Please touch the artwork!

Designer Paul Kelley will be showing “The Dignity of Labour” in the foyer of Taunusturm in Frankfurt/Main until June 29, 2018. For him, interaction between the installation and the viewer is key. He explained to Anna Moldenhauer why that is.

Anna Moldenhauer: The installation at Taunusturm is a combination of the pieces you exhibited for the 2016 Architecture Biennale at Palazzo Michiel and the 2017 Art Biennale at Palazzo Bembo in Venice. Which elements did you include?

Paul Kelley: It is essentially a combination of both exhibitions, which are linked by the element of interaction. People loved getting creative with the cubes and I’d like to include this option in this show, too.

Why is interaction with the visitor an important element for you?

Paul Kelley: Because I am a furniture maker. I like things you can interact with. We make everything by hand, and I don’t want my art to be without this haptic aspect. Moreover, many of my designs were inspired by sculptures and paintings; I often make reference to art in my work.

Do you think visitors will respond to the interactive concept in the foyer of Taunusturm?

Paul Kelley: I don’t know. The people staffing reception know that several of the sculptures can be moved. But usually you just need one person to start creating something with the cubes. Then it quickly becomes interesting for others. And we have specially put up signs in German, inviting visitors to move some of the cubes. We’ll see how it goes.

The installation combines numerous materials, such as copper, lead, concrete and wood. What fascinates you about this mix?

Paul Kelley: I have always mixed materials, in my furniture designs, too. I like challenging myself and find inspiration in a great many things. I would probably be more successful if I were to keep to the same old thing, but I love experimenting. Sometimes things also arise coincidentally. To give an example, the photographer Ursula Maier sent me a book with abstract images of Venice after photographing my show at Schloss Untergröningen. All those colors in it – now that really helped me. That was precisely what I wanted to capture. The cubes reflect the colors of Venice, of parts of buildings and the gondolas. And the exotic woods represent the materials that have found their way into the city. We sought to integrate into the cubes all the materials and the craftsmanship you see in Venice. I am not the first artist to make cubes and I won’t be the last person to do so either. But there is so much you can do with an object just by changing the materials. And that is what I want to do.

Is there a significance to the basic arrangement of the cubes, or is it random?

Paul Kelley: It’s random really, we just stacked them up in the workshop. In the colored cubes, the framing also looks very prominent owing to the cubes on the outside. Even if it’s not real marble, just HPL panels, High Pressure Laminate. Somebody asked me this morning: Why didn’t you use real marble?

Presumably because real marble would be very heavy?

Paul Kelley: Yes, but it is also a bit of a joke about Italy, that everything looks extremely glossy, but it’s not so great under the surface. That’s why we opted to use this material.

Why are the cubes magnetic?

Paul Kelley: That development was triggered by a job. A while ago I made five cubes for a customer and she wanted to use them to form a table in the style of Carl Andre (American Minimalist sculptor, editor’s note), whom we both like. But she couldn’t decide between a small and a large table. I started thinking about how to make a modular one. So we started experimenting with magnets and came up with a method where the positive and negative poles become irrelevant and the cubes always stay connected whatever the shape you choose to create, which gives you complete freedom. And the construct is stable, because the cubes are always connected. I have now sold thousands of the cubes, but everyone uses them in their own playful way. And that is part of the idea.

What do you find fascinating about the shape of the cube?

Paul Kelley: Maybe I have spent too much time in Germany. (laughs)

What do you mean?

Paul Kelley: Everything in Germany is very square, very organized. I like German design. I like electronic music by German artists. I was taught by a German. I was a luthier and went to Chicago in the late 1990s. That changed my attitude to life. Through acquaintances I got to know friends of the architect and artist Donald Judd and became a member of the Judd Foundation. During that time my work with geometric patterns developed. The cubes are simply a good size; the copper ones are 20 x 20 x 20 cm. You can work very flexibly with them – use them to form a piece of furniture or steps. And thanks to the clear form, when you cut the copper there is no waste. That is another point that made me stick to the cube shape.

Is a good knowledge of the material decisive when it comes to you realizing an idea?

Paul Kelley: Yes. Anything else only leads to frustration and waste. I get depressed when I see designers who know nothing about materials. You need to be familiar with the properties of the material at the design stage if production is to be mindful. Also to avoid costs exploding. I was always aware of that, because all my work is handmade. I work very little on the computer; I draw and build models. That too makes a difference – you quickly get a feel for the result.

Are you currently focusing on art or design? Or do both go hand in hand?

Paul Kelley: I am a furniture maker and I realize installations. If visitors see that as artwork, it’s great. But if they perceive the functional aspect more strongly, that’s also OK for me. I don’t want to be defined as just one or the other. I want observers to decide for themselves what my work is for them. I sometimes work predominantly with metals and plastics, then I’ll have a phase when I prefer wood; after all, that’s where my roots are. I like my installations, but after a while I think: “Oh God, I want to make a piece of furniture again.” And then my focus switches to that.

I see, you need both.

Paul Kelley: Yes. And I think that’s a good thing. I need the variety, the oscillation.

Is it important to you that you are freer when creating an artwork, because it doesn’t need to have a function?

Paul Kelley: I think I am equally creative on the furniture side. It’s the materials that make the difference. I am pretty free, because I only make things I design myself.

Paul Kelley
"The Dignity of Labour"

To 29. June 2018

60310 Frankfurt/Main