COS has selected the American artist Phillip K Smith III to create its installation for this year’s Milan Design Week. The Swedish fashion brand’s annual display during the Salone del Mobile has become a highly-anticipated event over the past seven years, with big names such as Snarkitecture and Sou Fujimoto designing site-specific works for the programme. Last year, British design practice Studio Swine created a tree-like sculpture that emitted bubbles, attracting the kind of social media attention all brands hope for when commissioning these kinds of artistic projects for marketing purposes.
This year will be the first time the brand has selected an outdoor space in Milan – the light-filled courtyard of the historic Palazzo Isimbardi is a sharp contrast to last year’s venue, the dark interior of a former cinema. For Smith, it’s the first time he is working outside the United States. The artist is best known for producing large-scale site specific works that sit in deserts or on beaches, using light and reflection to contemplate natural surroundings, so designing for a spot embedded so deeply amid historic architecture was part of the appeal. “I like working with parameters that you couldn’t ever recreate in the studio – in this case, the architecture of the palazzo necessitated the logic of the piece,” he says.
The work in Milan, titled Open Sky, will exist in two parts. As you walk into the courtyard of the palazzo, you will be confronted by the back of the main installation – an abstract form, with a bird’s-eye profile of a horseshoe, that dominates the entire space. As you walk into the centre of the space, a reflective surface is revealed: multiple facets reflect the surrounding architecture, with slivers of sky peeking through; as you continue to walk, the reflection changes in kaleidoscopic fashion to reveal more and more sky. “The architecture peels away, almost like a live collage, and you are eventually surrounded entirely by sky.” The sculpture that will sit in the back garden of the venue works on a similar principle – one vertical and another horizontal form reflect the surroundings lawn, gardens, sky in the same fragmented, ever-changing manner.
“My medium is light and my work also deal with change – how time passes in front of your eyes, sometimes at a pace you are aware of,” Smith says. “As you walk, there is a sense of alignment with the pace of the piece, which slows you down.”
The artist was inspired in part by the shared experience created by Studio Swine’s work last year, which he saw when it had been transplanted to Florida for Design Miami in December. “People were giggling and popping bubbles like children,” he recalls. With his sculpture, he hopes to create a similar sense of immersion – “a sense of calm amid the city, with time carved out for enjoying the things that unite us as humans, such as looking at the sky”.
Digital technology allowed Smith to model exactly how the sculpture would look from each angle at different times of the day, but the project has required the involvement of more fabricators and technical experts than many of his previous works, because of its scale and complexity. He hopes, however, that these practical aspects of its construction will melt into the background when you are standing in front of it. “There are no obvious bolts or screws – instead of focusing on how it happened, you can give over to the purity of the experience.”