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Toland Grinnell, 2002
WITH PETER HALLEY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MICHAEL EDWARDS
In his groundbreaking 1957 essay on the Art Deco buildings of New York, “Ultra-Moderne,” the artist Robert Smithson challenged the primary status given to fine arts and the mere secondary status awarded to the applied arts. While contemporary art, according to Smithson, “refers to nothing,” the decorative ensembles of the ‘30s “referred to everything.” Seven years later, Smithson died in a plane crash in the Texas Panhandle, his vision of a new order in the arts unrealized.

It has taken over a quarter of a century for another artist to come along bold enough to wrangle this slippery subject to the ground. He’s a young New Yorker named Toland Grinnell.

A few weeks ago, as Grinnell was putting the finishing touches on a major installation set to open at Milan’s Galleria Cardi this month, Peter Halley cabbed over to the garment district to have a talk with this young phenom.

PETER: Your studio’s right in the middle of the garment district on West 38th Street. I’ve never seen anything like this in New York. Do all of these stores service and sell commercial sewing machines?
TOLAND: There are people that specialize in customizing your zipper. The next guy makes the thread that matches the fabric. Then there are the different people who cut, assemble, and package the garments. Building clothes commercially is a lot like the construction business — it’s all subcontractors. Every supplier I need is within walking distance.
PETER: It’s like Fez or Marrakesh in America.
TOLAND: Yeah, it’s a bazaar. You can get the wood, the metal, and the thread all on the same block.
PETER: You know so much about how things are constructed. I have no idea how you learned this stuff.
TOLAND: I grew up inside my family’s contracting companies. My mom specialized in high-end residential work and my stepfather specialized in masonry and exterior stonework — a lot of it landmark work here in the city. We had every kind of tool and three shops. So even as a kid I was designing furniture and crap. I could always find somebody who would help me figure it out.
PETER: Did you ever do construction yourself?
TOLAND: I worked for a company called Evergreen Painting Studios. It’s the largest surface restoration company in the U.S. At that time Evergreen was restoring about thirty-eight state capitals, so I got to travel quite a bit. I learned the craft by working on these historic buildings.
PETER: And did you ever think you’d be an architect?
TOLAND: No, I really grew up with the people who victimize architects. It’s only recently that I’ve considered that my work might parlay itself into architecture.
PETER: In fact, your work is based on tactile experience rather than spatial experience. In a funny way, it’s pretty touchy feely stuff. But I guess that relates to architecture too.
TOLAND: What interests me are those historical periods when the possibilities are really up to speed and everything can collide — you get things like Deco and the Baroque. You get moments like the ‘70s — when industry, art, craft and photography all synthesize to create a short period of unbelievable complexity and energy.
PETER: Like Art Deco in the ‘30s?
TOLAND: You can’t get more sculptural than deco. The carpet, the light switch, and the maid’s closet all had the same degree of detail threading through them, and an incredible diversity of materials.
PETER: I really like Baroque furniture. Recently, I saw this incredibly beautiful, colorful, articulated armoire made for a royal court — maybe Louis XIV, and I thought, “Geez, this is like an abstract painting.” Let’s put it this way — Louis XIV didn’t need that armoire to store his clothes.
TOLAND: There’s something about that which I find intoxicating. I think it’s human nature — in the same way people are attracted to diamonds. Even if you hate diamonds, you just can’t help but respond to that sparkly thing.
PETER: “Machine for Living”, your large piece from last year, is so extreme. It’s really a masterpiece, in the traditional sense — a demonstration of mastery.
TOLAND:
We built it for the New York Armory Show in seven weeks or something ridiculous. My art dealer, Gian Enzo Sperone said, “Make something big and don’t worry about what it costs.” I had enough specialized equipment by then, and I had built enough trunks in the studio, that I knew I could get crazy.
PETER: It’s like a living room in a box.
TOLAND: I think of it as a living environment. The idea was, if you could take it all with you, what would you take? It’s what I think you would need to take. This environment is meant to stand apart from your waking environment, your everyday environment, the hotel room or apartment you might be in. It’s everything from the piano, to the finest wines, to the writing journal, to the humidor.
PETER: There’s a little fridge with all the regular things you can buy at the pharmacy, like mouthwash and Tux Medicated Pads.
TOLAND: I’m interested in the fact that you can go to somebody’s house, and they’re worth a hundred million dollars but you’ll still find Listerine in the medicine cabinet. They’re not gargling with Cognac.
PETER: There are little compartments for hamsters in this piece too.
TOLAND: It’s a hamster palace. Hamsters interest me because they separate. They don’t shit where they eat; they don’t eat where they store food. They make zones, even if they’re abstractly designed spaces.
PETER: They’re very compartmentalized.
TOLAND: Right. That trait alone resembles how contemporary life and consumer culture work. You want objects to be specialized. You don’t really want the Lexus car with the Lexus stereo — you want a Lexus with a Bose stereo.
PETER: So the hamster palaces are a microcosm within your microcosm. It allows you to miniaturize and still have a real scale.
TOLAND: It removes the fantasy component from work that might be there if it were just a dollhouse. I do put a lot of gratuitous detail into the work, but I also try to create things that have a kind of believability. It’s real for the animal, so therefore when you look at it, it’s real for you.
PETER: I imagine that the type of trunk you’re making dates back to the ‘20s when people were primarily traveling by boat.
TOLAND: I think transportable, convertible furniture really finds its roots in the campaign furniture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
PETER: Campaign furniture means that everything can be folded into a box.
TOLAND: Right. Ease of transport. When you went to a hotel in Calcutta it would not have had running water. It’s like, “You want a bidet? You have to bring one because there’s no fucking bidet for a thousand square miles.”
PETER: When Winston Churchill was an army captain in World War I he brought his own bathtub to the frontlines.
TOLAND: It’s interesting to look back a little further at the tradition of fantastic transportable luxuries. By the late 1400s, there was already a lot of travel around Europe by merchants and aristocrats. So if it took three weeks to get from Florence to Paris, you really needed to bring your bathtub and bedding because there was no alternative.
PETER: The term nomadism has been used a lot recently to characterize a world citizen who has no home but is at home everywhere. Is it essential to you as an artist or as a cultural person that you be able to get up and go, like Marcel Duchamp with his valise?
TOLAND: Yes. Part of the capacity to be at home in a number of different places is being able to find whatever you identify with wherever you go.
PETER: How personal is this piece for you? Are these your own dream objects?
TOLAND: I think that my ideal lifestyle is wrapped up in my work in one form or another. Somebody asked me one time if I make portraits of people and I don’t. I’m more interested in developing profiles. I’m inspired by the profile of a certain kind of person that I get to deal with on occasion — a wealthy European or a Europhile American.
PETER: I’m wondering how American collectors have reacted to your work.
TOLAND: When I first started to make my living off of art, I realized that everyone who bought my work either lived in Miami or had a major house in Miami. I think that Americans are fascinated by the luxury aspect of my work because they’re conditioned to enjoy luxury goods.
PETER: I’m curious about your logo. It really places you in the world of Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Are you saying that the work mimics the way Gucci markets itself? Or is it also about the contemporary artist as a modern brand?
TOLAND: Obviously many brands have made great use of their logo — not the least of which are Gucci, Vuitton, or Chanel. The logo is just an