Notes from the Field: Linked In

August 1, 2011

By Cheryl Katz

The development of new technologies brings with it the seduction of advanced, innovative materials. As designers constantly on the hunt for the new, we are drawn to them, anxious to include these novel materials into our work. But on more than one occasion, the use of ordinary materials in unexpected ways also yields exciting and unexpected results.

About fifteen years ago, our friend Tim gave us a metal mesh glove, the kind usually worn by butchers and fishery workers to prevent injuries from sharp carving knives. An unusual gift, though not a surprising one given our shared fascination with the common, industrial landscape.

At about the same time our studio was invited to design an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Our charge was to showcase the museum’s collection of twentieth-century European decorative arts. As we explored ideas for the design, we looked at ways to guide visitors through the show while helping to focus their attention on individual pieces. Tim’s gift would prove prescient; the mesh of the glove would provide the key to the installation.

After some investigation, we found the glove’s manufacturer less than an hour south of Boston. Whiting and Davis, in business continuously for over one hundred years, was not only responsible for fashioning the mesh into protective gloves (among other protective gear) it actually produced the metal material.

Photo courtesy of Whiting and Davis

With their guidance, we designed a series of metal mesh screens in curved planes that not only provided the spatial isolation we had hoped for, providing a veil to the space beyond, but also persuaded the viewer through the space by giving them a peek at the next enticement.

Photo courtesy of C & J Katz Studio

We were reminded of the power of ordinary materials when, on a recent trip to the Berkshires, we saw the work of the African artist El Anatsui. On display in Tadao Ando’s Stone Hill Center at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Anastsui weaves discarded aluminum from Nigerian liquor bottles into powerful, large-scale sculptures. In the hands of the artist the bottle caps, with their references to consumerism and waste, become undulating metal cloths–links with the past that just might hold the key to our future.

Strips of Earth’s Skin
(2008), found aluminum and copper wire,
12 ft. 10 in. x 22 ft. 10 in. Photos courtesy of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

El Anatsui
June 12–October 16, 2011
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
225 South Street
Williamstown, Mass.
www.clarkart.edu