ON THE SKYLINE
COS DOESN’T SPEND ITS CAPITAL ON TRADITIONAL ADVERTISING, BUT ON ART AND DESIGN THAT CONNECTS WITH CUSTOMERS IN NEW WAYS. FOR THIS YEAR’S SALONE DEL MOBILE THE FASHION BRAND COMMISSIONED U.S. ARTIST PHILLIP K. SMITH.
This past April, in the seven days of Milan Design Week, more than 22,000 people filed through the courtyard of the Palazzo Isimbardi, taking in its fine 16th- and 18th-century details: the elegant granite columns supporting rounded arches, the portico elaborately decorated with restored frescoes, and the hints of green from the romantic “English” garden fashioned in the early 1800s.
But what the crowds had really come to see was Open Sky, a contemporary reflective stainless-steel artwork by Californian architect and artist Phillip K. Smith III, commissioned by the fashion brand COS.
COS, which has grown an enviable cult following since it launched out of London in 2007, reached Australia in 2014 and now has stores all over the world including in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. For the “high fashion at affordable prices” brand, this installation proved the perfect means to connect with existing and potential COS customers.
“Art, music and culture have always played a big part as inspiration for the brand,” says Karin Gustafsson, creative director of COS (Collection Of Style). “When we think of our customer, we don’t necessarily see a particular person, age or type, but more a mindset. They share our interest in art and design, they’re really culturally aware and very demanding when it comes to the service and quality of everything in their lives.”
So rather than big-budget catwalk shows or splashy advertising billboards, COS invested in the arts. For Open Sky, Gustafsson and team had started talking to Smith a year before. “We’d come across Phillip’s work in 2013 when he created the Joshua Tree light installation Lucid Stead,” she says. Smith took an abandoned homestead shack and applied mirrored strips to reflect the desert landscape by day and radiate a vibrant colour spectrum, imitating the hues found in nature, by night. “We thought it was interesting the way it interacted with its surroundings and we knew that for this year in Milan, we wanted to do something outside.”
A Coachella native, with undergraduate degrees in architecture and fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design, Smith aims to help capture “the beauty that surrounds us before it shifts, transforms and disappears”, he says in his recent book Phillip K. Smith: Five Installations, produced by the Laguna Art Museum. “It’s those pure moments where lasting memory is created, a connection to an experience that is worth remembering, worth sharing and worth telling the world about.”
“There’s something very modern and clean about his work but at the same time it has an ever-changing feeling,” says Gustafsson. Where many of his works are about “having a conversation with the energy of the desert, wanting people to look at the land and sky afresh”, for Milan, Smith tells WISH, “the experience was whittling down a focused space for capturing the two elements of the man-made palazzo and the sky”.
Open Sky owes much to Smith’s other acclaimed installations, including ¼ Mile Arc, commissioned for the Laguna Art Museum’s annual Art & Nature festival in 2016, with 250 mirrored polished stainless-steel reflectors stretching along the town’s Main Beach, “a visible marker between the manmade and natural worlds, reflecting the changing colours of the ocean, sky and shoreline through the day and night,” he says.
Similarly, The Circle of Land and Sky, commissioned for Desert Biennial’s Desert X exhibition in Coachella Valley last year, a 50m-diameter circle of 300 mirrorpolished stakes angled at 10 degrees, created the illusion of the sky being pulled down to the land and the land lifting up to the sky. Scale is key to Smith’s work. “The piece needs to be big enough to invite the surroundings in, yet intimate enough to feel like a sheltered space within that environment,” he says.
Just as Smith pushes the ideas of form and materials – “my medium is light, but it can be revealed through many things, like glass, acrylic, concrete, carbon fibre and steel,” he says – the COS creative team constantly challenges the fabrics they work with. “When we started, we knew we wanted to create something of high quality and to do this, we had to think of every single little detail. Some designers work on the computer but we work with our hands to really explore the way materials fall and drape on the dress stand or model straight away. I feel when you work closer to the material, you get a better quality design in the end,” says Gustafsson, recently voted one of Fast Company magazine’s most creative people of 2017.
This was the seventh year COS has exhibited at Milan; previous collaborations have included working with London-based design duo Studio Swine on an interactive, multisensory experience in the city’s historic Cinema Arti in 2017, where delicate mist-filled “bubbles” dropped from a 180cm aluminium tree, alluding to the shape of the grand chandeliers hanging in the Milanese palazzos. With New York studio Snarkitecture, they played with hundreds of metres of translucent white fabric cut into strips to create a tunnel-like installation in 2015. Other collaborators have included Gary Card, Bonsoir Paris, Nendo and Sou Fujimoto.
Each time, the brand gives the artist or designer carte blanche. “We carefully choose who we work with – in no way are we architects or artists or set designers, so we don’t feel it’s right to interfere. We really want to share with our customers the people we believe in, the people who share our DNA and our values.”