Tell me, where did you START? Conversations with Designer Robert Stadler

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Robert Stadler, 2022. Photo courtesy of Carpenters Workshop Gallery.

Before my first Facetime conversation with the Austrian designer Robert Stadler, I had looked through images of his works but I did not know much about Stadler himself. Going into our first ‘meeting’ I wanted to get to know him, his personality. What kind of questions could I ask him? What would be the mood of our dialogue? Would we get along? Would Stadler be stiff and severe? Humorless? Well, I had no need to worry. From the moment we greeted each other, his personality came through. Stadler is soft-spoken, easy to laugh, kind, open to converse on whatever topic, and most importantly does have a sense of humor that seeps into most of his work.

Because I was not very familiar with his life, I decided to start our conversation from the very beginning. I soon learned this clean-cut refined man was once a punk rocker, that he liked French films, and that the history of design constantly is at play in his practice.

That relationship to design, art and architectural history is present in his two current U.S. exhibitions, “Robert Stadler: Playdate” at Glass House, New Canaan, CT set in the unique weekend home of the larchitect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) and in the two-person exhibition “START! Robert Stadler x Richard Artschwager” at Carpenters Workshop Gallery alongside work by the American artist Richard Artschwager (1923-2013) curated by Glenn Adamson. In both exhibitions, his works intertwine tightly with the creative practices of Johnson and Artschwager offering new relational entry points to their practices. As I am also an artist, I hope you as a reader will also consider how Stadler and I related to each other as two creatives in dialogue.

Following our first conversation, I went to see his works at Carpenters Workshop Gallery and was not disappointed. His works are clean with attention to material that goes beyond design and is art. Having viewed his works, our first conversation came back into focus and eventually became fuller and richer with this new perspective. I was able to relate more of his history in context with the works I had just viewed, resulting in forming insights and coming to different realizations about his present practice and possible future work. Our second and final included discussions on what drew him to Milan and Paris for school, why he enjoyed working in an artist collective, what inspired him to eventually leave and to go out on his own, and finally what pushes him in his work today.

To say the least the discussions Stadler and I had were very long and fascinating. Below for your reading pleasure are a few highlights from those November discussions.

Alexandria Deters: I wanted to start with your beginnings in art. What was some of the art you really liked? It does not have to be designers or visual artists, but anything that creatively inspired you.

Robert Stadler: Well, the very early, the first thing, like movement or whatever, was punk.

AD: Who was your favorite punk singer?

RS: Um, I liked The Clash a lot.

AD: I was about to say, if you like punk, do you like The Clash! <laughs>

RS: But I liked a lot of them. I liked the ones that I was happy to see. There was a cool place in Vienna where I saw The Dead Kennedys. Really big bands played there, like The Ramones.

AD: That’s so cool.

RS: Yeah. The Slits as well. I love The Slits.

AD: Yes. Oh my gosh. It’s yes, yes, yes.

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The Clash in New York, 1978. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images.

RS: In terms of visual or contemporary art my eye or brain was trained at the museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art in Vienna. I saw amazing shows there. For example, there was a great Chris Burden show. Although, punk did come first. But, is it “art”?

AD: Punk is art to me. It is an intense art form. The aesthetic and lifestyle are definitely a commitment, that’s for sure. A lot of glue in your hair. <laugh> To go back for a second what was the punk venue you went to called? Is it still around?

RS: <laugh> It was the old slaughterhouse.

A building with a sign on it

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Arena, Vienna, © Copyright Vienna Tourist Board

AD: That sounds punk.

RS: Definitely punk. It was called Arena.

Our discussion about his early punk tendencies eventually evolved into him reflecting about his experiences learning about design and art in the early 1980s at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan, Italy. After graduating he attended the École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle in Paris, France; where he currently continues to reside. Both schools are known for being creative hotspots and impact his works and practice today.

RS: There is so much important Italian design from the 20th century. Like, the Memphis Group [also known as Memphis Milano] and Superstudio [architectural firm] which is more present in Milan than in France. In general, Italy has a larger design culture while France is more embedded in a decorative arts culture. Of course, with exceptions.

AD: There are always exceptions.

RS: Being in Milan meant to be immersed in design in everyday life. While I was studying, some of those important design figures were still there. Held annually in Milan the Milan Furniture Fair [Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano] is the most important fair in the world for furniture. Back then, there were amazing presentations.

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The Memphis look for interiors: a showroom for activewear brand Esprit. Photo courtesy of Globule.

After making my way through his school years, we discussed his time as part of the successful art collective “Radi Designers.” The collective that formed in 1992 in Paris included the designers Claudio Colucci, Florence Doléac Stadler, Laurent Massaloux, Olivier Sidet, and Stadler. Together they worked on various projects and ventures including object design and scenography for exhibitions.

RS: As a collective, we had a lot of fun. We were always the bad boys because we were very critical. We were averse to whatever smelled trendy and express it out loud: ‘We don’t like that.’

AD: Mm.

RS: Back then, the end of the 1980s, it was not common to work in a collective as the design world was dominated by big personalities. In aesthetically, a minimal trend, like Jasper Morrison, was in fashion. So, when we, as our collective, did animal figuration it was seen as crazy. It couldn’t be placed. It was new. We were nurtured by different things, were not theoretically driven, and didn’t conceptualize what we were doing.

