Lace as Structural Solution

Lace is designed to be delicate. In fact almost everything about traditional lace suggests a high maintenance identity. But today artists and designers look to lace for entirely different reasons. The Argentinean Tomas Saraceno uses lace-like structures to support his biosphere projects; Dutch designer Marcel Wanders’ “Knotted Chair” is a solid seat out of once flexible fibre; American Cal Lane cuts lace patterns into metal calling herself a “visual devil’s advocate”; the Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota creates lace-like installations of thread that have been likened to nightmares. None use lace because it is delicate.

Still others use lace today because of the structural solutions it provides. Dutch designer Tord Boontje makes use of low cost materials such as raffia and rope in his latest explorations of the lace structure; American Sheila Pepe crochets site-specific installations that hang like the creations of oversized spiders in the gallery; the Dutch design studio Demarkersvan produce a popular lace chain-link fence. In each case, lace moves away from its original decorative identity and instead appears in installations and objects (or both) because of its structure.

“Lace is not really a motif for me but a structure”, confirms Tord Boontje, articulating a sentiment shared by the work of Pepe and Demarkersvan. Boontje’s Spiderweb Sofa for the Lace in Translation project at the Design Center at Philadelphia University uses Aramide and Dynema fibres. He describes the hammock as the entry to a narrative, which begins when “the girl falls in love with a spider. This is the beginning of an impossible relationship….” Out of this unlikely coupling emerges a hammock ordered by intuition rather than set patterns. Instead of delicacy, the seat acts as an inviting nest, with comforting strength conveyed in the strong cord and haphazard network tied across a visible frame.

More recently, Boontje’s “Lacemaker” exhibition at the Marsden Woo Gallery in London included the Spiderweb sofa exhibited alongside numerous trails with raffia that emerged from the Lace in Translation project. “With lace,” Boontje notes, “all the value is invested in the labour and so it seemed a good idea to start working with cheap materials…. by changing the material you can change the references”. The references we hold for certain materials also provides a line of inquiry for Sheila Pepe who began to crochet in the mid-1990s and cites a similar interest in the versatile structure, in her case of crochet, to “go anywhere with it, improvise easily”.

“Shoe laces [rubber bands and acrylic yarn] are a perfectly ordinary material that accumulate quickly,” Pepe explains of her interest in the simple materials of mechanical production. She refers to her “Duchampian use of the handmade”, a reference to the French artist who famously created sculpture from manufactured objects in an effort to make art that was more than ‘merely’ visual. The versatility of crochet continues to suit her practice. With “just a hook” she explains, “you can draw a single line and erase quickly.” Crochet is “linear and the track erases easily” allowing sections of large installations to be added and taken away with (relative) ease. “I am not a counter and it doesn’t matter, I can make mistakes. Embedding failure attractive to me,” she concedes with a chuckle.

Pepe’s installations are fundamentally ephemeral. A cannibal strategy has long been part of her working process and past installations have been dismantled to release materials for the next project. More recently an installation at Testsite in Austin, Texas allowed Pepe to revaluate the creative cycle of her work. Here members of the public were invited to unravel her installation (which unusually was set in a domestic rather than institutional setting), taking the thread harvested from the work to make items for personal use. This new gesture makes the work no less ephemeral, but now it is the public, rather than the artist, who take on the next stage of the project – or as Pepe observes are part of her “performance of giving away”.

While Boontje challenges design conventions through unexpected combinations of material and labour value, Pepe acknowledges that negative associations regarding the meaning of textile materials and the handmade continue to exist in the art world. “My work was perceived more conceptually when worked with other materials,” she notes. “I wanted to challenge this identity. Putting emphasis on the handmade was an experiment to see if perception stayed the same when placed in a different region of the art world.” Pepe’s extensive exhibition profile and the rise of DIY values in the art world may suggest that a small shift in the materially defined values of art galleries is underway.

Beyond the walls of the design studio and art gallery, the Dutch design trio Demarkersvan (literal translation: the makers) are busy with commissions for their lace fence. Their popular improvement on drab chain link fencing began life as Joep Verhoeven’s final project at the Design School in Eindhoven. He now runs the design studio Demarkersvan with his brother and partner. “We were lucky to get a big commission of 3000 square metres,” he explains of the fence’s beginnings. The sizeable order left the team scrambling for a production site and a friend suggested his family’s business in Bangalore, India. Individuals with experience of metal rather than textile production were hired for what has grown into a steady stream of orders.

Joep explains that lace won out over the other textile structures explored for the fencing because it was the only textile technique that could withstand translation into the thick wire needed for the fencing. The popularity of the lace fence now underwrites their young design practice. If this weren’t enough, the nature of the work, Joep explains, means that “most projects are permanent”, which has proved useful in confirming the identity of an emerging design studio. Each lace fence introduces its own design questions: “projects depend on the client and budget. Some chose from our own lace collection, but architects who are ‘used to shopping’ often want a new, bespoke design.”

The structural adaptability of lace has proven well suited to the ambitions of these large-scale projects. Lace can be fussy, delicate and elite, but that is only one side to this enormously adaptable technique.

Surface Design Journal (spring 2011: 16-21)