An Ideological Revision of Forniture Design: Jessi Reaves

Josephine Graf in Conversation with Jessi Reaves


Jessi Reaves builds sculptures that are chairs, sofas, shelves, and tables—and vice versa. These works disregard divisions between the functional and the aesthetic, while simultaneously staring down the history of that binary. In some, Reaves enlists modernist designs as substrates, bundling them in upholstery foam or shrouding them in silk. In others, classic fabrication techniques are bent towards the strange, or turned inside out. Any equation between functionality and rationality is dislodged through a heavy dose of the abject and excessive. Jessi spoke to me on the phone from Los Angeles, where she was preparing for a two-person show at Del Vaz Projects.


JOSEPHINE GRAF: I want to start off with a broad question about how you came to work at the intersection of sculpture and furniture?

JESSI REAVES: It came out of working professionally doing upholstery, and having those materials and the process of regenerating these older pieces around all the time. People would bring me furniture that had been sitting in the same corner for 30 years, so they were stained by the architecture or daily use. I got so attached to them in their kind of undone-ness, and then it would be this painful process of ripping them apart to make them look new again. Literally turning them inside out.

JG: The process of reworking pre-existing forms obviously carries through to what you are doing today. Can you talk specifically to the modernist designs that you intervene in, and the ideological revision that comes along with changing them materially?

JR: That’s kind of to the heart of the whole idea, an ideological revision. In some works, there’s a frame that remains unaltered. I’m thinking of those chrome chairs (Butter Egg Chair, 2014), for example. In certain instances I’m more concerned with the ideology surrounding the history of a specific piece, the designer, the time period. In others, I’m more focused on how a particular piece has been absorbed culturally. With that work and certain others I’m interested in a particular aesthetic, how it seems trapped between modernism and a kind of failed biomorphism. I’m looking for pieces that attempt to interact with classic modernist design, that aim for that type of elegance, and then miss. So with that chair in particular, it’s somewhere between a creature and a chair, it’s like the shell of a bug. There’s something psychological about that mistake, about aiming for something and then just missing.

JG: Can you talk a little about your ongoing show titled Office Furniture in the back room at Bridget Donahue Gallery, which extends until 2024?

JR: The idea to use that space as a revolving showroom was really Bridget’s. Everyone kept telling her: what you have to do is to get two sawhorses and a piece of plywood. I’m just very grateful that she was willing to do something beyond that, because there are so many ways in the art world where you’re presented with these two decisions – either you go fancy, or you go low class. And they kind of mean the same thing. It’s also been interesting to give those pieces a second context to be used and seen after they were shown initially. In the case of the current table (I Can Dissolve, 2015), knowing the type of constant use it would have really pushed me to focus on durability, which I often deal with as a secondary consideration.

JG: We’ve touched on the ways you disrupt the modernist design object. But, I was also considering how your work might be, in a slightly perverse way, the apotheosis of the modernist dream of merging artist and designer?

JR: When I think about the tension between modernism and craft, I often wind up thinking about the Studio Furniture movement. I’m thinking here about Nakashima or Wendell Castle – 1960 through the 1980s. I usually consider those people to be more of the apotheosis of Bauhaus, since in many cases those pieces are such successful mergings of sculpture and craft. With my work I end up so far away from traditional craftsmanship, but I really respect that work and look at it constantly.

JG: How do ideas of irrationality or imperfection play out in relation to this notion of craft?

JR: It seems for most people craft implies some level of mastery. Especially with woodworking, you’re held to some standard of perfection and durability. But there’s also the flip side, craft can be crude and primitive or childlike. I kind of love the split expectation within the idea of craft. Working with sawdust comes directly out of those ideas, because the technique of mixing sawdust with glue to fix an imperfection in wood is a “woodworker’s trick” so to speak, but I’ve turned it into this crude and irrational decorative gesture.

JG: Can you elaborate on the role of the decorative? Or what seems like a general tendency towards the baroque?

JR: When I think of the baroque I’m really thinking about ornate detail and ornamentation, but also the drama and tension it creates. There is a stark contrast to the reductive tendencies of modernist design. There you have this stripping away, all you’re left with is the metal and the upholstery, just very simple elements interacting. I like conflating the two, so that the way of creating the detail is through the construction. So a lot of times, as with the shelves for instance (Bunny’s Face, Aliveness Shelf, 2016), the marker lines that come from drawing out and planning the piece remain and wind up taking the place of other types of ornamentation. It’s kind of the same idea with my use of sawdust. Over the summer I was researching the history of engineered woods, and particleboard in particular. I learned that in the early 20th century the first sheets of particleboard were completely handmade. There was a lumber shortage in Germany, and they forged the first pieces using floor sweepings pressed with glue. It was coincidental and obviously interesting to me that I had already been doing that with sawdust from my own floor sweepings. I liked the circularity of that, a material that ends precisely where it began.

