Imagine your chair was a character. How would it be like? In Serban Ionescu’s imagination, they’re vividly colourful, fun and playful. “I think a chair can transfer a vibrating energy to a space. Like a cat’s presence in a room”, he says. That’s why his work, which sits between sculptural art and architecture design, is always imbued with much more than materiality and texture. It goes beyond practicality and functional terms to make a space happier and more joyful. Because, why wouldn’t we make our house the happiest place to be?
Serban, you’re originally from Romania but moved to New York City quite a while ago, where you studied Architecture at the renowned Pratt Institute. How do these two cultures (Romanian and American) inform the person and artist you are today?
Romania was my early childhood. It was the tail end of communist Romania but also had that Eastern European old-world culture. I left there when I was 10 years old, so it’s very much my core, and at the same time, it’s very distant, abstract and of a different world. It’s become my subconscious. Memories are fading into dreams. It had a certain earthy and mystical sensitivity that resurfaces in me once in a while, which I try to explore in my work. I am trying to tap into that more as I get older. It definitely clashes against the loud dirty freeing NYC of the ‘90s that I was thrown into as an early teen immigrant.
I soaked in all the vibrant colors of the city, graffiti, punk rock and all those loud energies of NY that were very formative for me. Of course, that energy was tamed by studying and teaching architecture. And that’s where I am today: with a mystic core and a frantic energy that constantly play off each other. Play is super important in my work. Always play – maybe my memories are only of my time playing and that’s what I try to remember.
Despite studying architecture, your work now mixes product design and sculpture, so your creative practice finds itself between art and design, beauty and functionality. How do you find that midpoint?
After architecture school, I really needed to free myself from definitions and boundaries. From that point on, my goal was to explore painting, sculpture, drawing and just make work that spoke to me. And recently, I’ve returned to design with a fresh direction and freedom from that exploration. I like this space I am in now, between design and art. It feels somewhat infinite to explore. At the end of the day, whatever vibration I am feeding the work, whether it exists as a chair, painting or sculpture, if someone responds to that in some way, I’m satisfied. I don’t care if it lies in art or design as long it was joyous to make and that joy is there.
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If I’m not mistaken, all your creations start from drawings, more especially from “the automatic act of drawing”, as you say on your website. From there, you translate the sketches into 3D pieces – especially chairs, at least as of late. Tell us more about your creative process and how do you turn ‘thoughtless’ drawings into exhibition-worthy objects.
I have always admired ‘the napkin drawing’ or the doodle on the side of the notebook. Doodling is freedom and drawing is the most autobiographical form of truth – to me at least. I was drawing before I could speak as a child, so drawing is my purest form of expression. And I tapped into that. I would spend hours and hours at the studio drawing very quick fast drawings that I would put away. A week later, I would resurface them and then see if they had some magic in them.
Then, I would collage them into a figure or something that I like. Once I got something interesting, I would bring it into a CAD software to engineer them into being – figure out the scale, the connections, proportions and the systems of structure. The technical process is almost architectural, on a very small scale; sketching, drawing, measuring, material, fabrication and finishes. And boom, you have a final piece born out of the friction between the impulse drawing and the technical fabrication. I call this space ‘Impulse Versus Measure’.
Your creations have a sort of quirky, funny or even childlike appearance. How was the process of finding your personal style and expression like? Was it trial-and-error based, or did you know from the very beginning how you wanted your pieces to look like?
Soon after I graduated from Pratt Institute, I found myself sitting at my drawing desk, working on a random project or just drawing, and all my mentor’s voices kept resonating in my head as I was making lines. I was caught in their words and wasn’t making my work. I had to put a stop to them. So I asked myself what would be the most opposite of what I learned? This idea of delearning… And what came to mind was cartoons, doodles and humor. It was an extreme thought at first, but so freeing to exercise and draw. That was the lift off, and I have been riding that wave and morphing it in paintings and objects out of pure need for many years. I needed to step outside to step back in.
