Designer Sebastian ErraZuriz on bending for no one and why you should make your clients wait a year
If you have the notion of death when you're young, it's empowering because you see things in a clearer way. Death was part of my family—I was raised with family people who suffered diabetes. One died, then another died of the disease later on. You have to understand that it’s not just all about you.
I think that inclusive mentality has been very important for me in terms of coming up with individual projects for clients because I'm trying to understand them, understand how they feel and think within their own context. I want to design something that goes beyond functionality and really seeps into their life experience. Every single thing that I try to do, it's to invite people to get out of their restrictions. I'm just trying to get you to see what was there. The more you see, the more aware you are, the more free you are. The more free you are, the more you get to choose how to live this life that is so short. So i'm just trying to give you the tools. In the same way, I want to create pieces that tie together with bigger parts of a narrative or create works that are actually responsible by bringing awareness or trying to bring light to certain issues and perhaps solve them.
In my case, I’m interested in public and political art, sculpture, furniture, and the boundaries between the objects and everyday household products. I made a door that has two peep holes and it’s the first door ever to have two peep holes. If you think about it, having to close one eye, it's kind of really dumb. It looks dumb, it feels dumb, it's metaphorically dumb. We’re not pirates. Two eyes actually make sense and if you have them on the door, it's more welcoming. The simplest way to transform all of these preconceived elements is understanding that they are already part of us. I think that's the beauty.
The studio, which serves as an encyclopedia of experiences
Lobster Salad, a riff on Dalí's Lobster Telephone
"Life is short, and if I'm about to die, I'd rather take me own life and go down in style, shouting at the heavens to go fuck themselves."
If it's a new client asking me for a commission, I almost hear the commission part as the Charlie Brown "wah wah wah" in the background. Instead I'm looking at them and how they're moving. It’s very specific. I am trying to understand what they really want even if they might not know themselves.
Take my piano shelf, for instance. I have a very wealthy friend who is an obsessive compulsive buyer and seller, and he asked me to design a shelf for his stuff. You can tell by walking around his home that he has been a little bit ripped off by people who just wanted his money because he is very wealthy. I didn't want to be one more of those people, so I told him that he was gonna have to wait until I had an idea that was good and it might take me any amount of time. I've had clients wait for a year for an idea. In his case, it took me three months just for the idea of the piano shelf. It would pop up in my sketches every now and then and one day, I'm hitting, strumming my fingers and it was just like, "ok that's it. it needs to be like fingers, it needs to go up and down." If I can see things in a different way, so can you. Each person is free to make up their own mind and see things the way they want to see them. For me, that's way more valuable, yet it takes way more time.
So, what's difficult with a choice like that is that it goes completely against any branding ideas that you might have or your galleries might have. They want you to be packaged. There is a particular vocabulary to which they stick which we all know doesn't necessarily respond to their curiosities and interests but more to a branding. So when instead you open up the investigative body to go through all of these areas you’re interested in, and you try to make a little mini-encyclopedia of things— not redesigned but re-thought, re-invented, re-experienced—as a way of showing that you've absorbed everything you were confronted by...it doesn't fit into the gallery mold.
If I would have just focused on my exploding cabinet design, every single massive collector in the world would have one of my cabinets today because it would've become a full blown luxury item that you must have. It’s a conversation piece. “That's an ErraZuriz. Oh you have an ErraZuriz?! Oh great, I've been thinking of getting one." But that would be counter-productive of what I'm interested in. Instead, I work on parallel bodies of work at the same time which requires a lot more energy, a lot more time, a lot more dedication, at least from me. I'm still a bit of a weirdo that maybe does too many things, and people don't know how to place me right now.
↓ A multi-hyphenate polymath in his studio
Art is a language and you cannot participate in it if you don’t know how to speak the language. If you're enjoying a lot of things from a visual aesthetic or a philosophical perspective, you kind of want others to do so too. If your tools are in visual communication and you're not helping to translate things a little bit, it’s a little shitty on your part. One could always do art just for artists and not for curators but it's kind of important to be able to give some kind of an entry point to the vast majority of people who don’t speak that language.
A comedian is a really beautiful example because when they are really really good, they are capable of presenting what you already know in a perfectly timed and distilled way so it forces you to have a physical reaction to seeing, to suddenly visualize something that we all know. When you can do that as an artist or as a writer or maybe as a chef, it's immensely beautiful because you're really creating these synapses in people. We're all just observing, we're trying to reflect on our reality in the most eloquent way we can so that others can see and experience something they didn’t quite know before.
