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The Hemispheres Design Special

From branded street artists to 14th-century cobblers, style takes a turn for both the new and old


Tired of being slotted into less prestigious—and less lucrative—creative categories, some designers are bridging the divide between art and craft
by Jacqueline Detwiler

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There was a time when “designers” and “artists” were in separate camps. There used to be boundaries, rules. Those who break them, like art historian Francesco Rugi and industrial designer Silvia Quintanilla—who formed the art duo Carnovsky in Milan six years ago and now make fine art wallpaper—are labeled visionaries. Only they don’t see what they’re doing as so shocking.

“We believe that today the distinctions between art, design and illustration don’t have a reason to exist,” says Rugi. “If the same thing is exhibited in an art gallery, instead of a design one, it costs 10 to 100 times as much. It’s a very stupid thing, because it is absolutely not linked to the piece’s value.”

Though the two are interested in everything from handbags to printing to furniture, they have achieved most of their fame using wallpaper. Their RGB series, riotously colorful wallcoverings that display different images when lit by red, green or blue filters (RGB stands for red-green-blue, the color model behind most television displays), features themes of animals, sea life and anatomy studies. Though the designs have been shown in galleries, they are also available to the public as wallpapers, scarves and even iPhone skins via Carnovsky’s website.

“Wallpaper for us is a medium that allows us to create installations at an architectural scale, installations in which people are immersed,” says Rugi. “To recreate a sort of fresco—at an acceptable price.” 

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Kobi Levi had been handcrafting footwear in his living room for 10 years—and sculptures for almost as long as he can remember—by the time he uploaded a photo to his blog and his designs went viral. Lady Gaga’s fashion director requested a pair of his double-headed boots for her “Born this Way” video, and Levi thought it was a joke. He’d been designing fanciful footwear in his spare time—wearable sculptures made in the image of swans or laundry baskets or banana peels—and wasn’t doing this to make money. “Shoes make people want to try them on and in this way become a part of them,” he says. “This is more interesting to me than conventional sculptures, which are left untouched and distant.” To this end, Levi both shows his shoes at galleries, like at the exhibit currently at the Dutch Leather and Shoe Museum in Waalwijk, and sells them on his website to those who would rather put them on, for prices ($1,000+) that clearly rule out wearing them in the rain.

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After earning an art degree in photography (she also paints) and learning to tattoo on oranges, Amanda Wachob became a celebrated tattoo artist for her watercolor-esque designs. Then she began to wonder, she says, whether “the designs I had been tattooing over the years were falling short.” So she began inking her clients with impressionist paint splatters. From there, she moved on to tattooing canvases, and created a whole series of marked-up oranges, leather pieces and pomegranates, which she showed at galleries filled with people sporting her work. Next up, she’s working on a project in which she’ll use the power information from her tattooing machine to create a sort of meta-tattoo. She doesn’t know what it will look like yet, but presumably it will include some sort of graphic representation of voltage and ink levels. “A tattoo machine is just a tool, and it just depends on the intent behind the tool,” she says. “Can’t there be things other than suns and panthers and dragons? People should have more options.”

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An iconic design firm shores up its defenses against copycats

Alberto Alessi, president of Italian homewares company Alessi, is preoccupied with intellectual property rights and spends as much time protecting his designs as he does creating them.

In the coming months, with the release of his company’s new eyewear line, called Alessieyes, the 67-year-old says he’ll be keeping tabs on competitors, making sure they haven’t had any similar “flashes of inspiration.” And rivals are sure to be intrigued by the label’s new titanium and acetate frames, which feature embedded magnets that create floating hinges, enabling single-handed manipulation.

“Imagine slipping on your sunglasses without taking your attention off the road,” Alessi says.

The law school graduate recently addressed a London conference on luxury and the law, in which he offered “a designer’s view” of a situation that is reaching crisis proportions. Even in Italy, where design is offered relatively high levels of protection, ownership of, say, a shape or color combination is hard to determine. There, as elsewhere, counterfeiting is running rampant.

According to Alessi, his company has around 20 on-going IP infringement cases at any time. In order to nip such infringement in the bud, the company deploys an endless array of protective trademarks, and patents its products as “ornamental” rather than functional, which makes it harder for would-be imitators to just sort of stumble across a similar look in their efforts to create the perfect corkscrew. Also, Alessi says, pirates can be quite easily priced out of the game: “We often recourse to artisan manual skills or the very opposite: expensive molds.”

In the end, the battle against counterfeiting will not be decided by the warring parties but by consumers—or, specifically, consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for quality. Alessi, for his part, is banking on the reverence exhibited by his company’s devotees, most of whom wouldn’t be seen dead using a knockoff Peppino pepper mill. Still, he isn’t ready to let his guard down yet.

“The fact remains,” he says, “copies can make a mess.”
— Boyd Farrow

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