AD: That makes it more natural. You weren’t thinking it out, right?

RS: Yeah. But although, we were free spirited we never underestimated the importance of good industrial design. So, in our first exhibition we presented mostly products. We thought we could…do products but differently…. which was a failure.

AS: Are you speking about “Fabulation” that took place at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris in 1999?

RS: No, this was our first solo show at Emmanuel Perrotin 1998. It was a big media success and lead us to our next step. But since the objects themselves—the prototypes we presented—did not get picked up we felt it was a failure. We expected big industrialists would come and say: ‘this is cool and we’ll put it in production.’ That didn’t happen.

AD: So, you failed to reach your goal, but what resulted was all other things considered a success? I understand what you are saying.

RS: Yes, we did not know how the industry worked. It’s rare as a designer—especially when you are very young—to be hired to create a product based on your designs. It is unheard of when it comes to the type of fantasy ideas to be put it in production based on a prototype. A manufacturer, or a brand, might call you and say, ‘I saw what you did, I like that. So now let’s talk about a project,’ but they will want something different. It is very rare that your initial thing will be produced. But we just didn’t know that back then,

AD: Well, that’s some young, fun, and punk spirit right there.

RS: <Shrugs> It worked in a way because a few weeks later we got invited to do the Cartier show you mentioned earlier and we were commissioned to design new cutlery for Air France. So, it worked indirectly.

Opening of the exhibition Radi Designers, Fabulation, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 1999. © RADI DESIGNERS. Picture©Philippe Chancel
12 Piece Air France Radi Designers Couzon Airline Flatware, 2000s. Photo courtesy of ArtLoveShop.

AD: So, what made you guys stop working together? Was there a falling out?

RS: No. At one point we, for different reasons, decided that we could also work separately, but we continued to work with the group. We worked with fun narratives and fantasizing. Which I love, but after branching out I found my desire to work with darker themes. It is problematic in the design world because there is no real space for this type of criticism, as opposed to the art world, you know? Design has to be attractive and beautiful and smooth. So, that’s when I came up with “Pools and Pouf!” an installation part of which, the small black piece, is hanging in the gallery.

Robert Stadler, Pools & Pouf!, 2004, leather. Courtesy: Carpenters Workshop Gallery and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin. Photos: Patrick Gries

The pieces in “StART! Stadler x Richard Artschwager” at Carpenters Workshop Gallery are part of his more recent history, designing beyond the collective. It was when discussing his current work that his sense of humor and wittiness came through. What may at first seem like simple objects, with a certain function and purpose, Stadler sees as a challenge. As Stadler himself is quoted as saying in the START catalogue essay, “we more readily agree to be destabilized by an artwork than a design object. But who said that a domestic, functional item shouldn’t challenge us?”.

RS: “Pools and Pouf!” was in a way a critique of comfort. It was sprung from a desire to, to dissolve this…I mean this piece in itself is a dissolution. It is a critique of bourgeois comfort.

AD: That’s cool. I like the concept and its development.

RS: In a way the work signifies a break for me, with it I developed an idea all alone, not in the group. As a narrative the piece still has to do with what we did as a group. But it’s something that I could only have come up on my own. So, that piece was important for me.

A black bowling ball

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A picture containing sport, indoor, sitting, pool ball

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A picture containing sport, indoor, sitting, pool ball

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Richard Artschwager’s bowling balls. Photos courtesy of Carpenters Workshop Gallery.

AD: One, well technically two, of my favorite works on view at Carpenters Workshop Gallery are the two bowling balls by yourself and Richard Artschwager (1923-2013). I like the “Yes” bowling ball and I really liked yours as well.

RS: You know, “Yes” is actually ‘Yes’ [and] ‘No’. I don’t know if you realized.

AD: Oh really? I didn’t, but I didn’t look all around it…

RS: ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ is the whole idea. Artschwager [originally installed the work having] them displayed, so they looked randomly scattered in the gallery in the sixties. And they would show yes, no, yes, no, yes, no, randomly. My idea was to replace the textual Yes/No and blacken out the images. The bowling ball is the perfect mirror of popular culture, because they can be anything. There are ones with the American flag, color splashes, monochromatic, and more. They can be whatever and therefore reflect the time we live in..

AD: It’s a simple bowling ball but it represents our current society. I enjoyed the show and appreciate your wit.

RS: I’m glad you liked it.

AD: I like things that make me think.

RS: I’m happy when a functional object works while it at the same time makes you think.

AD: Well that you definitely accomplished.

“Robert Stadler: Playdate” at Glass House, New Canaan, CT is open through December 12, 2022 and “START! Robert Stadler x Richard Artschwager” at Carpenters Workshop Gallery, New York, NY is open through December 15, 2022.

Alexandria Deters. Photographed by Ross Collab.

Alexandria Deters is a queer femme embroidery artist, researcher, activist, archivist, and writer based in the Bronx, NY. She received a BA in Art History and in Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University in 2015 and her MA in American Fine and Decorative Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, NY in 2016. Her writing and artwork are influenced by her belief that every human being is a ‘living archive,’ a unique individual that has experiences and stories worth documenting and remembering.

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