artbeat (2006-45)

Seaman Schepps and Stephen Burks help us figure out who we are

Art as Self-Actualization

by Lisa Slade

“What are new experiences that people would like to have, or have naturally as part of everyday life, and how can design support this? is what interests us most. We believe this is the challenge that designers face in this era of pervasive design consciousness and excessive production.” — Stephen Burks

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that once we have all of our “physiological needs” taken care of—things like food, shelter, and clothing—we can focus on other things. Loftier things. Semi-ridiculous concepts like authenticity, creativity, and meaningfulness. Those things are used to reach self-actualization, or so Maslow says. Living in a nation of plenty, a place where most have never struggled for shelter, or food, or clothing, we tend to acquire bizarre needs. Needs for things like fancy jewelry, and aesthetically pleasing furniture, and cars that have heated seats and air-conditioned glove compartments.

The Knoxville Museum of Art is currently showcasing two different exhibits that focus on what people need, or at least what people think they need: Design Lab: Stephen Burks Readymade Projects and Seaman Schepps: A Century of New York Jewelry Design, 1904-2004 . The content in the two exhibits is quite different. One is furniture and lighting, and the other jewelry. However, they share several commonalties, the greatest being that they are designed with a particular audience in mind, the person who has it all. Almost.

Stephen Burks’ furniture is contemporary. There are UFO-shaped, fabric-covered lamps that give off soft lighting, lighting so soft that even your wrinkled great-grandmother would probably look good in it. Then there are chairs. The chairs don’t look particularly comfortable, but they look intersting and artistic , in vibrant hues and odd geometrical shapes. There are tables, with legs splayed out to the sides in unusual ways. There are even vases, also covered in fabric, set up for decoration in the display room.

“In most cases, our design process doesn’t begin with a formal or a material exploration, but a simple observation. ‘How do you use this?’ or ‘When do you need that?’ are the types of questions we like to ask regarding the making of new communications, objects and environments.” Odd words regarding furniture that no one needs, and most people probably don’t even use. It quickly becomes clear that nothing in the room was built for necessity, despite the creator’s intention. It instead addresses those other needs, the ones we develop after we already have it all. The desire to decorate, and the desire to be individualistic, and the desire to own something authentic.

Jewelry is certainly nothing new, and has been around for much longer than art museums have been gathering viewers. Seaman Schepps’ jewelry is visually stunning. His pieces contain both natural and artificial elements, exaggerating the reality of the objects. For example, one of his earrings takes the shape of a coral koi, but is decorated, and beautified, by diamonds and pearls, gold and turquoise. Schepps’ jewelry is not only pretty, despite its slightly gaudy overtones, but is also quite famous. It’s been featured on the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Coco Chanel, and the Duchess of Windsor. Clearly, there is a market for this type of thing, much like the market for Bengal cats and real fur coats.

Interestingly enough, most of Schepps’ jewelry takes its inspiration from nature. There are pieces that mimic animals, birds and turtles in addition to the aforementioned fish, and pieces that resemble tree branches, leaves and flowers.

It’s easy to judge, and to say that things such as jewelry and fancy furniture are useless and vain, and that they don’t contribute anything to the intellectual qualities of our lives. But it’s not quite that simple. If we do have everything, there must be something left to seek, and to use for enlightenment. If it has to be something, why not jewelry, or lighting, or furniture? This is our art, and it is what defines us. It’s not the era of Thoreau and his, “simplify, simplify, simplify,” but rather the time of attention to the details, where every piece fits, and every piece makes us what we are.

What: Seaman Schepps: A Century of New York Jewelry Design, 1904-2004 and Design Lab: Stephen Burks Readymade Projects