Newsmaker Interview: Jonathan Muecke

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Designer Jonathan Muecke with a study for his pavilion for the 10th iteration of Design Miami/, which runs December 3–7.

Jonathan Muecke designs furniture that is both simple and inscrutable. But before settling into his current practice, the 31-year-old designer received a B.Arch. from Iowa State University and worked for Herzog & de Meuron in Basel. His desire to create at a smaller scale led him to study at Cranbrook in Michigan and then establish a studio in Minneapolis, where he now produces furniture as one-off pieces and in small editions.

His objects use a limited palette of familiar materials and typical furniture typologies but combine them in unusual, sometimes willfully awkward ways that make them difficult to read at a glance. A bench from 2011 made from carbon fiber and epoxy works the usually molded industrial materials into what looks like a hand-formed sculpture made from wet fur. His aluminum Mezzanine table from 2013 demands that sitters consider the structure holding up its elongated oval surface as they navigate its five staggered legs.

Muecke’s latest project is a temporary entry pavilion for the Design Miami/ fair (December 3–7). The annual event, which celebrates its 10th iteration this year, brings a roster of design dealers—including Chicago’s Volume Gallery, which represents Muecke—to the city to set up shop during Art Basel Miami Beach. Architectural Record spoke with Muecke about his design for the installation as well as his path from architecture to furniture and (at least temporarily) back again.

Jonathan Muecke Design Miami Pavilion
Photo via Volume Gallery, Chicago
Jonathan Muecke’s Stabilizer (STAB) is a carbon fibre table designed in 2013. View more of his work on the Volume Gallery website.

Your Design Miami/ pavilion has two arcing steel walls enclosing a circular space that is 45 feet in diameter. The walls are high, but very thin and painted in vivid colors, so that their material recedes into the background, leaving a series of abstract colored planes. How did you arrive at the design?

I wanted to work with the qualities involved in architecture that are not objects; for me, that means color and scale. The walls are made from rolled-steel plates that are half an inch thick at their widest but taper down to one-tenth of an inch at the vertical edges. You can’t see over them either­—they are 10 feet tall—so we have almost eliminated any perception
of their third dimension On the interior, the walls are painted in complementary colors, with one side red and the other green. The exterior is painted with primary colors, yellow and blue.

So the relationship between the colors, in addition to physical walls, distinguishes the interior from the exterior?

Yes. Even before I came up with the shape, I had an idea about color. I wanted to make a pavilion that retained traditional notions of interior and exterior, but I also wanted to give that relationship a sense of slipperiness by [taking away the material boundaries] and relying on color alone—the pavilion doesn’t have any other details. In a way, you’re left in a kind of limbo between inside and out.

That’s an appropriate state for a threshold space. Do you see yourself taking a similar approach in your furniture design?

When I start a project, I like to think about the variables—color, shape, material— and then draw links between them. The idea is to have all of the characteristics of the object in balance, so that one does not dominate the other—material does not dominate shape or color does not dominate scale. When those factors are equalized, then you find a kind of freedom. Early on in my practice, I decided that each project should ideally have only one material. That way, rather than worrying about putting 100 things together, you’re only adding one to the mix.

Why did you stop working on architectural projects in favor of furniture?

I was looking for a way to work out architectural ideas with objects that I could conceive of as a whole, that I could hold in my mind all at once. That’s very hard to do with a building—in fact, it’s impossible.

Has this pavilion rekindled an interest in working on an architectural scale?

Of course it has. I’ve always been interested in this kind of work, and it’s nice to confirm that my ideas are capable of going bigger.