Balloon is pleased to present a new project with the contemporary British designer, Karen Ryan, in partnership with Converso Modern. For two weeks in March, Karen Ryan moved her Portsmouth, UK workshop to the Converso Warehouse in Chicago intending to use as raw material 20th century design pieces stored there as the basis of a new collection of furniture. The final results will be previewed in the Converso showroom, suite 1709, at the Merchandise Mart beginning Wednesday, April 21st with a reception from 4:30-7 pm, and then exhibited during the NEXT Fair as part of Balloon's presentation, April 29- May 2.
If, as Paola Antonelli recently declared, the definition of modern design is that which reveals its construction, Karen Ryan is the most modern of designers. Often described as a "design agitator" working on the fringes of the design world and subverting accepted categories, her work anatomizes existing objects and reconfigures them according to complex personal narratives and obsessional themes. Her work is the subject of several recent publications, has been the subject of exhibits in Milan, London, Paris, and Belgium, and is often heralded as an exemplar of green design and recycling due to her use of pre- existing materials in a non-industrial context. However, Ryan's motivations run much deeper and involve a critical reframing of the very notion of the useful and the useless. Objects, most often cast- offs sourced at thrift stores or scavenged as valueless detritus from the streets, find a redemptive second life as protagonists in a sustained attack on "taste" and its role as a mark of social distinction. Concerned with re-inscribing social reality back into an exhausted circuit of aesthetic exchange preoccupied with luxury, Karen Ryan's work radically questions social and class categories and their relation to the aesthetic by looking at what loses aesthetic value and is discarded over time: most often discarded by one class and passed down to the next, until the design object is either thrown away as utterly useless, despite fully maintaining it's functional aspects, or is passed down to the lowest point of exchange possible, where it is offered for sale in thrift stores, flea markets, and charity shops.
As a master narrative structuring her first trip to America and in honor of Chicago, capital of the american Midwest, Ryan turned to childhood memories and associations to Mark Twain, whose stories she had absorbed through a TV series broadcast in Britain during the 60's. Treating the entire project as a picaresque adventure abroad similar to the journey described in Huckleberrry Finn, Ryan explored the current social reality of an America struggling through recession with an analysis of what she found discarded in the city streets or available in Chicago thrift stores and informed by her encounters with her collaborators in the industrial area of the city where she worked. These objects, combined with the modern pieces sourced from the Converso warehouse form the basis for a new collection, Custom Made U.S.A. by Karen Ryan. The display of the collection in the Converso Modern showroom and at NEXT are performative acts which will complete the project by rescripting the reactivated materials as critical design objects.