Designer Misha Kahn and journalist Nick Haramis discuss the power of design in the digital sphere
For those still hesitating to jump on the NFT bandwagon, design visionary Misha Kahn has landed on a brilliant happy medium. Known for crafting furniture that is bold in both colour and gesture – and all-encompassing exhibitions in which to display them – the American talent has increasingly worked in the digital realm, culminating in his own series of NFTs.
From 18-24 August, Christie’s will host the first-ever design NFT sale offered by a major auction house, Misha Kahn: Furniture Unhinged.
Each of the 10 lots represent an individual frame captured from a 13-second source animation by Kahn, who is represented by leading design gallery, Friedman Benda. Within the video, a characteristically vibrant and biomorphic figure transforms into a surreal array of traditional furniture types — including a chair, which has been 3D printed into a real-life example that accompanies the digital work.
Likewise, winning bidders of these revolutionary digital works will also be able to print them into tangible furniture, either independently or through Kahn’s studio.
Ahead of the sale, Kahn and his partner, journalist Nick Haramis, discuss the designer’s seamless transition from sculpting in Virtual Reality to developing NFTs, the power of digital versus physical works and the value in living with both.
Misha Kahn: Okay, here we are reporting live from Greece.
Nick Haramis: Ready to talk about NFTs.
MK: We must.
NH: I’m told that this is the first design NFT.
MK: Well, obviously there have been other NFTs that deal with design and depict domestic living scenes or objects in space, but I didn’t feel like any of them were taking advantage of this idea of using the blockchain as a method to really sell design objects – looking at an NFT as more than just a visual, but a possibility for holistically selling a blueprint for an object in a new way.
NH: So, you’re selling the blueprint rather than the image of a designed object?
MK: Yeah. You see so much of this in the world, where there are beautiful renderings that can be really compelling. I think that there’s a magic in that and a place for that – this idea of building a fantasy. I wanted to do it in a way where there’s also an object that can be completely made.
With the NFT, you get this asset that you could put in a digital landscape. It could be incorporated into a video game, movie or any place an avatar lives, or it could be fully printed and functional. So, instead of just buying a picture, you are holistically buying a dematerialised object.
NH: What about the idea of designing an NFT appealed to you? Do you find the designing of NFTs liberating in a way that designing something physical is not?
MK: Well, I think that ironically, I did. I wanted to bring in so many things that I was working on in the real world into the NFT project, but I was struck by how much you can see when you’re in this landscape where literally anything can exist because it is beyond anything we’ve known. And yet, most of it is pretty tethered to knowable scenes — things that are familiar but made slightly more magical in certain ways.
I wanted to see how far I could push furniture and the idea of furniture and still have people vaguely recognise the gesture of a floor lamp or the idea of a chair. The pieces exist on the outskirts of what they should look like, but still appear in a way where these objects could exist in the real world. So, you’re not asking people to suspend belief that there are no longer humans living with pieces like this.
‘What is really interesting to me about the idea of selling an NFT of a design object is that you can express yourself in an object that doesn’t need to be materialised.’ — Misha Kahn
NH: Did you feel like with the creation of NFTs there has been an opportunity to delve deeper down the rabbit hole of Misha-ness?
MK: For sure. I’ve been sculpting so many pieces in VR to produce them. There’s obviously many things made in VR that could never be produced, and clearly this was an opportunity to really explore that. Like every opportunity, there are a lot of roads you can take, and while you choose the one that you choose in the moment, all those other routes are still there. So, I thought that this idea of building furniture that could be animated or exist in environments that are completely unfamiliar would be super exciting to explore.
NH: Having watched you work in VR, you were perfectly suited to be a designer who made NFTs because you had worked so much already in that world. You would go from morning to night with your headset on and design things during a global pandemic from your parents’ backyard in Minnesota, in a totally other universe and got good at that over the six months that we were there. You really alley-ooped yourself into designing NFTs.
MK: Yeah, it was such a delight to find it and then to be able to explore designing. What’s really cool about VR is that normally when you are coming up with an idea you take a three-dimensional form, flatten it and just imply the perspective – it’s so fun to be able to draw something in 3D and feel like you’re seeing it in 3D because you’re coming at it from a completely different perspective. If you want a compound line, instead of imitating it, you can actually make it. Doing that was like learning how to draw all over again.
