Milan Design Week. The exhibition features an Arsham collaborative piece with USM, alongside nine designs by global creatives specially curated by Arsham. Arsham’s Art & Residence program is a part of StockX’s In Residence series aimed at broadening the cultural impact of creative work, and introducing new exciting artists and products exclusively to the StockX audience.

For this exceptional occasion, Arsham designed a chair that holds the unique quality of being perfectly stable, while appearing to be in a state of constant motion. Sitting upon a metal frame is a chair that stylistically appears to be referencing his 2021 work entitled Falling Clock . To Arsham, this project was a welcome challenge. “I have always been fascinated with the idea of a chair,” he says, “It’s one of the design objects that are so connected to us physically. As opposed to a lot of the areas in which I work such as sculpture and painting, or other forms of creative possibility–its intention is very exact and specific.”

Arsham's collaborative piece with USM on display at Milan Design Week

Arsham's collaborative piece with USM on display at Milan Design Week

Arsham carefully walks the line between the fashion of this creative possibility and the simple purpose that we expect from the object. For him, there is no reason why the creative elements of design need to be sacrificed when creating something that can be as ordinary as a chair, so long as the chair is still able to provide its primary purpose. “We can look at a sculpture and say, ‘Okay, it might mean something. It might do something. Its purpose may be X. A chair can contain so many ideas and materials and concepts within it’, but at the end of the day, its purpose is for sitting. And so I like the combination of this functionality and the artistry within the chair.”

While chairs are omnipresent and often overlooked, Arsham has been able to identify the greater complexities that have gone into the furnishing’s design even from a young age. “There’s this Thonet rocking chair, which my parents had since I was a child,” he says, crediting that specific chair as having captured his attention early on. “I can remember understanding that, as a design object, it was something that somebody had to think about how it would move, how the balance of your weight would function on it, and I also imagined it as a kind of play object,” he says. “There was some magic in that, and that’s the first experience with the chair where I understood it as having some intention behind it, in its design.” While Arsham is able to see a chair as a canvas to be crafted into something more, he spends just as much time thinking about the artistry of how the user will be able to interact with the object and its many features. His design is intentional and every piece has been thought through.

Daniel Arsham | Art & Residence | StockX

Arsham isn’t alone in this pursuit. We’ve seen this approach to furniture design in projects like MARKERAD by Virgil Abloh and Ikea, as well as Supreme x Vitra, pulling classic and contemporary furniture design into the collectable and culture-forward communities who are at the cutting edge of fashion and design. It’s an ongoing conversation between the past and the present, as evidenced by Arsham’s own experience with the Thonet rocking chair. In fact, that chair played a large role in how he approached what he has created for the Art & Residence program at Milan Design Week–through playing with the relationship between style and function.

“Sometimes there were material explorations with form that you wouldn’t think of as something that would have potential to be functional,” Arsham says. For his Milan Design Week project, Arsham started with a USM-designed console not intended for sitting and transformed it into a chair. “It’d be a bookshelf or something that you’d have in your house that you’d use to keep clothing in,” Arsham explains. He then created the actual seating part of the chair around the storage unit. Arsham recognizes the intentional conflict that he has built into the piece, “When you look at it, you can immediately tell that there’s a place to sit within it. So you understand that concept about it, but it also feels confused in a way, and I think that the tension in that is where the work lies.” That confusion is what begins to inform the connection between the user and the chair.

This conflict that Arsham has constructed is a major reason why Milan Design Week has become such an important cultural event that sets so many trends within the furniture design space. Milan Design Week includes a number of high profile exhibits and shows where the best industrial designers in the world come to show off their latest creations. It’s the grandest stage in furniture design, and Arsham has been attending the event for over a decade now both showcasing work and as a viewer. Arsham says, “I’ve always found [Salone] to be a place that’s pushing and blurring the boundary between what we might think of as a sculptural installation or something we would see in an art gallery and the universe of design.”

To Arsham, it is imperative to have a place that can showcase the best players in the creative space who are continuing to attempt to push the limits of their craft forward. “I think for a lot of people who are creative entities or creative entrepreneurs, design is thought of as secondary, thought of as something below art,” he says. “And I have never felt that way about it, so going to a place that is so supported, where a chair, a table, a lamp can be elevated to the same level as the sculpture, Salone has always done that for me.” To Arsham, Milan Design Week provides the stage for himself and like-minded creatives to truly advocate for the importance of the way they think, so that their new ideas can begin to make their way into mainstream design and culture.

Milan Design Week is the ideal place to set up collaboration, within the community it provides. Arsham fully believes that collaboration has been essential in moving the field forward and will continue to be but, much like in the sneaker world, the effort must be authentic. “I think that the idea of collaboration works when it’s genuine and when there’s something that is to be gained from it that’s surprising.”

Arsham stresses the importance of how working with someone new, who sees the task at hand through a different lens, is when the relationship can lead to innovation. “When you see a creator that you might appreciate, enter a design universe or intervene in an object that you might already be familiar with, I think there’s potential there to create a new experience of that thing.” That’s why Arsham has brought in partners like Hidden NY, PHILLLLLTHY, and Eny Lee Parker, as well as brands like Wales Bonner who have brought in African Design Studio, Mabeo. Plus, Arsham and Snarkitecture have tapped design studio PlayLab, Inc., who have been responsible for constructing some of the most unforgettable moments and features seen at Virgil Abloh’s runway shows for both Off-White and Louis Vuitton, to set the scene for all the pieces with a unique fixture that interacts with every design.

Whether he is on his own or delving into a project with a partner, Arsham aims to create conversation around the pieces he designs. To Arsham, “The best art doesn’t explain things to you. It really shows you new ways of seeing everything. It presents possibilities to you, really, that you may not have encountered. And the most powerful way that I’ve experienced that is when it is within the things that I feel like I already know.” He strives to continuously make something familiar feel new again so observers may gain inspiration. He says, “If you can show something to somebody that makes them think, that they have a complete conception about, and where there’s something about it that they’ve never noticed or that they didn’t consider–this is where the art actually happens.”

“Art & Residence” presented by Daniel Arsham & StockX explores this converging of worlds and taps non-traditional creatives to push the boundaries of what a chair can be. From fashion designers to architects, “Art & Residence” bridges creative communities – from the world of StockX, to the storied platform of Milan Design Week, taking place from June 7th-June 12th. For more information on the creatives involved in the program, you can click here.