JG: To the eye, plywood appears to be such an unassuming material, but you’re deconstructing and reconstructing it into something almost surreal. Maybe this is so off, but when I saw your plywood works at Essex Flowers, I couldn’t help thinking about Lord of the Rings or something along those lines. Like, what kind of house would this be in?

JR: Yeah, I love the idea of hobbit furniture. There’s something very art deco about hobbit interiors, I need to look into that more.

JG: So the form/function and art/design binaries that seem to run latent through your practice – are they important to you, or is it more critical to surpass them?

JR: It’s both. A while ago, I was actually looking into why it is phrased as form versus function. That phrasing comes from the expression form follows function. So you have this directive statement that gets turned on its head almost immediately. Sculpture has been dealing with this idea for so long, but there’s still something that feels mutually exclusive. I’m always looking for little ways to further irritate that, sometimes by using details like beading, or fragile clothing fabrics instead of durable upholstery fabric. With the transparent fabrics, I’m interested in the way they kind of trap the stain. If you spill something on the chair, the stain soaks in, but you can still see it through the fabric, it’s encapsulated.

JG: There seems to be a double approach to transparency, where on the one hand, with your use of foam and plywood, you’re making it transparent in the sense of laying it bare. On the other hand, there’s a literal transparency to the sheer fabrics with which you’re swathing or wrapping the works. I’m thinking of Maraschino Fairy (2014) where you’ve draped a Josef Hoffmann chair in gauzy pink silk, and what the implications, perhaps even feminist undertones, of that gesture might be.

JR: It looks like it’s wearing lingerie or something.

JG: There’s something sort of erotic to it, which brings you into an anthropomorphic territory.

JR: With that piece, it really did become as if the chair had slipped into something more comfortable, which was my intention, but it did lead me into this whole idea that I’m dealing with a masculine/feminine binary, which I hadn’t expected. The design world is undeniably, throughout history, a male dominated field. So by incorporating those kinds of feminine coded materials, it definitely forces me into that territory, and I feel like that’s what made me want to also build the frames myself. If I’m going to own the ‘feminizing’ of these objects then I also want to go to the other side and cut things up and engage with this very masculine tradition of making furniture.

JG: I feel like you’ve been increasingly taking the creation of the underlying structure into your own hands. I’m thinking about the works you showed at Old Room, like Engine Room Shelving (2015).

JR: Those were the first works I made where I really built the whole piece from inside out, I wanted to get inside the kind of masculine process of building and see what I could find. With those works, I was also focused on how they would age, how the foam would eventually crumble and fall apart and in the meantime get dirty, and then you would have the frame exposed underneath. I wanted them to imply a certain type of attitude towards the domestic – this rude upheaval or something.

JG: The idea of narrative seems to subtend a lot of your works. They almost speak to each other as characters, which might be the antithesis of the modernist desire for autonomy or purity.

JR: I’m definitely conflating those ideas in the pieces I’m working on now for my upcoming show at Bridget Donahue, which are variations of the Noguchi table. I was thinking about him as this character who is both artist and designer, but who fits seamlessly into both worlds and reinforces all of these modernist ideals, especially with that table. It’s fetishized as an art object as well as a piece of design history. So I’ve taken the basic construction and function and turned it into these crude, even brutal reimaginings of that work.

JG: So much of what Noguchi stands for now, and this could be broadened to include many of the modernist designs we’ve mentioned, is a sort of silent elegance. It’s passé to talk about elegance. It’s just supposed to be embodied, disappear tastefully into the background.

JR: Yeah, it’s like good elegance isn’t supposed to really present itself as such. I’ve definitely stripped away all of the elegance from that table in my new version. Nothing elegant left.


Josephine Graf is a writer and curator living in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently a 2016 M.A. candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.

Jessi Reaves (born 1986 in Oregon) has been included in group exhibitions such as Natural Flavor at Ludlow 38, New York (2015); Pavillon de L’Esprit Nouveau: A 21st Century Show Home at Swiss Institute, New York (2015); and American Basketry at Bed Stuy Love Affair, New York (2014). She recently presented a solo project at SculptureCenter, Long Island City, NY (2016) and will hold a solo exhibition at Bridget Donahue, New York in April 2016.



Originally published on Mousse 52 (February–March 2016)



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