I would say humour plays an important role in what you do. How do you combine object design and humour? Why do you feel it’s necessary to have fun objects at home?
Humor is something I try to reach in my work but also in myself and what surrounds me. It’s maybe a deep buried root that I inherited from my Romanian past. I remember jokes were always told in contrast to the dark times of the last years of the communist regime; humor seemed like a refuge – or the memory of it does. Or even a higher plane. When I thought about the cartoon, it lifted the work from having to stick so heavily to a serious and dry tradition of design. It also felt organic that the humour would emerge from my process.
Making work was play, so humor and lightness were inevitable. And I do think homes should have objects that carry many different origins and emotions; design objects, luxury, but also personal treasures with nostalgia, found objects and objects of humor and joy. A presence of joy in a home is important. Makes you happy when you wake up in the morning.
“I want objects to have names and energies and be part of our everyday as friends.”
Let’s talk about homes then. I’d like you to guide us a bit through yours. Do you collect your own creations? Is your house full of colourful, cartoonish chairs and furniture?
Yes. My partner says our house is ‘Serbanesque’. So yeah, it’s a house full of cartoonish chairs and lots of colors, and also, it was designed from the ground up – at least our flat. It was abandoned and my partner, Bérénice Eveno and I built it together. I have cultivated this tradition where I always design and build my homes since I was studying architecture. And one day, I realized I needed a chair for my house. So really, my return to design was sparked by making furniture for my home.
Now, it’s become sort of a testing ground for new designs or rejects. And a fun world for our daughter, Zélie, to be raised in. One day, a friend joked that she was gonna grow up and go to a regular home or building and be like, ‘Wait, what? Chairs are not all huge colorful creatures?’ I also collect my dearest friend’s artwork, paintings, objects, etc. I want my house to be the sponge of my best self.
You say that a chair “is a character or a pet in a room.” Could you expand on that?
I think a chair can transfer a vibrating energy to a space. Like a cat’s presence in a room. It's not the same room with or without the cat. Objects have presence and we too often take that for granted and minimize it. Objects are so present in our lives: you need to clean them, move them and maintain them. But the relationship doesn’t have to stop at that functional transaction and empty presence. I want objects to have names and energies and be part of our everyday as friends.
Almost all your chairs have names, but some of them refer to specific actors, like Peter Sellers and Gene Wilder. How does cinema in general inform your work? And why did you name two pieces after these two actors particularly?
Good catch. I guess it’s the idea of the character. If the chair becomes a fun creature with a personality and an energy, it’s a character. In my mind, these two actors are so tied to the amazing characters they embodied, like Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. And my pink chair made me think of the Pink Panther, which took my mind straight to Peter Sellers. So I guess if I think about it, it’s that idea of fully becoming a character. That’s the ultimate goal of my little chair creatures. I also love cinema and the history of cinema and I always tried to have it part of my work in some way. This is a larger challenge which keeps me going.
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Speaking about cinema, I see you also make films. How does your cinematic/filmmaking work relate to the more object-based practice? What are the similarities and differences between your chairs and your films?
I love making movies. Films are also so collaborative, and currently, it’s just me alone in my studio. Building quick sets freed me from my rigorous approach to making things. I also learned to go beyond an object, like in a Bergman film how much he can get from silence of an actor. I always strive to have that from an object. It gives a lot. Making a film is part of my current dream projects, especially a feature-length, like an opera of sorts, with wild sets, funky lights, color, actors, music, layered emotions. I truly love film. It’s fascinating to me, how this 2D art medium comes alive so vividly and how deeply it impacts our emotional memory.
What are your plans for the next months? Any projects, pieces or exhibitions you’re currently working on?
As for my near future projects, I have just completed this architectural sculpture of large-scale in Hudson called Chapel for an Apple, which will be revealed this summer. More collaborations with the gallery R&Company, a few shows scheduled overseas, a group show in Tokyo, a two-person show in Madrid, Belgium, Greece, etc. And a book of my recent work will be published in the fall. So good stuff coming up!
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