this new exhibition examines the relationship between books and design
'Errata: Books Do Furnish a Room' at Mask Books brings Spanish artists to NYC to question the physical condition of books and design objects.
Group shot from Errata: Books do Clutter a Room at Mast Books.
Miguel Leiro, a Spanish designer and graduate of the Pratt Institute, has devoted his career to understanding how the limits of the design process shape the objects that surround us. During the spring of 2018, he connected with Nelson Harst, a rare book collector under the moniker Antifurniture, about collaborating on an exhibition that would bring new work from Spanish designers to New York City. Harst gladly agreed, and the two began formatting the creative infrastructure behind Errata: Books do Clutter a Room — an exhibition hosted at Mast Books, celebrating an assemblage of works that question the physical condition of both books and design objects.
“The creative impetus behind the project started with my interest in Nelson’s work, specifically the idea of relating the potential of the book as something much more special, conceptually interesting, and worth having as an object,” Leiro explains. Since their initial conversation, the Errata curators have only met in person twice, as Leiro is based out of Galicia, Spain and Harst has established his literary and design network here in New York. “We Skype at least three times a week,” Leiro admits.
Given the artistic through-line in their portfolios, Leiro and Harst started developing a brief that expanded the conceptual relationship between books and design, and found a referential focus in Anthony Powell’s 1971 novel Books Do Furnish a Room. In the novel, several stories explore how protagonist Bagshaw received his nickname “Books.” In one of the narratives, Bagshaw got too drunk at a cocktail party and pulled down an entire bookcase in an attempt to stay upright. Laying in a heap of books, he quipped, “Books do furnish a room, don’t they?”
“What’s weird about books, in particular, is the contextual use versus the literal, practical use,” Harst explains. “Unless you use the dictionary a bunch, you don’t often have a book that you’re constantly looking at.”
The pieces in the exhibition range in material and typology. Pablo Ferreira, who is based out of Madrid, Spain, and part of the artists’ collective Colectivo la Cosa, designed a magazine rack that’s made of BDSM materials. Ferreira used Shibari rope to cascade the piece from the ceiling, sex tape to support the books and magazines the rack is meant to facilitate, and cock rings to affix the various objects together. Errata features work by Pablo Alabau, Tomás Alonso, Colectivo la Cosa, Jorge Penadés, Sara Regal, and Julen Ussía. The exhibition will run from May 16 to May 31 at Mast Books in Alphabet City.
i-D spoke to Leiro and Harst about their collaboration, and what they hope people will take away from the exhibition.
Could you tell me more about the creative impetus behind the project?
Miguel Leiro: My main creative impetus started with my interest in Nelson’s work, in this idea of relating the potential of the book as something much more special, conceptually interesting, and something worth having as an object. We translated this into what we’ve come to understand as design objects, whether it be a piece of furniture, a chair, or a table, and then taking advantage of this exhibition and all the designers so we can investigate that relationship. Based off of that, I think there are a lot of people who branch off into different kinds of themes in terms of how you interpret this idea of the book and the piece of furniture. We can better understand both sides of the equation.
Nelson Harst: Miguel came to me with this proposal about how we can bring Spanish designers together, but he needed a space to do a show. The first challenge was finding a venue, and the obvious step for me to then take was to find a bookstore. It was the necessity of designing something around the sort of space I imagined, and they seemed interested in doing the exhibition outside of a gallery, so its not a conceptual white cube space. In terms of the creative impetus, there are various limitations, as it’s all based on a certain object. Outside of a bookshelf, people don’t often design for books. Even with bookshelves, there are very few options. It’s seemed interesting to do a crazy spinoff on ‘what can we do that’s kind of like a gallery show, but not a gallery show.’
In terms of finding the artists you brought on for this exhibition, how did that come together?
ML: One of the main themes of the proposal was to bring Spanish designers to New York, partly because a lot of the artists participating have never shown in the United States before. It’s both interesting for the designers themselves, to give them that opportunity, and for people in New York to engage with names they’ve never heard of before. There’s a sense of responsibility for people who organize shows to publicize new, creative ideas.
Going off of Nelson’s point about the organic origins of the show, the way I met these designers was very Spanish. Some of them you meet at a bar at night, and you get to talking and eventually you’re drunk at 5 am yelling, “You're a designer, please show me your portfolio.” Another one of the designers, I emailed four years ago asking if I could intern for him, and after I began this process, one of our other artists told me “yeah I emailed him for an internship too.” So it has this element of being very Spanish, in the sense that it all came together in a very social way. You have very established artists, but you also have younger designers who are just as clear about their ideas. It was really fun getting to know all of these people through the process of organizing the show.
Could you elaborate on what you mean when you say you hope to develop the dynamic between the functional and perceived use?
ML: What’s interesting about the show is the notion of ‘in theory it’s functional’ is put to the test. There are some things that are functional but function also has the limitation of context and tied to the specific moment when something can function well. A lot of the artist’s pieces have that, for example, here’s a bench, but where can I actually use it? What does it mean that I can only use it in a specific spot? Does that make the piece say something about its context in a different way? That relationship is explored at the beginning of the show. Nelson’s Antifurniture identity also has to do with this idea of the actual use of something versus how people perceive its use.
NH: What’s weird about books, in particular, is the contextual use versus the literal, practical use. Unless you use the dictionary a bunch, you don’t often have a book that you’re constantly looking at. People are buying books for reasons besides use, so it’s about the display and there’s usually a contextual reason behind your decision to purchase a book. Bringing a design equation to solve that question was the more conceptual take on ‘what’s interesting about books in particular?’ Versus someone investing in beautiful kitchenware, which is obviously different from books since the latter is not utilitarian to begin with.
You mention that a lot of the design process is discovered or stumbled upon by mistake, do you think that should play a role in the overall process, albeit a portion of the time?
ML: Always. It also depends on how often an artist wants to show that. Some designers might make a mistake and it turns out to be really cool, and they decide to finish it and present it. Others might use mistakes to understand how to improve their process in the future. In the design process, a mistake might not be the most important thing, but it is intrinsic in learning. Sometimes we’re all like ‘I fucked up, and now I know what not to do,’ or 'my mistake created a better outcome.’ I do think this idea of being critical of what’s happening is really important, and I want the show to have a little bit of that. Someone might say, ‘this is a piece of shit, it doesn’t work’ and if you think it doesn’t work then you’re right to say that because this is a designer. At the same time, an artist may come in and say, ‘this changed my life’ pointing to the reality that everything is relative. It’s all really open to interpretation.
How do the various artists participating delve into the inquiry you’re propositioning? Was there one common through-line many adopted?
ML: Each person’s process is solidified in each person’s piece. All of the artists were isolated in designing each piece, and I always wanted it to be open in that sense. Your process is your process and whatever you give me will be a result of that, and I don’t want to have an influence on the material or the typology. However, we obviously don’t want 12 bookshelves in the show.
NH: Miguel and I came up with the brief together, but I stepped aside so Miguel and the other designers could come up with who was doing what. One person may be doing a lamp, so someone else could potentially do a side table.
When I was looking through the brief, I noticed one of the questions you all list is ‘can we read objects?’ Would you consider that to be the titular question of the exhibition?
ML: Archeologists do this all the time. I throw a cup away tomorrow and 200 years from now someone picks up the cup and says, ‘this fingerprint was here,’ or ‘this glass has this chemical component,’ and they draw their own conclusions.
NH: I was aiming for the question that people come away with to be ‘what can I do with books?’ And further, ‘why am I buying them’ and ‘why am I collecting them?’ While considering those questions, people may start to think about how design objects influence that decision.