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Auction houses, design galleries, and industry fairs have been increasingly dominated by an often monolithic presence: heavy metal furniture—big, bulbous, seemingly indestructible, and brutally sculptural works from sought-after talents around the world. Three days after Christie’s sold Marc Newson’s 1987 aluminum Pod of Drawers for $763,500 in June, the auction house’s head of design, Carina Villinger, explains the resurgence of metal furniture. “We had lots of wood a few years ago,” she says, “and now we’re moving onto another material.”
Today’s marquee names have been following Newson’s example. Dutch auteur Maarten Baas, British team Fredrikson Stallard, London-based Max Lamb, and Italy’s Vincenzo de Cotiis have all been busy creating the hefty and rough-hewn. As Villinger makes clear, it’s a total aesthetic shift. “People are rediscovering something that suddenly makes a lot of sense,” she says.
For many, though, like Italian sculptor and designer Gianluca Pacchioni, working in metal is a lifelong love. He’s used the medium for over two decades and gushes about it like a mistress. “What attracted me was the powerful alchemy from working with fire, heat, and the changing of molecules. It can be dangerous to work with metals and the smell is incredibly bad, but in all this mess a jewel comes out and it shines.”
Pacchioni lives in a compound in Milan, with his forge and workshop across a courtyard from his home. His portfolio includes iron bookcases, monumental panels, and bronze and coral reef–shaped aluminum lighting. He showed a selection at New York’s Collective Design Fair in May, including a new set of bronze panels featuring bas-reliefs of tropical plants. At first glance, they are hefty, solemn, and slightly medieval. Look closer, however, and you’ll notice a careful balance of patina and texture that has taken months to perfect. Those plants were actually picked from his garden before being cast in metal. These factors are important. Despite the fact that so many of the new pieces inspire awe with their size, weight, and monumentality, “metal shouldn’t scare the observer,” Pacchioni says, “but should provoke a sensation of approachability.”
Francis Sultana, CEO of London design dealer David Gill Gallery, thinks the trend is a reaction against the generic good taste of recent years. “We’ve had this thing of everything being matchy and coordinated,” he says. “The shift now is toward the feeling of heavy, sculptural. People want to dirty it up a little bit.”
Dirtiness is very much part of the contemporary look. Last year, Baas released his Carapace collection, a macho armchair, an armoire, and a desk forged out of bronze patchwork and inspired by beetles’ hard shells. At Design Miami/Basel this summer, designer Hongjie Yang presented his Synthesis Monolith collection of aluminum works, which look like Donald Judd pieces left to melt near the radiator. Other designers prefer a more straightforwardly glitzy aesthetic. Zhipeng Tan, for example, creates spidery tables that, despite being made out of solid bronze, have a gleaming lightness to them.
With few having the space for large sculptures in their homes, these works offer a focal point with a purpose. But striking the right tone is key: “The secret is creating an elegance,” Sultana says. “If a designer can raise it to a sophistication and not just brutality, then you have a winning combination.”
Newson was a master at achieving this (he had trained as a jeweler), which perhaps explains the shadow he casts over these works being produced today. While the torsos of the Lockheed Lounge and Pod of Drawers were bulbous, their clawed feet and broken-up, patchwork surfaces made them refined.
Last October, Parisian auction house Artcurial hosted a Heavy Metal design sale. The lots included another edition of Newson’s Pod of Drawers (which went for $1.1 million) as well as pieces by Ingrid Donat and Charlotte Perriand. Every lot sold, five records were broken, and sales totaled $3.1 million. The event showed not only the many guises metal can take in design, but also its historic appeal: One striking piece by René Koechlin and Jacques Le Chevallier dated back to the 1920s.
So our magpie attraction to metal is nothing new. It’s ancient, as Pacchioni says: “Coins, armor, swords—that’s all you see in museums. You feel so much power inside them: the fire, the noise. You feel that it’s been built, constructed, forged. It’s romantic.”