BUENOS AIRES -- A decade ago, Argentine artist/designer Pablo Reinoso was deciding whether Liv Tyler or Natalie Portman should be the new face of Givenchy perfume. Today, his professional efforts have a decidedly less commercial air. On a recent Friday evening, he could be found in the Xippas art gallery in the ground floor of the Philippe Starck-styled Yoo building in Punta del Este, Uruguay. It was the beginning of the high society season in this South American take on the French Riviera, and he was overseeing the installation and opening party for an exhibition of the playful benches and frames that make up his Firulete series of sculptures.
"I feel like both an artist and a designer," says Reinoso, 57. "I've had moments when the artist and designer sides were even, and then suddenly one side takes on a primary role. Moreover, because my artwork incorporates a dialogue with design, or perhaps a critique of design or a joke about design, they are very related. But recently the artistic side has taken on more weight."
Dressed in a white dress shirt, black jeans and loafers, the relaxed Argentine-born Reinoso has led a rare career that has ping-ponged between high design and fine arts. After studying under Argentine sculptor Jorge Michel, Reinoso moved to France in 1978 and there managed the uncommon feat of supporting himself as a sculptor for the next two decades by producing works in wood, marble, slate, bronze and steel. Then, in the mid-1990s, he decided to break with his past and create less concrete installations that employed air and fabric instead of wood and marble. While successful -- his "Breathing Sculptures" filled exhibition halls in museums like Brazil's Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia -- they were, in his words, "unsellable."
Faced with a professional and economic crisis, Reinoso turned to design to make a living. For a decade, his artwork had financed his side business of design (he'd designed seats and lamps for the likes of Herman Miller), and now he decided that it was time for design to pay fine art back. At the time, the luxury conglomerate LVMH was looking for a designer with artistic credentials to reinvigorate its Givenchy brand, and Reinoso's name came up because he'd designed the furniture in the board of directors offices at Dior, another LVMH brand.
Reinoso was soon hired, and for the next decade -- from 1997 to 2007 -- he redesigned Givenchy perfume and other LVMH brands, among other things choosing Liv Tyler over Natalie Portman because of her Aerosmith roots ("There were two of us who chose Tyler, the CEO and I, because we both liked rock," he says. "We said, 'Better Liv, she's more rock and roll.'").
For Reinoso, there is a very clear line between designer and artist, and it was a conscious choice to turn to the design side at LVMH.
"The difference is very clear," he says. "In the work of design, one creates an object that is a nexus between someone who is going to produce it and someone who is going to consume it. Therefore, we designers have the task of finding what will be the communicating object in that circuit. But it has to be an object that allows the production circuit to move forward and grow and satisfy the consumer. Art? No. None of that is present."
After a decade of long hours at LVMH, Reinoso brought fine art back to the fore and left the luxury conglomerate. During recent years, he has turned his attention to the meeting point between art and design, in a sense diverting the fixed definitions of everyday objects and in doing so turning them into fine art. He is today best known for his playful reinterpretations of functional object like the famous Thonet chair, where he bends, deforms and elongates the cafe staple and hooks it together with other chairs, thereby turning a seat into a personality filled -- if largely unusable -- work of art. He says that he chose to play art with the Thonet chair specifically because it was the world's first example of "design" -- that is, a mass-produced object that was designed to appeal to consumers.
"There is always something that has to do with design that I take on another trip," he says. "I get hold of an object and try to 'Reinoso' it. I get a frame and liberate it. I get a bench and liberate it. I give other possibilites to an object than its function."
The Thonet chairs and his firulete (or spaghetti) benches and frames creep out of their usual domains and become almost organic objects that crawl across floors, up walls, and over themselves. There is a humorous feel to the pieces, as background objects come to the forefront and demand attention in their own right.
"My type of frame is a frame that was always around the painting and said one day, 'Enough, let me be the star for a bit, let me have a leading role.' So the frame takes the place of the painting," he says. "I also use a lot of steel I-beams. The I-beam is something that is made to be vertical or horizontal, but to stay there rigid. Mine look like I said, 'Enough of that, let’s do something else.' It’s like it’s a joke with the I-beam."
Reinoso's works will be on display at Xippas in Punta del Este until April 7.
Photo of Huge Sudeley Bench from Pablo Reinoso Studio/Wikipedia. Photo of Pablo Reinoso from Ian Mount.