EJR Barnes On Cast Glass, Instagram, “Freaky Stuff,” and His Excellent New Show at Emma Scully Gallery
Elliot Barnes’s work is full of historical references and subtle echoes that are at once familiar but hard to pin down. It’s not so much an expression of nostalgia as it is a longing for a time and place that never actually existed. In his work, Barnes messes with temporality, giving shape to things that feel anachronistic or out of time — and that are both sophisticated and a little mischievous. In his first solo show, A Room on East 79th Street at the Emma Scully Gallery in New York, the self-taught designer has created a dreamscape in the form of a living room. A richly wood-paneled space with a grand fireplace, it’s a fitting backdrop for Barnes’s cast-glass and steel tables, his maple veneer and hide-upholstered Sandolo Biposto sofa (which was part of the Emma Scully show at the North American Pavilion exhibition in London early this summer), chairs, lamps, a rug, and even cutlery and martini glasses. It’s all unified by what Barnes thinks of as a kind of poetry: “The idea of imbuing a feeling through something rather than being too literal about it.” His visual language corresponds to a lyrical one, and he has fun with the titles of his pieces: Emergency Best Friend Cocktail Plinth, Napoleon Complex Floor Lamp, Grizzly Chair. It’s his way of puncturing pretension. “Design is a very serious world, people are like ‘this chair aims to do such and such and re-typify this and…’ I’m just like, no it doesn’t. They’re nice-looking things that you either want to be around or you don’t. Just enjoy it. Have some fun. And I think a lot of that stuff that I like from the past is fun. It’s a bit silly.”
Of course Barnes isn’t blind to the complications that come with reconceptualizing (that’s not too close to re-typifying, is it?) certain reference points and to the privileged world of design itself. It’s hard to know, sometimes, whether creating an art-object is a celebration of luxury culture or an interrogation and questioning of it. Both, maybe. We caught up with Barnes when he was in New York, the day before his show opened, and talked about those heady questions, how his approach has changed over the last few years, “freaky” design from the past, the current design scene in London, and more.
PHOTOS BY JOE KRAMM
How would you say your work has evolved since we last interviewed you a few years ago?
Good question. I was very much working things out. I was only just starting to work with the fabricators that I work with now. I was doing a lot of stuff by hand, so it was a bit of a more simplistic approach. I was using a lot of plywood and stuff like that, whereas recently I’ve discovered ways to work with casting or veneering guys or my metal worker, so it just feels more accomplished. The design language weirdly hasn’t changed that much. It’s not like I’ve grown up and grown out of anything. I’m still quite happy that I look back at my work from that period and I’m like, Oh, it still feels good. I’m not cringing. It’s definitely gone a bit more pro but I’m still the same old girl that I used to be. [Laughs]
It’s mostly the process that’s changed? Working with fabricators and being a little more sophisticated in that respect?
Yeah. I suppose the references that I draw from haven’t altered wildly. I still have the same aims when it comes to making something. I want to invoke the same sense of nostalgia and messing around with a bit of a surreal approach to things. It’s all still there. But the general finish of things is better, and I think I’m being a bit more ambitious in putting different materials together and being a bit more complicated with the design. But unless you knew a lot about fabrication, I don’t think you’d necessarily clock this. It’s not shouting, Look at me, I made this thing in this way. It’s like, oh for those two bits to join together in a subtle, clean way, then a load of other stuff has to happen underneath it. But yeah, it’s been a long but fun process to get to that stage.
You mentioned that sense of nostalgia. What is it nostalgia for?
Nostalgia’s an interesting word. I probably shouldn’t use it so freely because it can be a bit of a dirty word. Sometimes people think I’m an antiques dealer, because my stuff looks like it could be from a different era. But it’s also commenting on a bunch of stuff at the same time. Sometimes I think my work’s just about Instagram. Instagram is an amazing thing in that you can learn so much about visual culture so quickly cause there’s just all this stuff that’s there and people are competing with each other to dig out the most obscure references and the most beautiful thing from this book that no one’s ever heard of. You’re seeing this stuff — like oh, this piece subtly references that really weird artwork from 1910 with a bit of this sprinkled on top of it — and that kind of melting pot I think is really interesting. It’s actively dipping into the old stuff but messing with it a bit. It’s a bit of a wink at this archival attitude towards things. So, it’s like a false nostalgia. Like a fictional time and place where something could have come from, but that time and place didn’t necessarily exist.
And bringing it into the present somehow? Creating a time and place now?
Sometimes I’ll look at something from the Viennese Secession and I’ll think, What the hell was this person thinking when they made this thing? [Koloman] Moser, or like a few of those guys, they made really freaky stuff. It’s almost camp when you look at it now through a modern lens. Or Dagobert Pesce, wallpapering the inside of a completely insane wardrobe in a way that now would be something straight out of Queer Eye but it’s super chic at the same time. How the hell did that happen? Why did this moment in time result in that thing? There are moments when I look at pieces of work like that or like some early Sottsass stuff or some Arts and Crafts stuff as well and you’re like, that actually could be something that I would want to make now. There are these very specific and anomalous points in time where people have made these things that feel outside of time. That’s what really gets me excited. When I see these things that don’t seem to correlate with any era. I’m trying to make stuff that feels similar to that.
