When you ask designer Christopher Schanck about what influences him, he winces slightly. In the run-up to his first major solo show—which opens in March at New York’s blue-chip gallery Friedman Benda—he’s reticent to reveal the true inspirations behind his bizarre but dazzling works, which look like hammered chunks of molten metal sourced from an alien planet.
But at his studio in northeast Detroit, Schanck, 42, leaves a few visible clues on his mood board of ’70s sci-fi illustrations, local roadside oddities, and cosplay-like photos of his assistants dressed in cloaks. “I grew up at a time and place where Dungeons & Dragons was very prevalent,” he says.
Schanck trained and worked as an artist in London and New York before studying at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, where he transitioned to design. His aha moment came in 2012, when he created his first Alufoil objects, employing a labor-intensive process in which he covers a jury-rigged frame in foam and carves it to resemble raw geological formations. It is then sealed in polyurea, a coating typically used for truck-bed liners. Next, that rock-hard black surface is overlaid with layers of bright confectioners’ foil—applied in tiny pieces—before it’s finished with clear resin.
“My mother always wrapped our Christmas presents in aluminum foil,” Schanck says. “It was this really sweet thing she did out of ingenuity. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she continued to do it out of nostalgia.”
The Alufoil works were a hit. Architect Peter Marino was an early fan, using pieces for Dior boutiques. Schanck’s gallerist, Marc Benda, who also represents other boundary-pushing designers, like Wendell Castle and the Campana brothers, believes that Schanck is “a uniquely American voice. I don’t think he would have come forward in this form in any other place. He’s really from this netherworld of craft, making things of almost purely sculptural thinking.”
And those sculptures require a modern 4,000-square-foot atelier. Today his studio employs 25 workers—some are from the local Bangladeshi community; others are younger artists and students—who train for months in a process Schanck pioneered, churning out up to 20 pieces a year. Because of his successes, “I became very much a commission factory for four years,” Schanck recalls. Experimentation became “almost impossible.” For his upcoming show, however, he’s planning to change all that by striking out in a figurative direction reminiscent of his earlier years. New pieces will include head-shaped cabinets, wall units that combine sculpture and shelving—and that even incorporate elements inspired by the urban scarecrows used in Detroit’s robust gardening community—and upholstered seats, coffee tables, and other objects you’d imagine finding in a wizard’s lair.
It’s a development in his career that Benda is looking to foster. “I’m more interested in giving a voice like his an endless horizon, rather than caging it in,” he says. “If you dig deeper and look at his drawings, you realize there’s an undercurrent of these little monsters in his head and the narrative that goes along with each piece.”
Schanck knows that with his new work, he’s stepping out on a limb. “Five years ago I was very insecure and didn’t want to sound like I didn’t belong in the world of design,” he says. “Today I’m much more comfortable. Whether I’m perceived as a designer or a sculptor isn’t so important.”