Vito Acconci Named Designer of the Year by Design Miami

Vito Acconci’s decades of work on buildings and objects are finally recognized, Blake Gopnik reports.

Courtesy Acconci Studio (4)

We all know that top designers are supposed to dress all in black, with suits from Jil Sander and shoes by Prada. Their manners ought to be equally slick. One recent evening in his studio in Brooklyn, Vito Acconci is wearing suitably dark clothes, but his black shirt is rumpled, his black jeans are saggy, and his black shoes are lumpy climbing boots. When he spills his cup of coffee, he first tries to mop the mess with his fingers, then dams up the puddle with toilet paper.

This scruff ought not to surprise, given Acconci’s reputation: the 72-year-old is famous as one of the roughshod, ill-shaven founders of performance art, and especially for Seedbed, a notorious piece from 1972 that saw him masturbating under a false floor in a gallery. (“It ruined my life,” he sighs, citing one in a flood of Seedbed jokes that he’s heard: “It’s very easy to own an Acconci—just shake his hand.”) Acconci’s rumples only startle because, Sander-suited or not, Wednesday he’s being announced as Designer of the Year, joining the ranks of such notable sleeksters as Zaha Hadid and David Adjaye. For eight years now, the DoY accolade has been awarded by the organizers of Design Miami, the leading commercial fair in the field, to encourage the most innovative makers of usable things.

“A lot of people go to museums, but I think more people walk through cities,” says Acconci, explaining his definitive break from fine art and performance, which came almost 25 years ago. “I was in the wrong field because the people who go to museums are already interested in art, and I was much more interested in the non-art user.” He decided to aim for “a redesign of people’s habits, of what they’re used to … I wanted the things that people used to possibly change people’s lives.”

Marianne Goebl, director of Design Miami, explains that Acconci’s buildings and public projects are about “generating unexpected and intense interactions.” That’s where she wants her fair to be, she says—in contrast, maybe, to other, more antique-y events that can seem like gift markets for millionaires. “Ultimately, it’s more interesting to surprise people, and teach them, than to serve them the safe and the obvious,” Goebl says.

When Acconci first made the plunge into design, in the late 1980s, he didn’t have a bit of background in it, and he now thinks that may have been an advantage, he says: “Coming from the outside allows you to make jumps without knowing you’re making jumps. I felt I could turn [design] upside down, I could turn it inside out.” In a project at the Philadelphia airport, he made strips of the terminal’s floors rear up into vast curls where they meet the walls, so there’s no saying where floor ends and ceiling begins.

At a subway station that serves the New York Aquarium and Coney Island’s fun park, Acconci collaborated on a bulbous façade that mixes forms from waves and roller coasters. On the subway platform itself, a long ribbon of seating traces the path a daring skateboarder might take through the space. The ribbon whooshes up and along walls before settling down, here and there, into something you can sit on.

In 1993 Acconci collaborated with the innovative architect Steven Holl on the design of a New York nonprofit called the Storefront for Art and Architecture, which hosts shows and events about building and design. Acconci and Holl cut through the flat walls of the building so that parts of the façade pivot out as doors while other planes pivot down to form tables and chairs, leaving behind holes that let air and light in. On a fine day, the pried-open façade looks like some kind of modernist Advent calendar and utterly dissolves distinctions between inside and outside.

Reached by phone in his office in New York, Holl explains that he moved to Manhattan, in early 1977, so he could bathe in the radical culture produced by figures such as Acconci, whom he met and befriended within months of arriving. Holl cites Acconci as one of a handful of people who set out to break down the false boundaries between art and design, and the one who maybe took that breaking down furthest. According to Holl, your average “shapemaking” architect “doesn’t have anything to say about what they’re doing. But Vito Acconci always has something to say. And that’s bringing a cultural depth to it.” There’s some point to everything that Acconci designs, other than just coming up with a fun look and neat feel.

Acconci’s latest work to be built—he says less than 10 percent of his proposals are realized—will be a commission that comes with the Design Miami award. Goebl explains that, from now on, her fair, which is held each December, will leave behind some permanent trace for Miamians to enjoy. This year, Design Miami’s “gift” to its host city will be an Acconci project called Klein Bottle Playground, to be constructed over the next couple of years. It is a huge climbing frame that’s like a Moebius strip translated into three dimensions, so that it’s never clear which surface counts as inside or outside, letting children climb between both. Acconci says the peculiar topology should lead to all sorts of strange encounters among kids, throwing them together even more than a normal playground might do and boosting their experience quotient.

Acconci, born to Italian New Yorkers, has always been intensely aware of his native city’s energy and sees that as a part of his work. “I was going to high school”—the rigorous Regis school, run by Jesuits—“at the same time the Guggenheim Museum was being built three blocks away,” he says. He figures he absorbed an interest in radical building, even if it’s taken a good while to surface.

Inspired by a language-obsessed father who never made it to high school, Acconci began his career as an author, with a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. By the later 1960s, he’d earned a reputation as one of New York’s leading concrete poets. But pushing words around on a page soon seemed small potatoes: “If I’m so interested in movement,” he asked himself, “why am I limiting myself to an 8-1/2-by-11 piece of paper?” He decided to move himself and his body around, instead, and helped pioneer performance art. In a video called Conversions, he burnt the hair off his chest and pushed on his pecs to make them look like breasts. For a performance called Claim, he sat blindfolded at the bottom of some basement steps, swinging a lead pipe to keep anyone from approaching—a riff on the social shaping of space, maybe, that prefigures the structures Acconci came to later.

After a few years of such exhausting work, says Acconci, “something told me I was only going through the motions.” He left performance behind for the nascent field of installation art, which, in his hands, somehow kept moving toward usable structures and objects. He built a lounge chair out of an aluminum work ladder and a communal table for the blind out of glass, while also completing various projects that deconstructed what buildings could be. But the definitive break with art only came in 1988, after a show called Vito Acconci: Public Spaces opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “My name was associated with public places, so I had to live up to it,” he recalls. “I’d always imagined the word ‘artist’ was said by a French person: artiste.” Acconci wanted to leave such rarefaction behind.

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It has, to a certain extent, continued to cling. He is still a star in the art world—mostly, to his dismay, as Mr. Seedbed—but as Holl points out, despite decades of work on buildings and objects, Acconci is still only well known to architects in academe. Goebl admits that Acconci wasn’t part of the “obvious and permanent short-list” of likely candidates for Designer of the Year. It was only as her committee pushed toward the experimental end of things that his name came up, and then dominated. Goebl says one goal of this year’s award is to help Acconci get the attention he deserves as a major designer, while maybe freeing him from the shadow of Seedbed.

The award may also help Acconci get some more paying work. Ever since its founding in 1988, Acconci Studio has struggled to stay afloat, losing and gaining staff as a trickle of paying projects come in. Acconci’s design work has always involved collaboration between the idea-man artist, who can’t draw and can barely handle a mouse, and various young architects and designers who know how to turn ideas into things. For the last couple of years, however, the studio has had “amazing money troubles,” Acconci says, to the point where all his young colleagues have now had to seek other work. He’s down to funding the design studio by selling the original footage from his early work in film and video, as well as whatever material objects survive from his Seedbed days. (Will he have to start charging each time he shakes someone’s hand?)

“I still think it’s worth doing,” says Acconci, jabbing a thick, coffee-damp finger at a computer that’s screening his design works. “It’s still worth trying to make a difference in people’s lives.”