Spotlight On The Eccentric

Words by Annie Darling

6 min read

Greta, a magazine editor with a marked resemblance to a young Grace Kelly, is preparing for a night out in Dubai with Thomas, a gentleman who we assume is her partner.

He’s just landed in the Emirates after a seven-hour flight from England, where he works for the London Opera House. Exhausted, he catches a few moments of shut-eye while Greta and her three friends try on different outfits. But, wait… things aren’t what they seem: Greta and her companions are four-legged chairs, and their venue? Mall of the Emirates – more specifically, Hermès’s shop window.

The installation, titled Greta’s Party, is part of an ongoing window programme by Hermès and Danish artist Nina Saunders, who has arranged disfigured furniture that’s upholstered in the luxury goods manufacturer’s furnishing fabrics. Brimming with charisma and personality, these pieces serve as the characters of this fantastical display, while Saunders, a dedicated craftswoman, elevates and transforms each item in various eccentric ways that highlight their natural beauty.

“One of the reasons I love working with furniture is that your body already has a relationship with it,” explains Saunders, whose best-known work is fashioned from second-hand recliners, which are almost always dramatically distorted. “There is an automatic connection with the viewer, which can be familiarly domestic and, at times, immensely humorous.” Palatial, sumptuous and plush, the Mall of the Emirates’ centrepiece – depicting the tale’s leading lady, Greta – is a precariously tipped armchair draped in extravagant acid-orange fabric. Toppling over with laughter, she’s encircled by her friends, who eagerly suggest alternative accessories, including Hermès silks and high-heeled shoes. The scene is set so superbly that it’s difficult not to imagine the sounds of ladies giggling alongside the clinking of Saint-Louis crystal.

This red leatherette Chesterfield style chair is one of Saunders’s most popular works. The Age Of Reason, 1995, 98 x 126 x 82cm

This red leatherette Chesterfield style chair is one of Saunders’s most popular works. The Age Of Reason, 1995, 98 x 126 x 82cm

First approached by the Maison in 2015, Saunders was asked to dream up a surrealistic soirèe for the brand’s flagship store window on Madison Avenue in New York City. An unprecedented success, she was soon invited to design Hermès’s Dubai space in anticipation of its spring/summer collection. “My art encompasses the random playfulness, the dream and the subconscious,” she says of her aesthetic. “It also often plays with the function of the object.” Tapping into her creative intuition can frequently be overwhelming for the London-based artist. “Usually, I have too many ideas and I need to narrow them down,” she willingly admits. “Other times, I will wake up in the middle of the night and have to write an idea down in order to sleep.” She smiles, “I have a waiting list of ideas.”

Before conceptualising her latest showcase for Hermès, Saunders spent a considerable amount of time examining the shopping habits of visitors to Mall of the Emirates. “What I noticed is that people will often walk past a store and then turn around and walk back if what they saw wasn’t what they expected,” she observes. “They will stop and wonder.” This curiosity, she explains, is what she hopes her own installation will incite. “[Upon seeing the Hermès window] their imagination will begin to create a story of its own and notice something in a completely new way, almost as though they’re opening a door to a different world. I hope that it’s inspirational to them.”

An artist’s self-confidence is essential to creating a significant and longstanding impact. “You have to believe in the creative process and you have to overcome the various difficulties you may face.” She explains that the subsequent success feels “indescribable”. “It [the feeling] is a bit of a mystery, really,” she ponders, but her partnership with Hermès is assuredly a match made in heaven. “My artwork is continually referenced alongside fashion and design,” points out Saunders. “I enjoy the fusion; it makes my work more accessible and people relate to it in a different way than if they were to walk into a white-wall gallery setting. I also enjoy that it’s outside the realm of ‘typical art’.”

Saunders works across a wide range of materials and art forms. Patterns of Desire, 2012. Sofa, sphere, suit. Courtesy of Jim Nau

Saunders works across a wide range of materials and art forms. Patterns of Desire, 2012. Sofa, sphere, suit. Courtesy of Jim Nau

That last revelation is unsurprising – Saunders is far from typical. Born in Odense, the third-largest city in Denmark, she embarked on a whirlwind romance as a teenager and “ran away from home”. She moved to London, where she trained as a graphic designer, while working as a prop maker and stylist in order to make ends meet. “The Seventies and Eighties were such an exciting time; a fusion of fashion, music and art. I found myself a part of the whole creative movement,” she fondly recalls. “It was during this time that I realised I enjoy finding random objects and transforming them, as well as making things with my hands and sharing them with the world.”

Saunders was soon accepted to Saint Martin’s College, one of England’s most respected creative universities, where she studied for five years and developed her ability to create sculptures that are quirky, yet contemplative. Concrete, leather, textiles and bronze were all mediums she experimented with before Saatchi & Saatchi approached her; she was still at university. “Before I knew it, I became part of the ‘Brit Pack’.” She laughs at the term, which was given to a group of visual artists, including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Michael Landy, who exhibited together in London during the late Eighties. “I never looked back.”

Spending a lot of her youth in England significantly influenced Saunders’s artwork, and she continues to be inspired by the likes of British sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor, as well as notable American artists, including Andy Warhol and Realist painter Edward Hopper. She specifically recalls spending many evenings exploring the various hidden gems on London’s King’s Road, which became the country’s counter-cultural frontier during the anarchic punk era surrounding the Eighties. Nonetheless, despite her fondness for Britain, it’s her homeland, which she left as a teenager, that supplies her with the majority of her inspiration. “Art that I love gives me an insight, as well as a new dimension and energy,” she murmurs, “but for me and my imagination, my inspiration has always been a natural fusion that I can trace back right from my Danish background.”

The timeless and functionalistic aesthetic that’s so often prevalent in Danish design can be recognised in Saunders’s latest Hermès window installation. “You can notice my roots in Thomas,” she reveals. “He is like a sleek, smooth piece of white paper, breezing in the wind, ready for you to write you own story on.” She adds, “I think the beautiful, smooth and minimalist aesthetic I grew up with in Denmark combined with my fascination has given me a heightened awareness.” As for Saunders, her story is still being written. She has a solo show scheduled at the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark, this May. “I also have a few extra exciting things in the pipeline,” she winks, “although I’m afraid they have to remain hush-hush for the moment.”

Nina Saunders’s window installations will be on display until the end of May 2017.

Lead Image: Furniture featured at Mall of the Emirates has been upholstered in Hermès furnishing fabrics. Courtesy of Xavier Ansart at White Cube Studios DMCC