Archive for January, 2010

Sheila Hicks: New work @ Restaurant SD26
January 25, 2010

Sheila Hicks with 5 "Sumo Balls." Photo: Massimo Vignelli office

Twenty years ago,  before I knew the difference between tiramisu and calamari,  I was at an Italian Trade Commission presentation and was served a simple pasta lunch so delicious that it made an impression on even my unrefined taste buds.  Well, no wonder:  the meal had been catered by San Domenico,  one of the finest classical Italian restaurants in NYC.  I never ate there,  but I never forgot the lunch or the name of the restaurant.

Last fall I read in the NY Times that San Domenico had closed,  and that the restaurant’s owners, Tony May and his daughter Marisa,  were opening another New York restaurant, SD26 (link here), with interiors by noted designer Massimo Vignelli (link here) and installations by fiber artist Sheila Hicks.  This was something that I wanted to know more about, because Sheila Hicks is one of the world’s preeminent fiber artists,  so it’s news that her work is a prominent — and permanent — part of the Mays’ new restaurant.

Ms. Hicks studied art with Josef and Anni Albers at Yale,  and she has been creating innovative work ever since.  If you want to know more about Sheila Hicks’s extraordinary career,  see my earlier blog post here and visit her website here.  Her site does not offer a complete catalogue of her work, but the exuberant colors and photographs, and the concise text, show very clearly who she is as an artist.

I also recommend the book Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor,  by Danto, Simon, and Stritzler-Levine,  which was published to accompany Ms.  Hicks’s 2006 exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center, NYC.  Design is central to Ms.  Hicks’s work,  so it’s not at all surprising that the book was brilliantly designed,  too.  At this moment it is going into its third printing,  which will be available in March.

But back to SD26.  The restaurant has been open for a few months and has gotten a lot of positive press attention,  but I wanted information specifically about Sheila Hicks’s installations.  Marisa May,  co-owner of the restaurant,  graciously agreed to a phone interview and provided Beatriz Cifuentes’s  striking photographs of the restaurant’s interior,  for both of which I am grateful.

Sheila Hicks also very kindly agreed to be interviewed (via e-mail) for this article.  My interview with her follows:

Q:  Because I want my article to be fairly short, and to focus on the SD26 commission,  I’m going to limit how much I write about your brilliant and prolific career,  but I can’t pass up the opportunity to ask you how you got into weaving.  I know that you studied art at Yale with both Josef and Anni Albers,  but was there any specific trigger for your interest in fiber arts?

A: When I moved to Mexico in 1959 after finishing two degrees in painting at Yale I applied my design ideas,  and by working with the local weavers,  made all of the textile-based accessories for my house in the countryside near Iguala/Taxco.  In doing so,  I learned about materials,  texture,  color and scale in a trial and error fashion  It was the best way to apply my studies and to actually see the results.

Q:  Marisa said that Massimo Vignelli fell in love with your work.  Was it his idea to commission you to create work for the restaurant?  Had you worked with him before?

A:  Yes.  Actually I have known him and his wife, Lella,  for more than 40 years.  We all worked on the Georg Jensen Center for Design in New York and have shared similar design concerns and projects on many occasions  but the SD26 restaurant was the first time we were able to work hand in hand with concepts,  drawings,  trials and models from the initial planning stages to the finished installation.  Massimo had clear ideas of how he wanted my work to fit into his master plan and he helped me in all phases.  As he was familiar with my work and my respect for architecture he felt our vocabularies coincided in a compatible and reliable manner.

Q:  Your work blends well with the restaurant’s interior.  Did you work from site visits?  Photographs?  Drawings or plans?

A:  I worked from all of the above.

Q:  Since this is the Mays’ third restaurant in New York,  did Tony or Marisa May offer input or make requests?

A:  They relied completely on Massimo’s master plan and concept.

Q:  You have created commissioned work all over the world.  Is this your first piece for a restaurant?  Did the fact that it was a restaurant create any unusual challenges?

A:  No,  I have worked on many restaurants — Paris,  San Francisco,  Tokyo.

Q:  Is this your first public work in New York City?

A:  The Ford Foundation auditorium and board room were my first large permanent New York installations.  Before that I made works for Saarinen’s CBS building on 52/53rd St.  and his TWA terminal at JFK.  Five years ago I was commissioned to make two tapestry bas-reliefs for the Federal Court House in Foley Square, NYC.

Q:  Each installation at SD26 uses one of your signature motifs: the wrapped ropes in the lounge, and the fiber balls that hang from the ceiling above the dining room.  What are the titles of the works?

A:  The sinuous cords on the two entrance wall panels are called: OR, OTHERWISE,  AND THEN AGAIN.  They are linen and cotton.  [See Beatriz Cifuentes’s photo below.]

The large hanging sculptures in the dining room are: EIGHT SUMO BALLS.  Silk,  cotton,  wools,  synthetic and metallic fibers.  [See Beatriz Cifuentes’s photo below,  and for a closer look,  see photo at the top of the post.]

Q:  Were they made in your Paris Studio?

A:  Yes, in the Cour de Rohan.

Q:  Marisa mentioned that you were working on another piece for the restaurant.  What stage is that work in?

