DESIGN LONNEY WHITE
It was during his high school years in Montana that Lonney White became “confused by the trendiness of colour” and shunned the palette entirely from his sartorial identity. He was instead solaced by the timeless allure of monochrome, with the stylistic code since creeping into his aesthetic as a neo-minimalist painter, sculptor and furniture designer.
“Everything I do in my art and in my life is monochromatic,” the artist reveals over the phone from Chicago—where he is now based. “I feel that the artwork I make, the clothes I wear, and the furniture and objects in my home, should all speak the same language; they should all agree with one another. Monochrome allows for that.”
Guided by an intuitive current, White uses the techniques of moulding, fusing and spilling to transform metal, bronze, steel, concrete and wax into pieces that bring to mind extraterrestrial surfaces and flattened exoskeletons.
During the sculpting and pouring process, the artist often welcomes the “erratic behaviours” carried by these mercurial elements, and chooses to expose, instead of smooth over, the indentations, holes and other surprises that may surface.
“It’s more enjoyable for me when I’m not at odds with my materials,” he explains. “At first, I have a gesture of what might happen with my work ... but sometimes the bronze may not cast perfectly, or the metal will move in the opposite direction to what I anticipated. I learnt early on not to over-finesse things, or to fight with materials and force them to be perfect. I’m more interested in embracing the capabilities of these materials, and leaving no room for embellishment or artifice.”
“My materials are sourced from all sorts of places,” White says of his Frankenstein assemblage. For his bronze fabrications he uses a local foundry called West Supply, while a different supplier provides the metal alloys for his paintings, and another for his steel. This year he visited a sheep farm outside of Chicago to source wool for his wet-felting.
While he describes his works as “subdued and non-representational”, with primitive titles devoid of fanfare, he enjoys hearing the Rorschachian thoughts offered by viewers. “Someone recently told me my paintings looked like sea lily fossils,” which he says is plausible, given the works resemble relics “once alive” due to an animated molten process.
White studied painting and sculpture at the University of Montana, and at one time sold his car so that he could afford to experiment with bronze (he ended up creating a desk entirely from the material). In 2008, he relocated to Chicago to expand his interest in interior architecture and furniture design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He experimented on pieces of various compositions and scales, from ornamental bronze- casted spill- offs, to metal-swatted milky wax paintings spanning a 20-foot sculpture caked in steel and concrete. This oscillation between disciplines is a response, he says, “to this contemporary moment where people are hungry for artwork that traverses vocational boundaries.”
White counts Montana-based furniture and accessories designer Ty Best, who he trained under, early in his career, as a huge influence on his own work. “I’m inspired by Ty’s uncompromising attitude towards his practice” White says. “Stepping into his studio is like being in a different world; his vision is so singular and everything follows suit. Ty’s aesthetic is inspired by the natural environment of Montana, but it’s also a stark and dramatic break from the cultural environment there.”
Work is steady for White, with painting commissions funnelled through his representative galleries Holly Hunt and Lmd/studio. It often starts with a dialogue between the artist and the clients about desired parameters and palettes, and White tends to pull out examples of his previous designs to get a feel for the clients tastes and vision. He then transforms this feedback into initial sketches on paper.
“But I’ll never show a client my sketch,” he divulges. “I’ve had problems in the past where I present clients with a drawing and they fall in love with it, but then I realise I am not able to execute the sketch! So now I keep my sketches intentionally vague to allow room for spontaneity.”
White counters that while commercial work provides him with the sustainability to pursue the trial-driven aspects of his practice, he is now, at 33, looking to dedicate the next phase of his career towards creating more monastic and challenging pieces. This year, he tackled his most complex creation yet: a 10foot-wide EXO Sofa of bronze exoskeleton, leather, wool, ebonised plywood and patinated steel.
