New designs that celebrate the old


Vintage Remixed

By Anna Carnick

Even the most ardent champions of vintage design (like us!) have to admit that sometimes the things created in the past—no matter how well made, how intricate, how beautiful—do not easily find a place in today’s world. Objects come to be in and for a certain context, but then culture shifts and the unfortunate ones are set adrift, homeless. Such obsolescence feels particularly heartbreaking when it falls upon an artifact of extraordinary craftsmanship, the product of someone’s tremendous effort and care.

In the cases that follow, however, research, design thinking, and artisanal expertise combined to breathe new life into some outstanding but outmoded vintage objects that were just too fine to be mere relics of another time and place. The talents behind these projects went out of their way to salvage lost treasure, guided by eyes trained to recognize quality and equipped with the imagination to see unexpected possibilities.

 

Vintage Kilim Compositions by F.J. Hakimian

About a decade ago, Joseph Hakimian—one of the world’s most respected fine carpet dealers—was traveling with a friend in the mountainous regions of Iran and Turkey. They came across a selection of earthy colored, hand-woven, midcentury kilim panels (known as jehazi in Pharsi and çeyiz in Turkish)—the sort typically woven for dowries by young women in the nomadic tribes of Northern Africa and the Middle East, and used after marriage to embellish their itinerant interiors. Measuring about a foot or two wide and up to 80 feet long, the simple yet striking textiles were made from handspun, un-dyed wool gathered from the makers’ own sheep. They were, in Hakimian’s words, “masterpieces of design.”

Prior to this encounter, Mr. Hakimian, or Joe as he prefers, had spent the bulk of his long and storied career focused on antique European and Oriental carpets as well as exemplars of midcentury Scandinavian weaving. Incredibly moved by the intricate kilim panels—the elegance, the distinct marks of the makers’ hands, the color variations directly linked to the aesthetic tastes of young strangers over half a century ago—he began collecting them.

Not long after, Hakimian decided the best way to share the joy these pieces brought him was to incorporate the narrow vintage panels into contemporary, patchwork compositions, proportioned to echo carpets. Perennially inspired by modernistic and time-honored designs, Hakimian set out to make what was originally bound to a circumscribed time and place more accessible to current tastes and needs. “I wanted east-meets-west,” he says. So he brought eighteen, expert European weavers into his 57th Street studio in Manhattan to join the panels, with results ranging from the boldly geometric to the richly, quietly neutral.

According to Hakimian, heavy hitters from the art and design world—high-end interior designers, architects, celebrities, and other similarly posh clientele—quickly began snatching them up. “From the beginning, art dealers would buy and hang them on the wall next to a painting; people are just very comfortable with them in a room with serious art.” Then philanthropist, collector, and President Emerita of MoMA Agnes Gund decided to use one of the pieces on the floor of her living room. “The art in her apartment constantly rotates, as she’s always loaning her art out to different museums, so she needs something really neutral on the floors so people look at what’s on the walls. She put [this project] on the map.”

Hakimian continues to seek out extraordinary panels from Turkey, Iran, and Morocco, and has recently broadened his search to include Central and Latin America, noting with excitement the expanded color options inherent in those regions. Ultimately though, whether intensely graphic or elegantly subdued, the magic of the final piece comes from the history that lives on in each one of its parts. As Hakimian says, the source of their appeal is clear: “These women really put their heart and soul into it, and that’s why we get this unbelievable effect.

 

Vintage Lace N°1 by COMA Studio

An ocean away, Vienna’s COMA Studio focuses its attention on the myriad design possibilities of glass. Partners Magdalena Zeller and Cornelis van Almsick have a world-class knack for repurposing translucent fragments of design history into contemporary, sculptural installations and lighting. The duo has been particularly inspired by glass elements salvaged from one key historical landmark: the now defunct, yet once glamorous Hotel Bristol in Meran, Italy. A luxurious specimen of the postwar era, the hotel was the dream of a wealthy shipbuilder named Arnaldo Bennati. Deemed the chicest modern hotel in Europe, the Bristol was a sensation in its day, inaugurated in 1954 by Sofia Loren. Bennati commissioned noted architect Marino Meo, as well as the best designers and craftsmen of the time to create the bespoke furnishings and décor that appointed every corner of the Bristol. But the light fixtures and fittings stole the show; their splendor was the work of glass expert Flavio Poli at Seguso Vetri d’Arte in Murano.

