Curves Ahead

Curves Ahead

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Portrait by Chris Callis

Furniture designer/maker Vivian Beer hasn't met a challenge she doesn't like.

Vivian Beer is fearless. That's really the best way to describe her. The 33-year-old designer/maker takes steel and cuts it. Bends it. Shapes, welds, grinds, and sands it. She transforms it - by hand and machine - from rigid raw material into impossibly curvy furniture and sculpture. And she does all of this, more or less, alone.

Beer doesn't find any of this daunting. On the contrary, "I'm always trying to push myself into harder territory," she says. But whether that means making her designs more complex or adding more projects to the docket, the metals artist seems to know, more than most, how to run with a challenge. That's a good thing, because this year is chock-full of them.

Beer kicked off 2011 by taking leave of her modest New Hampshire shop, Vivian Beer Studio Works, and heading to Purchase College (part of the SUNY system) for a five-month residency. A couple of months into her stay, she was in the thick of producing three different themed bodies of work - and pulling together three distinct solo shows (one through Purchase, the others at Courthouse Gallery Fine Art in Ellsworth, Maine, and Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia).

Working in an academic setting has allowed her to experiment with new materials and methods, she says. She cheerfully compares it to the "amazingly productive" time she spent at Penland (2005-8), where she produced notable works such as her undulating Ruffle Lounge, eye-catching Red Rocker, and whimsical Cloud Couch (all 2007). The past couple of years, by contrast, have been more focused on gestation: time to create designs, research materials. "The residency is the racing gate opening," she says.

Infrastructure, one of the themes Beer is now pursuing, is an exploration of architectural elements - think bolts, I-beams, angle iron - manipulated into and merged with more anthropomorphic forms. She's also working on pushing the envelope on her Anchored Candy series, a group of lounges improbably bolted into blocks of metal.

"I might be making the most curvy form I've ever made," she confesses. Told that's a bold statement, given her already voluptuous work, she laughs. "I'm serious! I'm blushing even thinking about it." Part of the infatuation is doing aluminum forming, a new experience for the fan of steel and stainless steel: "I've been having this love affair with Delahaye French streamline-design cars for years, and I finally said, OK: I'm going to just build something in the exact-same way they would have built those."

Beer begins with a steel rod armature, a "model" that helps her define and measure the form. From it, she pulls flat patterns and cuts those shapes out of aluminum sheets. With steel, she might work the metal in a hydraulic press with a series of forming dies. Aluminum is soft. She manipulates it with a series of hand techniques and tools, roughing out the curves. After working the pieces with an English wheel (smoothing hammer marks and stretching the pieces to their final forms), Beer welds them together, grinding and sanding the seams.

You could get the idea that she's something of a motorhead - the juiced-up shapes in her work, the shiny auto-body finishes, her references to vintage cars - but you'd be wrong. Beer just loves metalworking - loves it. Which, she says, makes it impossible not to be interested in the history of automobile and aircraft design. And she relishes putting that knowledge to use.

Take color, for example. Selecting from existing auto-body finishes, Beer manipulates a palette packed with cultural punch. Hot-rod red. BMW silver. "If I'm using '80s orange, it's really different from a 2010 pearlescence," she says, calling to mind Winded Orange (2006). The sleek steel bench is undeniably modern, yet its form - a hint of bicycle banana seat, a touch of wispy cirrus cloud, dressed in that Mazda '80s hue - waxes nostalgic. Lie on it and you'd half-expect to be transported back to Madonna's heyday, gazing in wonder at the sky. To Beer, these cultural forces, the signs and meanings we share - a red button signaling danger, for example - are as powerful, true, and beautiful as natural forces like wind-blown clouds. As a designer, she uses both in her work.

"From the viewpoint of a gallery or a dealer, it's what you wait for; it's what you hope for," says Bebe Pritam Johnson of Pritam & Eames gallery in East Hampton, New York. In Beer's work, "there's the economy, the flow, and the subtlety. It's all there."

Beer grew up in rural Maine, an environment where using tools and making things soon became second nature. She studied sculpture at Maine College of Art, receiving a "very formal, Bauhaus-style art education" that continues to enrich her design practice with key methodologies, especially abstraction. After graduating, she merged into the craft world, took classes, and began blacksmithing, doing architectural ironwork. In 2003, she went for her master's at Cranbrook, studying under Gary S. Griffin (see page 72), who introduced her to the decorative arts, another source of inspiration. It was there that Beer fell in love with furniture - and all of its complexities.

She ticks off the artistic distinctions: We experience furniture physically, to start. We also own our furniture in a more intimate way than we possess other kinds of art. And furniture's forms are rich with familiar references - the social rituals of domestic life, memories of other pieces we have known. She speaks so enthusiastically that the prospects seem endless.

Pattern Recognition, the last group of work she's producing at Purchase, might be her biggest push yet, she says. She spent the past year researching computer-aided design and manufacturing, after noticing patterns in discarded, punched-out sheet metal at
the scrapyard that seemed to organically re-create classic decorative arts motifs.

Initially she experimented with using a CNC (computer numerical controlled) router to create patterned pieces of material, laying them over existing forms, but ultimately decided she needed the designs to be more integrated. As of early spring, she was diving into research on the history of tattooing, decorating the body, fashion design, and the architecture of clothing. She plans to bring Pattern Recognition pieces, along with new Anchored Candy work, to the Wexler show this fall. In 2012, her work will be included in "40 Under 40: Craft Futures," a prestigious show organized by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

"I'm excited to see her moving to the next level," says Lewis Wexler, co-owner of Wexler Gallery. "You don't see a lot of young, great, female designers in the United States, and here's this young, great designer - who's got so much potential and is so committed to her craft - creating these incredibly well-designed, well-crafted pieces. That's a powerful combination."

For Beer, putting the most into her work is simply what she does. "I'm just a furniture maker and designer. It's just sitting down," she says. "But how do you fill that with power and with beauty - with a physical-cognitive reaction to something that has to do with desire and who we are? To me, that's what furniture should be."

It's a tall order, but she's up for it.

 

Vivian Beer's 2011 solo shows are at Courthouse Gallery Fine Art (Jul. 13 - Aug. 7), Manhattanville College's Arthur M. Berger Art Gallery (Sept. 6 - 30, partnered with Purchase College), and Wexler Gallery (Oct. 7 - Nov. 25). Julie K. Hanus is American Craft's senior editor.