The artist, designer, and architect takes us through her formative years as a maker, her dedication to environmental art, and the joys of furniture design.
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You grew up in the college town of Athens, Ohio. How did your hometown contribute to your creative life? My mother was an English and Asian literature professor, and my dad started in ceramics at Ohio University. So my brother and I would get out of school, and we would go to my dad’s studio and wait until he got off work—which meant my brother and I played with clay our entire childhoods. Even when I got to undergrad, I was making these crazy architectural works carved out of clay, and people thought I was being provocative, but I wasn’t!
So you’ve had a long career as a hands-on maker? That’s the way I grew up. My dad made all the pots that we ate out of every day; he made a lot of our furniture. So there wasn’t a distinction between craft and high fine arts. I grew up where it was all blurred, and part of me is still my father’s daughter. I’m coming out of almost a craftsman aesthetic.
Tell us about your new multimedia project, website, and science-based artwork, What Is Missing? It’s a memorial, and we’re reinventing and trying to redefine what a monument can be. Right now the website has over 600 historical entries, and maybe it’s dense, but we’re probably the only site that’s got this kind of ecological history of the planet.
The site has videos, maps, historical notes, and though it memorializes lost species, it’s also a place to talk about where the planet is going. The website shows the world, past, present, and future. The present gives us an idea of what environmental groups are doing [and what the average person can do], and as we progress we’ll invite more people to tell us their stories or share their memories.
Greenprint is the “future” component. Tell us more. What Greenprint will do is bring in the economists to talk to the agriculture experts to talk to the waste experts to talk to the biological diversity experts, and we’re going to get a complete round-table discussion going online. We’ll probably launch something Earth Day 2013, and maybe we’ll invite graduate schools around the world to look at their own cities—maybe 20 major cities—and we will all link up to rethink what those cities could look like. You’ll have a panel of experts and anyone can send them an email. We are trying to keep this project as virtual as possible, because the less money we spend, the fewer resources we use, and the smaller and humbler I can keep this project. In a way, that’s part of the underlying principle of it.
On another environmental note, Knoll is bringing back a greener version of the set of furniture you designed for it in the late 1990s. Oh, the Stones. The Stones are my favorite. Knoll initially wanted me to do a chair, but I was extremely pregnant with my second child and I said, “I can’t do an entire collection; I’ll do one piece for you.” So I made the piece, and, well, is it a sculpture, or is it a chair? It’s neither. It’s sort of a pedestal, but it’s also something you can use as a table. They’re now in 100 percent recycled polyethylene, which I’m really happy about.