The site of the 1964 World’s Fair, Flushing Meadows still contains several of the iconic structures building up to the space age. The Neo-Futurist grandeur of the pieces in the park embody the optimism of the era. Phillip Johnson, Eero Saarinen, and Charles and Ray Eames are just of few of the many designers who contributed work. We travelled to Flushing Meadows in early fall 2015 with our very first Design Field Trip.
Alex P White is an interdisciplinary designer living in New York, mainly focusing on furniture and interiors. His work embodies much of the same optimism and kitsch as the works throughout Flushing Meadows, so we decided to interview him, placing his work in the context of the trip.
How would you describe your body of work?
These days my main gig is decorating and furniture design, but I dabble in public art, performance, painting and sculpture. Recently I've started consulting for other designers, which I’m really excited about, so it’s more like bodies of work (but there are some commonalities for sure).
My general sensibility is rooted in the politic of camp, as in Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp (with a capital, postmodern C). I've always been drawn to the theatrical, the overly stylized, and the immersive experience. When artifice is sincerely exposed or expressed, it can have a perversely sophisticated appeal, just look at the recent Memphis revival.
Then there’s something I call chooch. It’s like an ingredient, a spice that enhances flavor through tension. Something that’s a little off on its own but when used thoughtfully, elevates. That’s what my work is all about, bringing on the chooch.
Who or what was your biggest single influence on your way of thinking?
The MALL — as a suburban kid in the late 70s, it was the center of my universe. We could walk to the Mall from my elementary school — it required a trek through the woods, it was a bit sketchy but super sexy. The older kids were in the woods doing things, grown up things. The Record Store, The Book Store, The Arcade, Mannequin Glamour, Skylights, Glass Elevators, Concrete Abstractions, Fountains with Complicated Geometry, Cruising the Men’s Bathroom. Come on! The Mall was a place for research; where I had access to media, culture unavailable at home; where I began to identify, to become critical, to see a complicated world outside the context of my family. New Wave became Goth and the rest is history.
What is a place that has influenced or inspired you in the past? How?
John Portman’s Peachtree Center, in my hometown Atlanta, is an ongoing obsession. Peachtree Center is an urban development project, began in the 70’s and completed in the early 90’s that was intended to revitalize the decaying city center and become the “new downtown.” Peachtree Center reimagined the concept of “downtown” as a giant mall, a realm of neo-futuristic convention hotels, shopping galleries, and office buildings all linked by this insane network of enclosed pedestrian sky bridges. Once inside Peachtree Center you can literally traverse blocks and blocks of the city, suspended high above street-level without ever leaving the interior space of the complex. Since its inception, Peachtree Center’s insular environments that "turn their back" on the city streets has been criticized as the area that epitomizes contemporary Atlanta's generic urbanity and sense of placelessness. It has become the poster child for what not do in urban planning. But in 1979 the complex with its ultramodern buildings, soaring atriums, indoor water features, hanging Babylon style gardens, revolving restaurants, and glass elevators was about as close as you could get to the set of Logan’s Run and I couldn’t get enough. It was my amusement park, my space ship, the projection of what a grown up life looks like. It was my favorite safari (my Father’s version of the field trip).
A few years ago, my partner and I were in the ATL visiting family for the holidays and we decided to stay in the Peachtree Center for New Years Eve. We ended up in the Marriott Marquis (with thousands of football fans in town for a bowl game) and I was blown away all over again. The Marquis has the most gloriously organic atrium; so skeletal it almost feels like you’re inside some alien’s body. We had dinner atop the Hyatt Regency, a connected hotel, in what looks like a flying saucer with a blue dome. As we slowly revolved around the sky having Martinis and taking in the sprawling city of Atlanta, I appreciated John Portman’s mastery of staging emotional, interior experiences with renewed conviction.
What stood out to you the most on the trip?
- Adulthood should be as playful as childhood (no permission slips needed)
- It’s really fun to geek out with your friends.
It’s very common to stop exploring your city when you’ve lived there for a long time and that’s sad.
What commonalities did you see with your own work and Flushing Meadows?
I believe in the symbolic power of design to tell stories. I think the desire to extend or enhance reality through art is a necessary part of the human condition and is a positive pursuit worth promoting. The whole message behind the World’s Fair of 1964 indulged this type of optimism. The various pavilions were symbolic structures designed to embrace the space age and the advent of technology that would forever change American culture.
The Googie & Neo Futurism styles that still survive at Flushing Meadows are constant sources of inspiration. I worship the Geodesic Dome. I’m always looking backwards to see forwards and images of vintage futurism in all its naïve glory will forever inspire hope and promise. So Flushing Meadows resonates with me – particularly the New York State Pavilion, the ruin. It’s a tragic beauty. A monument – the literal residue of this idealism captured in architectural form. Now that’s Camp!
What did you notice during the trip that you aren't sure others noticed?
I went on and on about the cinematic experience of design. I’m not sure anyone else was thinking exactly along these lines but that’s probably not the case. I think I was just the most enthusiastic about throwing on a space kaftan and super wig and dancing around in front of a camera – the Pavilion would make a great spaceship crash site, right?
Can you give a recommendation of something you've been into recently?
I’ve been really into this artist lately, Johnathon Baldock. He shows with Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in NYC but is based in London. He makes these amazingly surreal soft sculptures and costumes out of felt and other crafty materials. They aren’t exactly puppets but they reference them. He uses the gallery as a theatrical space, like an event is about to happen or just happened. His sculptures are like androgynous bodies morphing and mutating into each other, props waiting to be animated. If you’re a fan of Pedro Friedeberg, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Syd & Marty Krofft, Theater of the Bauhaus or Leigh Bowery, I highly recommend his work.
Alex P. White maintains an interdisciplinary studio practice in Brooklyn, NY. APW works with interior designer Kelly Behun on custom artworks, furniture and interiors. APW is the cofounder of SKOTE, a collaboration with performer Jill Pangallo and MALONE, a collaboration with artist Strauss Bourque LaFrance. In 2010, APW attended The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. In 2012 APW & Kelly Behun curated a show, AFTER at R & Company where they debuted their first furniture collection. In 2015, APW debuted a solo collection during NY Design Week for Sight Unseen OFFSITE and was the recipient of the 2015 American Design Hot List Award. APW has been published in T Magazine, Architectural Digest, The New York Times, Elle Decor, AD Italia, and Elle Decor UK. APW has shown works at Night Gallery, Regina Rex, Participant Inc., R & Co, Lamama Galleria and Movement Research at Judson Church.