Even though Brooklyn-based artist Amy Helfand has been designing rugs on commission from her Red Hook studio since 2004 — hand-knotted wool rugs, it should be mentioned, that sell for at least $125 a square foot — she still has trouble defining herself in those terms. “Up until recently, I never really thought about rugs,” she says. “I thought about making my artwork, and some of that artwork I’d make into rugs. But it was never like ‘Ok, this one comes in 5×7 and 6×9.’” Ironic, considering that she graduated from a studio art program at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute called Fiber. “It was a catch-all term,” she swears. “Those people were not necessarily textile people.”
So how did it all come together? In 2004, Helfand was working on what she calls “sculptural installation work — grand-schemey sort of stuff” — when she was asked to put together a show at Wave Hill, a public garden and cultural center in the Bronx where the galleries are actually the domestic spaces of a 19th-century mansion. “I had been doing all of this collage work, and I thought a rug would be a good match for my imagery. It could sit in front of this fireplace in what would be the receiving room.” Helfand’s body of work for the show was inspired by the natural beauty of Wave Hill, and the rug she created was a map-like aerial view, based on the site plan of the gardens there. She lucked out on her first try finding a reputable manufacturer in Nepal, and from there, it was relatively simple: “I liked the rug, I sold it, and I tried to do more,” she says. Inspiration for subsequent series came mostly from her travels in the wilds of America, with one based on the Appalachian Trail, and another on Lewis and Clark and the museum at the St. Louis Arch. “My imagery has always been rooted in landscape and the natural world,” she says. “I like maps and that whole idea of having room to roam. I guess the idea of the journey must be compelling to me.”
In March of 2008, that journey took her all the way to Nepal, where she’d sent three rugs to be crafted in anticipation of that spring’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. It was there she found the subject matter that would drive nearly all of the personal work she’s done since that time. Everywhere she went, everywhere she looked, there were colorful prayer flags strung along streets and cascading out in lines from temples. “It’s this very tiny country, and it’s full of faith, which isn’t something I’m really in touch with in my life. There are Hindus and Buddhists, and their religion is ever-present. I was inspired by the expression of these faiths, which coexist peacefully, and just graphically I liked the way they looked.”
In May, Helfand debuted Garland, her second series of rugs based on the prayer-flag motif, at an ICFF booth that brought the series to life in 3-D. Earlier this summer, on a swampy Wednesday afternoon, I visited her Red Hook studio to find out exactly how the rugs were made.
It started with a dead hamster. In the late ’90s, Dutch photographer Danielle Van Ark was living in Rotterdam, reacquainting herself with the charms of the grain-eating, wheel-chasing starter pet. Her hamster expired right around the time the Beastie Boys were coming out with a single called "Intergalactic". “The cover of that single was basically a giant hamster attacking humanity, and it inspired me to have my hamster stuffed,” Van Ark says. “I found someone in a village near Rotterdam who does it, and I loved the place instantly.”
Believe it or not, Jason Miller’s a candle guy. Not to knock the chandelier that made him famous — or Roll & Hill, the eagerly anticipated lighting company he’ll launch this May — but there are times when the gentle glow of an incandescent filament just doesn’t compare to the real thing. After he renovated his new Brooklyn apartment last year, installing a carpeted conversation pit in the middle of the living room, Miller bought an armful of tapers and pillars from a shop in Woodstock and grouped them together on windowsills and side tables. It wasn’t long before he decided they needed their own purpose-built perch.
Hearing Sam Schonzeit talk about the dog sculptures he’s been making in his spare time — their faces clipped from an old breeders’ yearbook for Cavalier King Charles Spaniels he found at a thrift store — you can’t help but wonder if he catches the irony of it all. “These dogs look so nervous,” says the Marfa, Texas–based 37-year-old, a trained architect whose current day job is teaching at a local elementary school. “They’re pretending to be something else, and they’re sort of embarrassed that they’ve found themselves in this position. But that’s very human, which is why people like them — because everyone can relate to the feeling that you’re not where you’re supposed to be.” Ask Schonzeit if he ever considered pursuing a career as a conceptual artist, and sure enough, you get almost the same expression.