A:  It is almost finished and will be installed in February.  it will hang on the far wall of the dining area above the red leather eating booths.

[Update:  Sheila Hicks’s new piece was installed in the restaurant in March.  To see it — and to read about it — click here.]

Q:  She also told me that you are a foodie.  Do you have a favorite dish at SD26?

A:  Seldom,  if ever,  have I seen such an attractive and varied cheese bar.  This combined with excellent wine and expertly prepared pasta are my favorites.  It sounds simple but sometimes that is the hardest thing to find in sophisticated New York eating meccas.

So having begun with and circled back around to the Mays’ pasta,  this seems the perfect place to end,  for the time being — but not before I mention how very grateful I am to Sheila Hicks for generously taking the time to help me with this project,  which started last September and isn’t over yet.

2010 Weave of the week #2: GO JETS!
January 21, 2010

Scarves from The Home Team Collection (TM)

“Me will crush you . . . crush you to goo!” (unidentified monster from one of my husband’s  computer games)

Uh . . . I know that’s not my usual blogging voice, but the underdog New York Jets are one unlikely victory away from going to their first Super Bowl in 41 years, and it’s a big deal, as you’re probably tired of hearing by now,  whether you follow football or not.  The Empire State Building is on the green-and-white Jets’  bandwagon (from last Sunday’s New York Daily News)

and so am I.  Sunday will probably find me wearing the green-and-white scarf from my Home Team Collection™ shown at the top of the post,  trying to eat chips with my fingers crossed, and critiquing  team uniforms and logos.

The scarves being optimistically mashed by my mannequin are in the colors of the other three formidable teams playing this weekend:  the Jets’ opponent Indianapolis Colts,  the Minnesota Vikings,  and the New Orleans Saints.  There’s  more about The Home Team Collection™  in one of my earlier posts (here),  and there are more pictures on my gallery page,  and there’s more about the Jets anywhere you look — in NYC,  anyway.

I hope that whichever team you’re rooting for wins . . . unless it’s the Colts.

2010 Weave of the week #1: “Swept Away”/Coptic weaving
January 2, 2010

"Swept Away," designed, handwoven, and photographed by Ann Rosenthal

Ann Rosenthal is a longtime friend and a textile artist whose work fascinates me.  (To read my earlier posts about her weaving,  see herehere,  and  here.)  Each of  Ann’s weavings is about trying to resolve a different complex weaving idea.  The idea behind her latest piece,  Swept Away (shown above),  was to weave a pattern and then “dissolve” it,  but when I looked at the image of the girl sweeping away the checkerboard floor,  all I could think of was how intensely I wanted to sweep away 2009.  So Swept Away seemed like the perfect choice for the first featured weave of the New Year.  (It is just a coincidence that last year’s first weave of the week was When Opposites Attract,  another of Ann’s works,  see here).

Ann’s unique hybrid tapestries have been baffling me since she started doing them in the 1980s,  but I had never asked her what inspired them until I started thinking about writing this post.  Her technique of combining twill and tapestry in the same weaving comes from fifth- to sixth-century Coptic weaving.  (The Copts are native Egyptians whose ancestors embraced Christianity in the first century.)  Coptic textiles woven in that style are sometimes misidentified as being embroidered or even painted (that happens to Ann’s work, too),  but she examined both sides of several Coptic woven pieces at the textile library of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Ratti Center)  and confirmed that the two weaves were created as a single piece.  The detail below from a fourth- to seventh-century Coptic weaving (Museum of Natural History and Ethnography,  Colmar,  France) shows the two weaves particularly well,  as well as the single row of twining that surrounds the motif.

Coptic textile detail. Photo: Julien Schweiger

Here are some weaving details about Swept Away:  It is 12″ x 14″ and was woven sideways,  tapestry style,  on an 8-harness Macomber.  The diagonals visible in the background have the same function as Navajo rug weavers’ “lazy lines” do:  they make it easier to work on small sections of a large area.  Ann shaped the words with yarn and tied them down with couching threads (they are not woven in).  Personal note:  my favorite detail is the broomstick,  which was woven with a bit of leftover velveen yarn from one of my scarves.

I read a bit about Coptic weaving on the Indiana University Art Museum’s excellent website and in Early Decorative Textiles by W.  Fritz Volbach (a 1969 book available on Amazon),  and it’s easy to see why Ann is so drawn to it.  See her lively 2009 piece,  A Not So Still Life (below,  right),  and the charming fifth- or sixth-century Coptic piece that inspired it, Vase with the Tree of Life (below,  left).

In trying to put Coptic weaving into context,  I learned that much of it was created during the period of great upheaval popularly known as the Dark Ages (fifth to eleventh centuries) that started with the decline and fall of Rome.  It was a period of barbarian invasions,  social and political chaos,  wars,  economic depression,  epidemics,  and perhaps a global climatic catastrophe in the sixth century.  But through it all Coptic weavers kept on working,  weaving images of warriors,  gods,  plants,  and creatures into their fabrics.  Happily,  enough of those cloths have survived to help inspire us to do our own work,  and hope for better times.  And whatever debris history leaves on your doorstep — sweep it away!

Cheers and Happy New Year.