Inauguration of the Hotel Bristol by Sofia Loren, 1954. Photo © Siragusa & Amt für Film & Medien, Autonome Provinz Bozen - Südtirol In the 1970s, after 20 years of successful business, the Hotel Bristol fell on hard times, and ultimately shut its doors in 1991. It was demolished in 2006. Fast-forward a few years, and COMA chances upon the remaining components of the light fixtures. Inspired by the pieces’ beauty and fascinating history, the designers decided to re-engineer them, and created Lace, an airy yet decadently intricate, mounted light installation. As Zeller explains, “We looked at the glass and its character, qualities, and configuration possibilities. We wanted to create something light, cloud-like, that would emphasize the quality of the glass and bring out its best features . . . By rearranging [the glass components] into new formations while working with the character that inhabits them, we definitely give them a modern twist, without trying to force them into something they are not.”

She goes on: “[We’re always looking to] breathe new life into [glass] fragments by creating modern renditions that have a strong sculptural quality, but, at the same time, are perfectly functional objects ready for everyday use. By implementing new lighting technology, we are bringing out qualities of the glass that were not been visible before. So I guess we are rewriting the story to make it our own, being fully aware and thankful for the history that inhabits the pieces. Ultimately the quality of the elements is timeless; the objects we create are meant to underline just that.”

Lace is the second COMA installation born of the Bristol’s artifacts. And according to Zeller, it won’t be the last. “We do have something up our sleeves. At the moment, we are working with about 260 pinkish flowers of super charming detail, that will be implemented into one big ceiling fixture.”

 

Mixers and Stellar by Marina Dragomirova and Iain Howlett

Marina Dragomirova also sees a world of inspiration in found objects. The Bulgarian-born, London-based designer frequently works with pieces she discovers in secondhand shops, which she repurposes to create furniture, glassworks, and ceramics. Dragomirova studies the shapes and features of all sorts of remarkable (and sometimes even mysterious) finds, analyzing the techniques with which they were made and contemplating the pieces’ individual histories—as well as “the histories of their previous owners.” And whether those backstories are concretely known, extrapolated, or purely imagined by the designer as she works away in her Shoreditch studio, a sense of legacy is very much alive in all of her craft-inspired designs. As Dragomirova notes, when the past and present combine, “the outcome is sometimes very surprising.”

Take, for example, her Mixers series, a collection of wine glasses with interchangeable stems and vessels. Dragomirova scours flea markets and charity shops for standout solo vintage glasses, which she then hand cuts and connects using a simple, jewelry-like, magnetic joint—so that mismatched individuals can work harmoniously together as heterogenous sets. She’s been producing the series in small batches since 2011, and, thanks to the universal joint, glasses from each of the unique Mixers sets are compatible with one another. (The special sets Dragomirova created for us, the rainbow-hued Mixers #1,  #2, and #3, each come with 6 tops and 6 bottoms—collected from the designer’s travels around Bulgaria, Denmark, and the Czech Republic—which means that for each set, there are 36 potential glass combinations. More sets, of course, mean more options for mixing and matching.) For Dragomirova, every piece of the Mixers possesses “the memories of social gatherings and shared stories.”

Part of the Stellar series by Marina Dragomirova and Iain Howlett Photo courtesy of Marina Dragomirova The Stellar collection is similarly enriched by the history of its components. A byproduct of visits Dragomirova made to secondhand shops hunting for Mixers materials with studio mate Iain Howlett, these one-of-a-kind lamps combine vintage crystal objects (chosen for their “refractive optical charm”) with advanced LED light technology. The designers, who first met as students at London’s RCA and have since collaborated on a number of projects, were inspired by the beautiful, often curious glass pieces they found along the way, and the “unexpected harmony” that resulted from blending various pieces—as well as the old and the new.

According to Howlett, “Flea markets and antique shops are like museums of localized material culture, but you get to take the exhibits home with you. For example, in Sofia we found pieces of Soviet glass removed from derelict Communist buildings; in Copenhagen, there are classic Scandinavian pieces from the ’70s in great condition; and in London, we often find Art Deco originals, old Victorian glass, and the odd, unwanted Argos piece that makes it into the mix, too. Some of the glass costs very little and some of it is quite valuable, which can make cutting and drilling a little nerve-racking!”

For all these designers, though, the most exciting aspect of working with vintage objects seems to be the marriage of past and present, and the real and imagined narratives linked to the process. Because that’s what really makes these final designs speak to observers—a sense of storied connection. As Dragomirova says, “Every one has multiple layers of life to it.”

  • Text by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.

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