An exemplary display of how ErraZuriz literalizes metaphor
ErraZuriz serves as a blank canvas for his collaboration with Ross Bleckner
At the end of the day, all I do is look at reality, I look at a problem, a situation, an everyday routine and I try to see what's off. I try to dismember its parts and try not to accept it the way we're used to but try present it to you with the minimum elements changed. I probably read six, seven maybe eight newspapers a day. I go through the whole thing. I check anything I'm interested in. In the same way, I’ll check YouTube every single day. The latest, most popular videos; it could be a cat video or the new Miley Cyrus song. I think it’s vital information that you need to know in order to be an active participant of society—in order to understand what’s going on and to be able to make these little precise commentaries. The more ingredients as a chef that I have, the more precise I can be when I connect the different parts.
It sounds pretentious to say it but the macro of my life doesn't matter. If I could leave a beautiful little encyclopedia of spaces, objects, situations, scenarios—all of them re-thought and re-presented—that could be interesting for a lot of people and help them to see things differently.
12 Shoes for 12 Lovers
I am my own client so much of the work I do is self-commissioned; it’s work I want to do, it’s almost very rarely for someone in particular. I also self-fund 90% of all the public art projects I do, and I am always trying to figure out how to make a ton of money to fund my art. So I thought, "how about shoes?"
In my head, shoes have potential of vast quantities, fixed production costs, and high price of sale. Women consume a lot of shoes; it’s a fashionable thing, every single one consumes a cycle. I'd never done shoes before. I knew nothing about shoes. So when I met with the directors of Melissa shoes, they loved my work and were very inspired, but they were scared. They liked the ideas but thought it was too much of an investment, too much of a risk. If they put a million dollars into Karl Lagerfeld, they know they’re getting their money back—and that was the last collaboration they did. Before that was Vivienne Westwood. All giant names in the fashion industry. I couldn’t offer anything other than my designs so they were on the fence.
Shoe #2, Crybaby Alexandra.
Photo by Sebastian ErraZuriz Studio
So I told them to let me do a show of shoe sculptures where I'm not really worried about making a shoe that is functional, and I'll just make fun shoes under a theme and we will see if people are interested. If people are interested and I can prove that there is a market for me, then the brand had to back me up and give me a contract. Because I was depending on generating interest, I needed as much press as I could from this. I needed each shoe to be its own article in and of itself so each shoe needs to have all of that content. I needed to give it a personal connection; so I thought about using my exes...I'd done paintings of exes before, so I figured, why not make a shoe of each one? I told myself, "you're going to write the story about how you met [each ex] and how you fucked," and so on. I included the drawings, the renderings and the sketches so magazines could make an article just with one piece. I asked my exes permission to use the photos I had of them and blew them up. No one's ever done that before. We never get to see big designers incorporate their real life into what they're doing.
When we launched at Art Basel Miami, every single shoe was revealed to press one at a time leading up to the opening. The shoes generated 35 million hits. That's really big. I had Lady Gaga calling up wanting to wear the shoes, and the Miss America pageant wanting shoes for all of the girls competing. A couple of writers wanted to do a 12 Shoes for 12 Lovers movie. So finally we were able to go to the company and show them what happened and we got the contract. So now we can adapt the shoes into something wearable and hopefully get some money to fund my public art.
The birthing process
So creation is 90% understanding and 10% birthing. You've got the idea, a new idea. No one believes in a new idea—no one sees it, it's hard to translate, it’s exhausting to present, to push it, to convince people that it’s actually going to be good, to make it work, to go beyond all the problems. Here, all my drawings go up on the wall and they wait. Or they’re in sketchbooks and I repeat them again and again and they wait. You wait because if you have a good idea for a story today, it might suck tomorrow, so waiting is very important.
Side-by-side concept and execution
You don’t have to ask for permission from the curator of an organization that might disagree with how you’re doing things. My studio works on 40 projects in parallel and I am dictating the times. We don't finish something just because it needs to be finished. If it’s not quite there or I can't quite figure it out, I stop, file it, start the next project, and move on. You keep moving. You keep the flow going. There's a big part of the work that is constantly brewing. You're constantly working.
Editor: Gabriella Garcia