Welcome to Sitting Pretty, a column that explores how timeless design and contemporary culture shape our homes today.
One of the most covetable designs by 20th-century Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass is the 1970 Ultrafragola mirror, a wavy pink-lipped design said to be an homage to women and...um, femininity. (Its famous fans include supermodel Bella Hadid and singer-songwriter Frank Ocean.) Another memorable design from the Memphis Group founder, lesser known but equal in its suggestive sultry, is the 1973 Shiva vase, a pale-pink ceramic that resembles, to put it quite bluntly, an erect penis. While the Shiva vase never reached the fame of the Ultrafragola mirror, it still proved that a postmodernist phallus had real aesthetic appeal. (It’s still in production.) Decades later, designers and artists from all disciplines are keeping the dream of phallic decor alive.
Phallic references and masculine nudity have appeared in art and design for millennia. In ancient Rome, bronze phallic wind chimes hung in doorways, believed to ward off evil and bring good luck to the household. Michelangelo’s historic paintings and sculptures of male nudes from the 1500s, inspired by the B.C.-era Laocoön, sparked a rebirth of nudity in Western art. Fast forward to 1945, and Isamu Noguchi produced an abstract sculpture from eight interlocking pieces of pink Georgian marble to form a hazily phallic silhouette. (This was before his first Akari lamp, though there might be a semi-suggestive shape or two in his world-famous lighting if you look for it.) In phallic art’s long, complex history, some of the work probably has layers of symbolism—virility, life, and luck. Also, sometimes a dick is just a dick.
In the late 1970s, Andy Warhol gave a real whopper his signature Pop art treatment with Penis. (Although it’s easy to buy posters of Warhol’s other work from this era—authorized or otherwise—no savvy websites appear to be pushing prints of this one.) Taschen, the high-end art publisher, released The Big Penis Book in 2008, a coffee table accessory featuring more than 150 "massively endowed" models, which, somewhat surprisingly, Barnes & Noble sells. Brooklyn’s No. 4 Studio carries limited-edition prints of Peen, a bold line drawing by artist Dan Flanagan. For the less brash, some decor skews slightly more subtle.
"Do you know what that looks like?" my brother asked me, pointing to the ceramic incense burner in my living room, a stubby cylinder protruding from a circular base. "Yeah, it’s what you think it is," I replied about the piece I’d bought from fashion stylist turned arty provocateur Andrew Richardson’s label. The design has become a staple of the brand since the object debuted in 2015. (It isn’t quite as in your face as Warhol’s Penis or Flanagan’s Peen.)
Southern California industrial designer Eric Trine created the Wall Willy, a powder-coated steel hook in quite a winking shape, also in 2015. It’s only four inches long—proving that satisfying design can come in all sizes. In 2018, Degoey Planet, an Australian company that sells various handmade home goods, released the Nine Inch Vase, a white-and-blue speckled stoneware piece that "pays tribute to the masculine form," according to the product description. (The company’s 10 Inch Candle followed last year.) New York homeware and apparel brand Viso Project produces an ultra-minimalist take on the phallic silhouette, a vase so subtle that one might miss the reference. Artist Gavin Houghton, who worked as an interior stylist and art director before forming his practice, makes ceramic dishes and paintings with the occasional penis or two depicted. On the ultra-contemporary side, artist Colin Radcliffe’s latest collection includes a glazed porcelain sculpture that features one particularly thick pipe of flesh, not his first time experimenting with the phallus-as-subject.
Each designer seems to be making a decor penis for their own reason. In the case of Richardson, much of his creative output is titillating, meant to shock and delight. Trine’s designs have an undeniable lightness and whimsy, the mark of a playful designer with the right amount of seriousness. (All of the bathrooms at Austin Motel, nicknamed "Phallus Palace" for its own suggestively shaped signage, feature his Wall Willys.) Both Houghton and Radcliffe, meanwhile, are carrying on the artful tradition of queer male artists portraying homosexuality in a way that doesn’t shy away from eroticism.
Though boobs and butts have been popping up on bath mats and terra-cotta planters and shower curtains for a while now, I’m not sure we will see design-y dicks on the shelves of Urban Outfitters anytime soon. It’s not an aesthetic for everyone, but at the base of the appeal is a way to add some subversive, eccentric, and sometimes sexually charged edge to one’s home—precisely the type of piece that might have your guest do a double take and ask: Do you know what that looks like?
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Top photo courtesy of BD Barcelona Design.
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