Are you mostly seeing these things on Instagram? Do you do much research?
I went through phases of buying books and trying to find stuff but to be honest there’s a few accounts that consistently give you the goods. I used to have an account where I challenged myself to post something new that I hadn’t seen anywhere else every day. That’s when I was working a fulltime job in retail, I did a lot of sitting behind a computer. That meant I could really get down to it and pull these things out and then in the evening I’d go and make things. That was quite a bountiful time, I amassed a big archive of stuff that I could then look back at. Nowadays, if I’m feeling stuck I often just go through my Saved stuff on Instagram. Or pull out a book. I do have a very specifically visual memory and that means I kind of already have a lot of stuff just zooming around in there.
Is there something that’s been interesting you or fascinating you now in terms of your work lately?
Well, for this show, because of the very generous support of Emma, we’re using a lot of cast glass stuff which has just been completely insane. She’s facilitated that and it’s looking absolutely beautiful. But I didn’t get to see that until this morning. So, it’s been this abstract thing of oh, these things are gonna have these cast glass tops. I’ve seen the samples but I have no idea how that’s gonna look. I think there’s something really exciting in that because when I draw everything up on the computer it looks really flat and boxy and whatever-y. And suddenly that magic comes with these finishes.
But that sounds so stressful just hearing you talk about it. Like, what if it hadn’t turned out?
Well, for this cast glass top — it’s 3 feet by 5 feet, and it takes four people to lift — I made the base for it in the UK out of steel. And I’m not a physicist. I don’t know whether this thing is actually going to work. In my head it will, but I’m not a structural engineer. And there’s this moment when you wake up at night like, Oh my god what if it all arrives and they’ve spent all this money on this beautiful glass top and this thing that I’ve made crumples into a heap? But then you get the photo from the install and it looks absolutely perfect. You can trust yourself sometimes. This is something you’ve been doing for a while now, it’s okay.
Yeah, I didn’t mean to inject stress into this, sorry! What else are you excited about, in addition to the cast glass?
The thing I’ve been really excited about for a while now is lost wax casting, which is completely new to me in the last couple of months. Just talking to jeweler friends about how they do things and getting to meet the people who do the casting, people who do the polishing and the silver-plating, and learning from them how to get things done. This is quite an interesting thing for me because mostly I’m working with fabricators that I essentially give drawings to. Whilst I might do a bit of polishing here and a bit of finishing there, the lost wax stuff I literally sit at a table and carve shapes out of wax and then I give them to someone and they translate that shape into metal and then I finish the metal up. It’s very much my hand, which is quite rare for me. It’s a beautiful thing because I get to sit down and actually work into the material. I’ve been doing the switches for some of the lamps, a door pull for this cabinet that I did and I’ve also done this cutlery which is called – you know the Talking Heads song “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”?
Of course, yeah.
The cutlery’s called This Must Be the Place Setting (Naive Cutlery). It really does feel like there’s this wobbly naiveté to it, where most cutlery is obviously put through a load of industrial processes to make it straight and strong, it lines up and everything, whereas it was literally just me and a block of wax and a kind of scalpel and some files trying to make what looked like this machine-made, fluted cutlery but it has this wobbly aspect to it. When it’s polished up [the silver-plated white brass] feels quite nice.
How did you decide to work with these new-to-you materials and techniques?
I suppose you see things… There was recently a Charlotte Perriand exhibition in Paris and London and there was this one table that she did with Corbusier which has a beautiful piece of glass on top where the underside was really ripply. How do they get that texture? Most of the time when you’re looking at glass it’s like what they use in windows, very flat. I was talking to Emma and she was like, Oh we’ve actually been working with someone on cast glass stuff… we should chat about that for the tabletops. Then you start talking to the actual guys who make the stuff and it gets really exciting. It comes from these historical places. Obviously I’ve known about silver cutlery for a long time, but you don’t necessarily know how people get to that point. Are they machining brass and then plating it or are they doing cast stuff? It’s a well-protected thing and you have to find your own way into it. My way into it was to talk to my friends who make jewelry and listen to them and go along the same way.
Will these be in production or are they one-offs?
It’s hard to say. I’ve done these cutlery pieces and bowls — the show is called A Room on East 79th Street and the idea is that it’s a slightly surreal room that someone could be inhabiting, this mystery person, that ties in with the fact that the space has this beautiful fireplace and feels quite residential already. So it felt good that we’ve done a rug, coffee tables, sofas, dining chairs, and then I’ve done martini glasses. It’s like the full thing. Someone could sit in there and have a full meal, as long as it’s soup.
Did you envision someone in particular inhabiting this room? A specific soup-loving character dreaming up this space?
