At first glance, the encased flower arrangements at the Max Mara boutique in New York City look freshly imported from the city’s best florist. However, on further examination, it turns out you can actually can sit on these flowers. The various versions in different shapes and sizes are not just for visual pleasure, but are actually functional works of art that double as furniture. These objects on display are part of designer Sasha Sykes’ most recent exhibition, Encased, in conjunction with this year’s Armory Show.
Depending on where she’s selling her pieces, Sasha Sykes’ works hover above the triple borders of art, sculpture, and furniture, alternating categories based on their location.
“I think the art scene is strongest in New York and the UK is where I started building furniture,” the 38-year-old artist told The Daily Beast describing why her works are differentiated. “In Ireland there is no real design scene because there is no strong history of the industry, which is why it is considered ‘craft.’”
Sykes, a self-taught furniture designer, began her career in art years after receiving architectural training from Edinburgh University in Scotland. For her father’s 60th birthday she wanted to give him something unique that served as a memento for his life’s work. So, she created a glass cube that encapsulated straw from the family’s farm. “That was the point I realized that I had an interest in functional art,” she said. “It was the beauty in something that can be used but also touches on nostalgia and emotion.”
Being born in Ireland, rural environments are something that Sykes has always had a strong attachment to. Having lived in both London and New York before returning to her Irish hometown of Carlow, she describes her works as having a “contemporary edge with a rural twist. It’s like my urban glass is looking in on the rural life I knew before.”
She has continued to produce similar cubes that hold various organic materials. “I love working with the more uncelebrated aspects of our environment,” Sykes revealed. “I do a lot of work with nature because I live in the middle of a field in Ireland and like to work with what’s available around me.”
For the show at Max Mara, the majority of these cubes are filled with various colored flowers ranging from silk roses to lavender, echinops and bright yellow helichrysum.
Visually, these works blend perfectly throughout the three floors of the New York flagship store on Madison Avenue. Each cube gives nod to the host, Max Mara, and the clothing brand’s spring/summer 2014 collection. Blue, grey, and white roses elegantly fill each respectable cube and are paired next to the current season’s color palette while the minimalistic aesthetic reflects the label’s designs.
Along with her classic pieces, Sykes has also created a new body of work for the exhibition, including a collection of resin books entitled How to Write a Novel. The inspiration came during her most recent pregnancy.
Surrounded by a family of writers, including her husband, author and The Daily Beast’s Royalist columnist Tom Sykes, books have always been an integral aspect of her domestic surroundings. The two married in 2003 and share three children. During her most recent pregnancy, the artist spent a lot of time reading works written by the many writers from her family’s lineage.
“Being a designer, I am very aware of the physical presence of things in our domestic environment,” Sykes said. “So I asked myself what will take their place in the future when books are all gone.” After all, a person’s collection of books reveals almost everything you need to know about their personality.
The three pieces are similar to her encased cubes. Each resin molded book has a unique object frozen inside of it—two white feathers, flakes of gold leaf, and three Irish worker bees—that uniquely hold a symbolic meaning of what it takes and what it means to be a writer.
Sykes described that the two white feathers stem from a friends belief that a lot of his books are dictated through spiritual guidance. The flakes of gold leaf captured in another are a play on Virginia Woolf’s theory that a writer needs a private income and a private room in order to properly succeed in fiction writing. And the three Irish black bees represent hard workers.
“I think everything you do comes from some part of your past. It’s just a combination of where you are now and what has influenced you up until this point.”
Rural life is apparent again in her online portfolio, Farm21, which she started in 2001 while living in London. At this point, she began marketing her designs as furniture and was outsourcing labor to produce them. Since then, she has gradually shifted her focus to creating unique one off pieces and artworks, ranging from $1,500 to $10,000, creating each individual work herself—something she has absolutely perfected. And you can enjoy them by either sitting on them or looking at them, or—of course—both.
Encased is arranged by art dealer Voltz Clarke as part of The Armory Show and will be on display at the Max Mara boutique on 68th Street and Madison Avenue until March 24. Enquiries should be made to Voltz Clarke.