If I had to pick a favorite material, it would be aluminum foil—hands down. Great for everything from perfectly packaging a slice of leftover pizza to creating impenetrable hats and keeping aliens from reading your brain waves, the malleable, silver material is pretty fantastic.
Chris Shanck agrees. In fact, it's the mystical material properties of aluminum foil that inspired the Detroit-based designer's ALUfoil Suite, a collection of over 50 pieces of arm chairs, consoles, tables, vases, shelves, mirrors, cabinets and benches.
Although varied in size, style and color, the pieces share a similar process: each has been hand-sculpted from various industrial materials before being covered in aluminum foil, painted and sealed in resin.
"Foil was chosen because the properties allow it to cover contours like a piece of leftover food," Schanck says of the material choice. The result looks less like discarded leftovers and more like some uncanny marvel of geology, chunks of crystallized rocks that have somehow come together to create familiar functional forms.
Beginning with a steel armature, Schanck works with a team of assistants to construct a skeleton on top of which the piece will take form. Using industrial foam and other discarded bits, they build out the final shape by adding and subtracting elements to determine the shape.
"I collect a lot of the foam from the garbage around the studio, appliance and electronic packaging mostly," Schanck says. "I also pick up bits of other discarded plastics and woods that make their way into the pieces. The unused alleys here are full of dump sites where all the good stuff is. I keep a couple bins of assorted found objects and trash that I rummage through for good shapes."
These collected materials are then formed and bound together over the metal armature with rope, nails, screws and epoxies. "The use of the trash is not a statement about recycling or anything like that," the designer notes. "I just find them beautiful, inspirational and full of potential."
"The design process for me is like preparing and eating a meal. It's part intellectual and part automatic," the designer says. "You make conscious choices of what ingredients to put on a plate, those ingredients are mostly historical precedent and can be as disparate as you like. After the meal is constructed, it is consumed in the body. In the body, all references converge and deteriorate and then a new idea or energy is created."
For each of his pieces, Schanck sculpts a rough, full-scale mockup of what he thinks the piece will be. Through several refined iterations, the final form begins to come into focus. "I have a sense of the emotional weight or impact I want a piece to make," he says. "Sometimes that's best achieved through scale and sometimes texture or color."
"We typically sculpt using both additive and subtractive processes until we achieve a breaking point in the material and it is transformed," Schanck says of the process of building out these pieces. Just when the structure feels close to falling apart, it's then sprayed with an industrial two-part epoxy spray of polyurea, an elastomer plastic often used for spray molding and armor. Applied with a spray gun, the material is mixed as it flows from the spray nozzle, cooling rapidly and solidifying on the surface.
Initially developed to protect tabletop edges, the polyurea is able to hold the form in place by essentially freezing it—resulting in a solid, albeit gloopy, piece of furniture (not unlike what I imagine my couch would look like if a giant sneezed on it). Once the plastic has dried, hundreds of hours are spent painstakingly hand-applying overlapping layers of aluminum foil by the finishing team.
Finally, the form is sealed in resin, which is hand-wiped over the surface by Schanck's team in quantities of anywhere up to 6 coats. "My manufacturing process is based on a classical studio model," Schanck says. "I rely heavily on the support that my assistants give; the process is very labor intensive each step of the way."
The series first began when Schanck was still a graduate student at Cranbrook Academy of Art back in 2011, where he experimented with household kitchen foils and resins over small armatures made of wire. After a dozen or so successful models, Schanck decided to ambitiously scale up the process and apply it to an eight-foot-long dining table.
"My process is based in idea exploration, not material exploration," Schanck says. "I begin with a feeling or concept followed by materials and processes. I don't see my work as an expression of material. My fine arts background helps me to not think about the process as a linear thing, instead I allow my work to be idea-driven and let projects develop organically."
Schanck's idea for foil-appliqued furniture has spread rapidly, earning the designer commissions from brands like Tom Ford and Dior, as well as a coveted spot showing at Design Miami/ Basel with Johnson Trading Gallery. "I like making works that exist in a social space where the public can connect to the them," Schanck says. "The two series of works commissioned by Peter Marino for Dior and Bill Sofield for Tom Ford have allowed the work to exist in this social context."
For Schanck the series is far from over and he plans on developing more pieces for the collection. He's also working on a few new Art Deco-inspired pieces to show with Friedman Benda Gallery at Design Miami/ Basel. "My first encounter with [Art Deco architecture] was the site of the JFK assassination," Schanck says. "I was a high school student in downtown Dallas and spent many days skipping school and hanging out around Dealey Plaza. The pieces look back at those experiences remembered through architectural details."
We'll stay tuned for the results.
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