Connect + Intersect: How One Design Company Works with Cleveland Artists and Bridges the Gap between Art and Design
Several Cleveland gallery artists have licensed their work for adaptation as wall covering designs. While the worlds of design and fine art connect and intersect in a multitude of ways, the process of working together often raises questions that highlight the differences between those worlds. This is the story of how one local design firm brings them together.
If a fine artist licenses work for commercial design use, are they selling out? How can a designer use or adapt fine art for a very specific purpose without losing sight of the artist’s style and intent? Can an artist and a designer work together and both be happy with the result?
While the marriage of art and design certainly comes with challenges, it doesn’t have to be a rocky relationship. The Cleveland-based wallcovering company, 4walls, regularly sources local art to use in designs for commercial contract wallcoverings. The company’s belief is that making use of local resources can be mutually beneficial. Serving as a liaison between the artists and designers, I see both sides–and that great things can happen when these two fields intersect.
In a historic midtown factory building, the 4walls team designs and prints large-scale, commercial grade vinyl murals to be used in hotels, hospitals, offices, retail, and educational facilities across North America. While many of them are created by the company’s design staff, their creative team also builds relationships with local artists and galleries, keen to make use of visual resources close at-hand. As Creative Director Greg Koeberer says, “the visual art scene in Cleveland is thriving, and with several noteworthy art schools nearby, such as the Cleveland Institute of Art, we would be foolish not to tap into that talent pool.”
Kate Snow, a self-taught painter and printmaker, and at one time the Associate Director of Zygote Press is one of the artists whose work has been adapted for wallcovering designs by 4walls. While much of her art is influenced by natural elements, Snow also explores the uneasy relationship between order and chaos – themes that can be seen in the original print chosen by 4walls to become one of their designs. The print features rows of colored boxes arranged in an uneasy grid. By using the complementary colors orange and blue, Snow creates a visually dynamic tension.
The designers at 4walls recognize the visual interest of this image, but needed to adapt it for use as a commercial mural. First, there’s the size: an average wall-sized mural is about 8’ tall by 24’ wide, so this relatively small print had to be scanned at extremely high resolution and enlarged. The ratio of height to width also had to be changed, requiring cropping, pasting, and scaling. And while 4walls offers Snow’s original color scheme as an option, to better serve their clients they also offer each pattern in several different “color ways,” reflecting the interior color trends for their industry. They also occasionally custom-color the designs to suit a specific project.
Some fine artists wouldn’t even consider having their work adapted for a commercial use, as these concerns stray too far from their original intention and audience. Others feel that having so many copies of their imagery in circulation devalues their originals. But Snow had no reservations having her work licensed by 4walls:
“I think I am somewhat unusual in that I do not feel the same sense of preciousness with my art that many artists seem to. And I disagree with the idea that translating works into murals or fabrics or wallcoverings inherently degrades the value of the original work or undercuts the perceived skill of the artist. If anything, I think commercial applications draw in atypical audiences and help dispel myths around viewing, understanding, and appreciating art as something elite or inaccessible.”
Snow believes that art is for everyone, and that classifying art can be problematic–especially as the growing intersection of art, design, and technology further muddles any attempts to put artists and the art they make into tidy, organized categories.
One artist that defies categorization is Andrew Reach, whose work easily bridges the gap between art and design. Reach’s career as an established architect spanned more than 20 years before a debilitating spinal disease left him unable to work. At the urging of his spouse, Reach began teaching himself Photoshop to make greeting cards from his collection of vintage paper ephemera. Making art became a form of therapy, warding off depression and helping cope with pain. Soon, he began to experiment beyond cards, using the program to create original digital art. The technology allowed him to make large format works that would be too physically demanding to paint by hand. With time, a rich vocabulary of artistic expression emerged. His large-scale, geometric abstractions are a natural outgrowth of his architecture, brought to life in a visual dance of color, composition, and optical play that gives them an innate sense of movement; a stand-in for the artist’s inability to move freely through the world.
Reach is pleased that his work can now be seen even larger than his original prints, as wall-sized commercial wallcoverings. The repeating geometric patterns of his designs were easily translated by 4walls into an interior design product, such as “Quadrans”. First the original design was simplified slightly, and then Reach’s trademark bright colors were toned down and adapted for interior design use. Unlike an original work of art such as a print or painting that needs to be scanned or photographed, Reach’s work is digital to begin with, easily allowing the designers at 4walls to convert the art for their needs.
