You are so well known for wall coverings, but it seems your work is becoming more and more closely integrated with architecture.
It is, yes. The art is becoming part of the architecture itself. I’m working on this collaboration in Northern California with Richard Carter, a ceramist who has this amazing anagama kiln. We are making a wall made of anagama-fired tiles. The clay will be pulled from the property and added into the artwork, and the clay walls will be an axis inside the building. So, at this point, the art and architecture are almost the same thing.
How did you first discover this niche?
Before I came to New York, I would sell a painting and then take the money and travel for three months. When I got to New York, I couldn’t really do that. You couldn’t fly by the seat of your pants the way you could in California, which is where I’m from. You had to know rich people to be here. So I looked through the art landscape—the people who make the aesthetic decisions in New York. My girlfriend was Hedi Slimane’s muse in Paris, so she passed my portfolio to Sidney Toledano at Dior, who passed it along to Peter Marino, and I ended up working on almost every project Peter had for seven or eight years. Through that relationship, I came to understand how serious you could really be about making paintings that went into buildings. The reason I call it “art for architecture” is that it’s work that’s attached to the architecture. Art is usually placed in space, but art for architecture is attached to a building in some way.
Are you now exploring other disciplines?
I’ve become interested in using the techniques I’ve developed for things other than art and architecture. I collaborated with Randi Mates, who has this incredible jewelry company called Aesa. We made a collection of yakisugi pieces, where we would take wood and burn it until it cures itself and becomes blackened by its own ash, sealing itself with its own oils. Randi studied Roman goldsmithing, so she used these ancient techniques for the fittings.
Your techniques seem to be very much rooted in history.
They are. I look to history to see how people have done things before and how I can move them forward into today so they become relevant again. To understand people, you have to look to how they make things and how they learn to make things. I’m entirely self-taught. Nobody teaches this stuff. I read Vasari, I read Vitruvius. Human knowledge is getting lost because people want bigger, faster, more.
So what would you tell a design student today?
Don’t just shop. Don’t just buy things that are already made. Go talk to a carpenter or a painter. Collaborate. It will bring a kind of life to your work.
For an artist so closely associated with the surface of things, your work has so much depth.
One of the things I’ve always been fascinated with is the relationship between image and content. Surface magazine, for example, is called “Surface,” but it’s about what’s beneath the surface. There’s this Japanese concept called ma—emptiness that’s not empty, like the space inside a bowl. It has emptiness, but it has purpose. We have to look at image and content in a different way.
How do you find that relationship?
Nature. I’m so interested in natural phenomena. When I was in East Africa, walking on the sand at night, I looked behind me, and my footsteps were blue-green because of the phosphorous in the sand. I put my hands into the sand and put it on my boyfriend’s head, and we walked on this beach illuminated by rocks. And then I went to Puerto Rico and there was this bay filled with bioluminescent organisms. You could put them in your mouth and watch them drip out. My happiest memory with someone I love very, very much was coming up out of the water and looking at each other and these bioluminescent organisms dripping off each other’s face. It was God. You have 80 years here on this place. Look at people. Look at coral. It’s so beautiful here. We really need to take better care of it. You can’t live on plastic and buying shit. Most architects, designers, ceramicists, dancers, writers—all any of us want to do is connect with people and to feel alive.
Do you find that in fashion, too?
I know people outside fashion sometimes think of fashion as just appearance, but if you look at the work of people like Rei Kawakubo or Alexander McQueen, or Mona Kowalska from ADétacheror Jade Lai from Creatures of Comfort, you’re looking at people who are really making a way for you to live. Coco Chanel became important because she cut a jacket that allowed a woman to move. Before that, jackets were cut very short in the arm, so if you wore a women’s jacket, you couldn’t work because you couldn’t move your arms. Everyone thinks of Chanel as pearls-and-black, but what she did for women was incredible. I have a profound respect for fashion houses because they keep the art of making things alive. Fashion designers bring worlds to us, and we live adventures in the clothes they make.