A gazpacho lover. [Laughs] It’s a weird one because I personally think a space like this, which is all designed by one person, is hell on earth. To have it be such a unified thing feels a bit strange that it would be a place someone would live. But I think of the kind of people who were commissioning that freaky stuff in the past. Very fun-loving, city dwellers who want to have these slightly freaky spaces for people to come and hang out in and throw parties. It’s very bourgeois but sadly a lot of interesting design is. If you had the money to chuck at making an interesting sofa in 1930, then, you know, you’ve probably got a bit of cash.
Totally. How did this show come about?
Emma had seen my work on Instagram. Almost everything happens on Instagram, which is terrifying. I hope that platform doesn’t fall apart soon or we’re gonna be screwed. We’d been following each other on Instagram, she approached me maybe a year and a bit ago, she came to London to the studio and we talked about the idea of doing a solo show.
Can you define the mood or the atmosphere of the room on East 79th Street?
Yeah, it’s like a place to have people for drinks before going to a disco. Fun, but very considered. I’m really interested in notions of taste and Zeitgeist. A lot of the stuff I’m interested in does fit into a contemporary trend of like typical yuppie, 1980s luxury worlds. Andrée Putman and designers from this era — it’s something that is happening. I’m as led by these things as anyone else. There’s a piece in the show that’s an orange lacquered cabinet with white pinstriping in all the corners. I was like, I really want to do this burnt orange box with white pinstriping and I realized it’s just a Hermes box. Am I copying this gross, luxury kind of thing? Am I worshipping at the fountain? Is that something that I want to be part of or is that something that I’m commenting on? I couldn’t tell you. The allure of the stuff is strong. Do I want to talk to the people that care about that stuff or am I an outsider using it as a way of upsetting this?
It’s hard to know where the line is.
Yeah, totally. We’re in a world where if you’re in a position where you can be thinking about what design means or just buying things then you’re already in a hyper-privileged place. I think everyone interested in design is in love with a certain amount of beauty and romance that comes with these things. But it’s important not to be completely taken over by those things and understand that it exists within a massively different context of the wider world where we’re a very small percentage that get to look at this stuff in this way.
You’re based in London and I wanted to ask you if there’s any sort of London scene right now that you feel part of and how you’d characterize it? Related to that, the Emma Scully room is obviously in New York. But could that room be anywhere or is it specifically on the Upper East Side in New York? Could it be in London?
That’s an interesting question. There is a design scene but Britain — and London therefore — is quite conservative. There’s this idea in New York that when you make it, some people move out to the Hamptons or whatever, but a lot of people just go up. Get bigger spaces in high rises or lofts or penthouses where you have this gallery approach to living. Design sits in amongst like, Oh I’ve got a Warhol on the wall and I’ve got this amazing old chair in front of it. You see these images of this approach to curating your home all the way from the ’30s and ’40s through the ’80s and ’90s, which is much more conducive to curating design. Whereas in the UK, when you make your money, you move out to the sticks and buy a big old house — this English version of success which means you have a lot of old stuff around you and lots of dogs. [Laughs] There’s a metropolitan version of it.
In Britain, there’s a real emphasis on how well something is made, which obviously exists everywhere, but there’s much less of an interest in what things mean conceptually. It’s like, Oh this piece is made by hand, it takes 72 days and cost a million pounds. Who cares, man? It doesn’t look that fun. I think contemporary design in the UK suffers a bit from that. I’m not saying it’s a bad scene. There is a lot of process-driven stuff, but there’s also a new guard of designers who have seen what’s going on elsewhere, and I think it has been led by the States. New York especially. I have a few contemporaries who show at the Max Radford Gallery, which I think is probably the best place to see young stuff. Max Radford and Fels gallery. They’re both doing the stuff that I think is really interesting here.
If this show was in London, would it be the same? I don’t think so. You’ve seen the room, it’s got this big wood paneled wall with the fireplace. I was like, that’s the room that everything’s gonna be in. That led to a living room topology and then everything stemmed from that. If I was doing it in London, unless it happened to be in a wood-paneled room, it would be very different. I’m planning a solo show with Max [Radford] and I think it’s going to be very ’80s, very slick.
Each time, I want to do something different, but I do like keeping this idea of rooms that are inhabited by unknown people. It’s not exactly a new idea, people have been doing shows like that forever, but it feels nice to think of them as a collection and then the pieces go off to their new homes separately.
I’ve been quite lucky in that the way I’ve worked has always been direct to clients who get it. People have understood it from the get-go. People trust you to make things and try new things. To move into the gallery context has been a nice evolution of that. Again, it’s been beautiful to have people trust that even when you’re using brand new materials that you don’t know anything about, that the overall sensibility and aesthetic approach will win out and that it will all fit together. The gamble — we’re not talking about crazy risk, but there’s a lot of cash and effort and a lot of people involved to get these things done. To see it all come together, especially in a solo show context where it’s not just one piece that’s got to work, a lot of stuff has got to work and work together, it’s really satisfying. Intense and manic at times, but really, it was a beautiful thing to walk in this morning and be like, Ahh, yeah, it’s all there.