The Colorful Return of Collective Design

The design fair re-emerges at Frieze New York with a virtual group show, curated by Libby Sellers, that traces how technology has carved out new chromatic possibilities.

Collective Design presents “Color and Production: From the Atom to the Void,” a group exhibition curated by Libby Sellers via Frieze Viewing Room. Image by TUUX (Mexico City), courtesy of Collective Design

At this time last year, Steven Learner was plotting the return of Collective Design, the annual fair he founded to showcase 20th-century and contemporary collectible design at accessible price points. Praised by designers, collectors, and critics for its strong roster of dealers and platform for emerging talent, the fair took a step back from the crowded cultural calendar in 2019 so Learner could “create something new and evolve,” he said at the time. “I want to take a beat and start fresh.”

In February, Learner announced that instead of mounting a standalone fair, Collective would re-emerge this May with a group exhibition inside the white tent at Frieze New York. His preparations were on track until the coronavirus pandemic forced almost every cultural event, including Frieze, to postpone or cancel their physical editions this spring. Thankfully, Frieze had already made major progress on developing an app and web platform that uses augmented reality to bring the fair’s blue-chip artwork to remote viewers, meaning Collective’s show could continue. 

Image by TUUX (Mexico City), courtesy of Collective Design

The fair now reveals “Color and Production: From the Atom to the Void,” a virtual group exhibition curated by the design historian Libby Sellers, which traces the technological advances that influenced the use of color in art and design throughout the ages. “The drive to discover, exploit, and transform materials into color has been central to artistic practice since pigment was first applied to cave walls,” says Sellers, the former curator of London’s Design Museum. “So many of the colors we experience today are, however, not by nature but from industry,” ranging from early developments of synthetic pigments to mind-bending nanotechnologies.

To showcase this progression, Learner and Sellers assembled artful vignettes of furniture, textiles, objects, paintings, and sculpture across three virtual viewing rooms (Mapping, Matter, and Material) created in collaboration with Mexican industrial designer Emiliano Godoy of Tuux. Each piece speaks to how technology has steadily evolved and, consequentially, introduced new colors into the spectrum. On view are dated relics, such as a 16th-century Illuminated Manuscript, to experimental pieces from such bold-faced names as Hella Jongerius, Nathalie Du Pasquier, and Gaetano Pesce, each noted for their ambitious use of color. Meanwhile, newer works straight from the studios of up-and-comers like Jochen Holz, Cody Hoyt, and Sabine Marcelis hint at the rising vanguard’s promising chromatic experiments. 

Below, Sellers identifies and explains six key pieces from the show.

Johanna Grawunder: Mandala (2018)

“Color and Production” charts the ways in which emergent materials or technologies have enabled new chromatic landscapes—for example, the development of neon gas tubes in the early 1900s or the post-war acceleration of readily available cast acrylic sheets. A more contemporary example can be found in the work of Johanna Grawunder. Originally, she used fluorescent tubes in her light sculptures and chandeliers, but found the quality of light unsatisfactory and difficult to control. With the development of reliable LEDs, she was able to manipulate and control her work to greater effect and has used them ever since.


Formafantasma: Botanica (2011) and Tanya Aguiñiga: Cosas que Sangran (2020)

Material choice is never completely objective. The exhibition also looks to examples where artists have employed particular materials for political or ideological reasons. The Botanica series by Formafantasma and the textile works by Tanya Aguiñiga highlight a contemporary return to pre-industrial or natural colorants that offer commentary on our petrochemical reliance or the dubious origins of certain mined and harvested pigments.


Carmelo Arden Quin: Untitled (1985) 

In 1946, Carmelo Arden Quin co-founded the Buenos Aires-based Grupo Madí. Alongside Gyula Kosice, Rhod Rothfuss, and Martin Blaszko, Quin led the Latin American crusade in defense and practice of pure geometrical abstraction. Rebelling against the spatial and ideological constraints of the traditional rectangular or square canvas, their mutable sculptures and paintings of irregular shape with moveable components (coplanals) embraced a range of modern transparent translucent and illuminated materials.


Bertrand Lavier: Vermillon par Golden, Pēbēo et Bertrand Lavier (2018)

There is no universal language for color. As Josef Albers said, “if one says ‘red’ and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these red will be very different.” As a rebuke to the systems that attempt to define color and its usage, Bertrand Lavier has extrapolated on Albers’ thoughts. In the work Vermillon par Golden, Pēbēo et Bertrand Lavier, the word ‘red,’ for example, does not coincide with a precise reality, but with at least two colors.


Ercole Barovier (for Barovier & Toso): Saturneo (1951)

While murrine production first appeared more than 4000 years ago in the Middle East, the secret techniques used to create the glasswork were lost during the Middle Ages and remained undiscovered until the 16th century when Murano glass masters achieved near-replicas of the original Roman artifacts. As an art form, murrine reached its peak in the 20th century thanks largely to Ercole Barovier’s fearlessness with glass. Unafraid to experiment with unknown formulas to create a new and exciting color, his vast knowledge of traditional techniques combined with emerging technological advances in glassmaking left a major mark on the entire glassworks industry.

“Color and Production: From the Atom to the Void” will display via Frieze Viewing Room through May 15.

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