When longtime friends and colleagues Nan Swid and Donald Kaufman come together for a four-day exhibit of their recent artwork this weekend in New York City, the collaboration will not be the typical Chelsea gallery affair. The two are interior design veterans, working in the art and architecture worlds for three decades, and yet, showing in a traditional gallery setting is still a new, nerve-wracking experience for both. “We’re setting up the installation today,” Swid said from Gallery 9E earlier this week. “And I can’t say how it’s going to go until that. Until you see the pieces hung on the wall, you don’t know how they’ll live together, like a family.”
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The joint show will mark Swid’s second gallery exhibition (in late 2008 she debuted her solo work—intricate collages of paper, old books, cabinet doors, found antiques, and delicate filigree—with Nan Swid: Revelations in Paper, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side), though her name is still one of the most powerful in the upper-reaches of the design world. After working at furniture manufacturer Knoll in the early 1980s, she left to form Swid Powell, a design firm that engaged architects to create objects—coffee makers, vases, tabletop oddities—and soon garnered a roster of collaborators that read like a who’s who of Pritzker Prize nominees. Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Robert A.M. Stern, and Zaha Hadid were all commissioned, and Swid Powell’s creations are now in the collection of the Yale Museum of Art.
And yet, Swid never regrets moving away from her company to focus on her own work. “Artists just keep going, even if some days are not as easy as others,” she says. “In my case as an artist, my personal goal, is to keep pushing forward, not to recreate what I’ve done in the past. I had Swid Powell for over 20 years, and sometimes there comes a moment when you decide, well, you’ve done this, we’ve made quite a movement. The whole premise of architects designing home products—that didn’t exist before. But I had to find my way into another passion, and with the art, it was a river flowing into a tributary. I was lucky that it caught me.”
Swid met Donald Kaufman through her design career—in the 1970s, along with his wife, Taffy Dahl, he formed Donald Kaufman Color, which has consulted with almost every major architect and designer. (Kaufman has worked on Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the new Gramercy Park Hotel, and the Calvin Klein flagship store.) Though he began his career as a painter, he has not had a show in New York since 1981. But instead of simply putting up paintings, noted gallerist Max Protech asked Kaufman to paint the gallery walls in vibrant colors. “When we are working onto a space,” Kaufman says of his work, “We are holding an imaginative paintbrush in our hand, and moving it around the surfaces, estimating various colors and textures to express the space. In that sense, I am working on my own paintings all the time.”
The works Swid and Kaufman will show this weekend are much smaller (14" x17"), based on paint color samples. Kaufman will not show any of his works in frames, but rather let the works stand for themselves, intermingled with Swid’s. “Nan came to my gallery opening in 1981,” he says, chuckling. “She asked Taffy and me to help her with a house; at that time we were living in San Francisco. And Nan said, ‘If you are going to work in New York, you have to have a phone in New York, and I have a friend who is setting up an office, and he will let you a bring phone in. So in a whirlwind, she introduced us to [the late event planner] Robert Isabell, whom we shared an office with for 12 years.”
For Kaufman, the show is a chance to stretch beyond his architectural work, which still constitutes the majority of his time, though he feels his art and work are all related. “Here is a key difference between making my own paintings and working collaboratively with an architect—in one’s own work, the first step is inventing. The outcome is unknown. In buildings, the outcome becomes more and more known. But the primary goal of both is to translate light into spirit, to represent what Cezanne called the realization of elements.”
Nan Swid & Donald Kaufman—Recent Work” will be on view at New York’s Gallery 9E, 508 West 26th Street, 9th Floor ( May 6-May 9)
Rachel Syme is the former culture editor of The Daily Beast and now writes regularly about the arts.