Excerpt: Exhibition
New Useless Machines at Oak & Rogan

Back in January, when we first began contemplating how we would program Noho Design District — the just-completed four-day design extravaganza produced and curated by Sight Unseen and held in conjunction with New York’s ICFF — one thing was clear: Come hell or high water, we’d find a way to pull off an exhibition we’d been obsessing over for months, ever since the re-release last summer of the 1966 Bruno Munari classic Design As Art. Among the late Italian designer’s musings, photos, diagrams, and sketches, we were reminded of his childlike fascination with hanging mobiles — or as he calls them, useless machines. He writes: “My useless machines were made of cardboard painted in plain colors, and sometimes a glass bubble, while the whole thing was held together with the frailest of wooden rods and bits of thread. They had to be light, so as to turn with the slightest movement of the air, and the thread was just the thing to prevent them getting all twisted up … I thought that instead of painting triangles and other geometrical forms within the atmosphere of an oblong picture, it would perhaps be interesting to free these forms from the static nature of a picture and to hang them up in the air, attached to each other in such a way as to live with us in our own surroundings, sensitive to the atmosphere of real life, to the air we breathe … Whether or not Calder started from the same idea, the fact is that we were together in affirming that figurative art had passed from two or at the most three dimensions to acquire a fourth: that of time.”

Armed with Munari’s words — and having secured Noho fashion boutiques Oak and Rogan as venues in which to hang the results — we sent a brief to a dozen of our favorite talents in the worlds of design, fashion, and art, and waited for the projects to roll in. We never could have guessed the directions our designers would travel off in. Some, like conceptual artist Tobias Wong, chose to deconstruct the mobile completely. His chain of raw wooden beads hung in a single line from the ceiling, ending in a coiled pile on Oak’s concrete floor. “The movement of the piece comes from the random collection created on the floor rather than air or traditional kinetics on which conventional mobiles are reliant,” Wong explains. Others hewed closer to Munari’s original aesthetic; eco fashion designer Rogan Gregory reinvigorated the form with materials close to his heart: reclaimed Southern yellow pine, piano wire, and bronze. Each of the final entries, however, was an accurate reflection of its maker’s obsessions and inspirations.

Photography by Jay Q. Chen


Annie Lenon: "I challenged myself to create a structure from as few materials as possible that still captured movement, tension and balance. This mobile is made from strips of bass wood wrapped in metallic and silk threads.”


Confetti System: “We were inspired by the lines a single branch can create. We found a dogwood branch with an amazing form and whittled it down until it was stripped of its bark. The bare wood inspired the pale palette. We wanted to create a balance between the volume of tissue paper and the organic lines of the branch.”


Joe and Bec Brittain: "We used rolled paper rods — light but sturdy. They formed skeletal shapes that hung in space like constellations. To further this association, we lit various elbows with LEDs.”


Kristin Victoria Barron: “I'd been in Tulum a week prior to starting the mobile, where I spent a good deal of time staring up at these elegant black birds that resembled Samurai boomerangs."


"When the memory came out of me a week later, it had mutated into something black and bedraggled… But this was somehow correct. So I kept it.”


Keegan McHargue and Carol Nhan: "This mobile is our first collaborative work. It is a playful piece about being queer. Once you touch it, it will make more sense."


Jason Rosenberg: "My mobile explored the idea that you can have a collection lying around the house without knowing it. The pencils were here and there but needed to be brought together into one place."


"I was also drawn to the pencils because they say such wonderful things. All together, it's like a poem. One says ‘Black Warrior’ and another ‘Deer.’ Then there’s ‘Be an American!’ and ‘Marsmicro!’”


Lauren Manoogian and Luren Jenison: “Luren and I had been working independently on mobiles,” says Manoogian. “Mine were very geometric and hers incorporated found objects. We put them together using materials left over from my jewelry collection and a limited color palette to make it gel."


"I spent a lot of time rummaging around a scrap metal and electronics warehouse in L.A., where I found the ceramic pieces, tubes, and cardboard. The wood is from a cabinetmaker next door whose Dumpster I always raid. Luren’s shapes were more gestural, while I did a lot of the structure and figured out the connections."


Mary Meyer: “The base is a typical MM black-and-white pattern, but then I added fluorescent marks. The color keeps your eye moving in the same way that a mobile naturally spins.”


Tobias Wong: “I translated the title of the LCD Soundsystem song New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down into Morse code using a continuous strand of wooden beads."


"The mobile is intended to reach from the ceiling to the floor, ending up in an overflowing pile. The simple act of walking by and accidentally kicking the beads or cleaning the floor constantly recreates a new order in which the mobile is hung.”


Sarah Boatright and Kiel Mead: “We picked three shapes,” says Mead. “I made them one way and Sarah made them another. We kept the colors playful, because in a way it was about being young."


"Fishing knots also played into the idea of youth, trying to be as still as possible as you wait for a fish — like when a mobile is calm, but the slightest wind can ruin how peaceful it is."


Rogan Gregory: "I think my five-month-old daughter Gray was over clouds, sheep, and pandas. She appreciates the conflict between the abstract notion of good and evil represented in the revolving movement of shapes and perspective.”


Graham Tabor: “We gave a second life to materials once forgotten in my studio. The cardboard is from boxes my partner Miguel and I used to transport pieces to Romania for a show. We got stuck there during the volcano, hence the title: ‘From Romania With Love.’”