He explains the process: “I start by moulding the initial organic shape for the sofa from a wet-felting method— this involves laying the raw wool out on a bamboo screen and placing dish soap over the wool, which affects the fibre’s PH balance. Then I roll up the wool and apply boiling water.” From there, the artist works the screen by hand until fibres start felting and fusing together, sculpting the wool free-form, resulting in natural holes. A wax is then built around the forms and then finally cast in bronze. The EXO Sofa was show- cased in The Collective Design Fair in New York in spring 2015, alongside artists Phoebe Knapp, Parts of Four and the dark lord of fashion and design, Rick Owens. “Because we shared a similar stylistic dialogue,” says White, “our works were curated together into one space in a way that enabled the works to feed from one another.”
White currently works from a the studio in the 8,000 square-foot property that he and his partner, designer and interior architect Lukas Machnik, bought two years ago. Situated in the industrial corridor of South Chicago, the building, formerly a glass factory in the late 1800s, has since been converted by the couple into a multi-functional habitat consisting of a studio, gallery/showroom, office space and living quarters.
“The downside to a home studio,” he reflects, “is that the work hours tend to get blurred, so it’s hard to set boundaries. I need to get better at leaving work. On the plus side, if I come up with an idea at 1:00am, I can embrace that spontaneity and create while it feels fresh.”
White ‘walks’ me through the premises via phone: Peppered around their space are artworks by White and other Lmd/studio artists. As usual, the interior architecture is aligned with the artist’s minimalistic thumbprint, “in terms of crafting an aesthetic environment or experience for myself, it’s important that there’s little competition between the elements at play”.
When I confide to White that my sensibilities are indeed the opposite, in that practically everything in my house is colour- clashed and loud, he reasons that this can still emit a similar experience. “You see colours in the same way I see my monochromatic life: in the end the landscape blurs together. If there was one colour in our living space right now, it would stand out, it would be the only thing you would look at. Having an interior environment that is neutral allows for nature and the outdoors to come in, and it adds to that meditative state for me. Whereas you have colours everywhere around you, but they blur together in the same way. This can be your kind of calm.”
Our conversation prompts White to reveal that, as a passion project, he and Machnik recently designed White’s father’s Montana home in their signature minimalist look. A curatorial hiccup arose when White’s father refilled his home contents post-renovation. “It was only after we finished laying this muted palette that we realised that my father’s wardrobe—which was full of bright, colourful clothes— totally clashed with the home,” he laughs. “So he had to re- evaluate things, and can you believe he ended up translating his wardrobe to match the house!”
Looking back fondly, he adds, “since then, my father has embraced the change in his home and in his environment. Design has enriched his life, and now when we travel he wants to learn more about the furniture in the hotel rooms. He wants to know whether the chair he’s sitting in is a Hans Wegner.”
White recounts that while his parents were not creatively inclined (his mother worked as a nurse while his father “was a land man who sold and bought gas and mineral rights”), they were nevertheless supportive of his venture into the arts. He credits his grandmother for nurturing his creative inklings. “My grandmother and I were very close. She never really had a job but she would volunteer at the local theatre and was constantly drawing and painting. She encouraged me to be an artist.”
Back then, a younger White found Montana to be a highly conservative place. “I wasn’t sure if it had something to do with my sexuality, but it didn’t matter, because I knew I was gay in the same way I knew I wanted to be an artist.” In contrast, White finds his present base in Chicago to be an “intellectual city with a strong community of artists, designers and creators” bolstered by a plethora of public art, including the iconic Picasso sculpture and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, “which complements and reflects the monumental architecture of the Chicago skyline”.
When our conversation lands on the topic of online presence, White reveals that a home owner in Hong Kong recently found a picture of his art on Pinterest, leading to White producing a commissioned piece for his beach house. That said, even though images of his work float around the Internet, the softly spoken artist admits he would much rather be concealed from the minutiae of it all. “I’m not the type of personality that needs to be online, so this idea of exposing myself on that scale gives me a heightened level of anxiety. Also, I feel like if I gave voice to my work, that it would somehow tarnish it.”
I relay to him a favourite quote of mine, by American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser: “When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt”. White chirps, “I completely agree. I exist online through Lukas when he uploads images of my work. But for the most part, I would be completely happy to be invisible from my work. I want to have myself virtually dissociated from my art so that it is able to stand on its own. That is what comforts me.”