New Useless Machines at Oak & Rogan

Back in January, when we first began contemplating how we would program the 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