But being labeled a “digital artist” has not always been an easy moniker for Reach, who has occasionally met with resistance from fine art galleries and curators:
“When I first began making art, my only concern was the making–how it was therapy; how it helped me. The idea of the label, ‘digital artist’ wasn’t in my consciousness. Then as time went by and my work began to be recognized, that label began to creep in, but at first I was uncomfortable with it. I approached galleries and they politely told me they did not represent ‘my type of work’ (which was really code for it being done digitally). I asked myself with these rejections, ‘was my work somehow less than that of a painter, mixed media artist, printmaker or sculptor’ because of the method. But slowly I began to embrace the term. I don’t paint because painting the creations in my imagination, especially at the scale I like them to be, is just something I can’t do physically. It’s still art. I just happen to be using different tools to get to the end result. … A label doesn’t change the core value of what any artist does, which is create.”
Of course, Reach has since overcome that resistance, and his digital art has been eagerly accepted by the Cleveland fine art community. He has had shows in several galleries including the Maria Neil Art Project and the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve.
Like Reach, Mark Thomas was eager to see his work translated to wallcoverings, but his heavily textured paintings are about as far away from digital art as possible. After receiving a BFA in painting from Kent State University, Thomas moved to Cleveland, and was immediately attracted to the decayed and industrial areas of the city. Drawn to the textures found on the oxidized metal surfaces covering the city’s bridges and abandoned structures, he combed the rusty underbelly of the metropolis for inspiration and began to experiment with automotive enamel and other industrial pigments. His process involves applying the paint in thick layers, then stripping it back by using a belt sander directly on the surface of the canvas, often leaving imperfections and holes in the process. Over time, he gathered the skills necessary to create these laborious compositions, while still enjoying the inevitable element of chance that informed each piece. His Ballast series is a direct reaction to the urban landscape – tough, man-made, gritty, with bursts of vibrant color, and hints of America’s industrial past.
The designers at 4walls faced several challenges adapting Thomas’s paintings to wallcoverings. First, the paintings had to be painstakingly photographed at extremely high resolution to capture the scratches, texture, and other details of the distress. For each one of his Ballast series paintings, at least twenty shots were taken in a grid, then reassembled digitally by hand.
The scale of his paintings was also problematic, each one measuring only about 4’ tall by 2’ wide, so the creative team came up with a few design solutions. First, they used the detailed photographs of a single painting to create a wall-sized version of a composition. By carefully laying down the details, like pieces of a puzzle, the designer was able to create a 24-foot-long version of the original. The colors of the originals were used for one pattern, and other palettes were also created using the original painting as a base.
Another design solution was to take photographs of several paintings and stitch them together into a grid. This allowed for each individual section to be closer to the original in scale and resolution, while still creating a visually dynamic composition along a very long wall.
While some painters may cringe at the idea of their paintings being transformed to this extent, Thomas thought of it more as a collaborative process:
“I think of this more as a collaboration between my work and the designers at 4walls. They were able to translate the artwork into a larger scale while still keeping the overall feeling and integrity of my paintings. It’s amazing to see my work being used in a different medium and in much grander spaces.”
Thomas understands that it is very much a group effort to accomplish this. Much like an Old Masters artists’ studio employed several assistants to complete large commissions, collaboration is a crucial part of the design process, and when it works, the results can benefit all parties.
In an effort to continue this dialogue, 4walls and their local distributor Surface Materials will be presenting a discussion and networking party for the Art, Architecture, and Design Communities in collaboration with the CAN Journal. “Connect + Intersect” will be held at the 4walls Creative Studios on Wednesday, November 30. The evening will include a panel discussion about the overlapping interests of these disciplines, and how all three in concert can create great spaces for living, working, and conducting business. And while we may not locate that thin line between art and design, let’s at least try to find where it intersects. You’re all invited.
For more information about 4walls, and their commercial contract wallcovering brand, Level, take a look at their website www.findyourlevel.com. And to learn more about their distributor, Surface Materials, please visit www.surfacematerials.com.
In addition to working as CAN’s Communications manager, Brittany M. Hudak is on the creative team at 4Walls.