NH: Do you think that NFTs have larger implications in the design world? The thing that I always go back to – probably erroneously – is that people who buy an artwork and hang it on their wall have the bragging rights of ownership in a very tangible way. There’s something slightly different to me about NFTs in that they’re all pictures of things.
MK: Well, it sort of reminds me of medieval times when paintings were not valued as much as tapestries because if the castle were under siege, you couldn’t take the painting with you – but you could roll up the tapestry and bring it. In every time period, the asset that’s the most important is the one that you can keep.
I think we are quick to focus on the immediate moment, which is like, ‘what do you have in your house and how do you display it?’ But that hasn’t always been relevant, so it certainly won’t always be relevant.
NH: I like thinking about paintings as medieval NFTs.
MK: No, I think the tapestry is the medieval NFT. The NFT is always going to be in your Coinbase.
NH: I see, I see. Why don’t you tell me about how 3D printing came into play in the process of creating NFTs?
MK: My biggest guilt in making objects is the globalised supply chain and heavy shipping ecosystem. If you buy a chair, it could be made from wood that came from America and was chopped down and sent to China and turned into a chair. The same chair could be sent somewhere else to get finished, and then shipped to you from somewhere else. You become part of this insane carbon footprint. It’s a super impersonal process. You don’t have a relationship to the object, so when you move, you just throw it away.
What is really interesting to me about the idea of selling an NFT of a design object is that you can express yourself in an object that doesn’t need to be materialised. It could live just as happily in a digital space, but if you did want to produce it, it could lend to a localised way of doing things. So, even though people are buying and seeing it in a global setting, hypothetically, you could just get it printed down the street.
NH: How do you imagine the collectors of your NFTs will live with the piece? For instance, when you make a credenza, sometimes you know where it’s going, and you know the context. This is not that. So, how are you picturing it out in the world?
MK: What I think would be really compelling is to see digital objects find their way into our lives in new ways. After spending this past year on Zoom – where we would be in these depressing rooms with our poorly lit computers – it’s clear that in the future we will meet in compelling digital spaces. The fact that that’s not here yet is crazy.
I love the idea of being an architect for that space, that there could be an opportunity for people to express themselves without owning physical things, but still sharing their taste, sensibility and personality with the world. I think that’s a possibility for my NFT designs.
NH: One of the things you touched on earlier was that you are selling not just an image of a design, but the blueprints so that somebody who buys it has all the information and all the data that they need to actually make it. Tell me more about that.
MK: Well, it just seemed really important that each of these digital objects could be fully ready to be made into a physical object. So, you get the complete 3D file with all the colour information on the surface and everything. What is fun about that is that you’re buying this digital thing, but it can also be materialised so quickly and readily.
By selling them this way, I was explaining to the gallery that the piece is like a work by Lawrence Weiner. The idea is that the NFT is a contract and that the owner can make copies of it without ever effecting the actual work. This was such an interesting model to think about.
NH: This is a crazy question, but do you have to be the person who makes it?
MK: Nope, but if someone wants to own a piece that I’m authorising as a work of mine, then my studio will produce it. I’ll oversee the finish, how the paint is applied, how it’s printed and every detail. You can also go and have someone else print it. So, you have a physical copy, but it may not look exactly how I would have done it. I’m not endorsing it, but you’re certainly welcome to do that. I think both are fun.
NH: Do you think you will you continue to make NFTs?
MK: I hope so.
NH: What is the future of NFTs? Is it just to expand and get more and more integrated into the world of mainstream art?
MK: Well, I think it’s like everything — there’s going to be a figuring-out phase where we see what works and what sticks. But, in terms of selling designs, it can be really hard to figure out how you’re going to send someone all the information, protect yourself and make sure that they have everything they need. It’s such a cool way to think about designing. So, I think it’s likely that it sticks.
NH: When it comes to a traditional exhibition that you would have at a gallery, you — more than most artists I know — are intent on world-building. So, when people go into one of your spaces, it’s not just a random assortment of work, but the entire environment that becomes part of the show and the world that you’re trying to build. And I feel like NFTs are ripe for the opportunity to do that in a really crazy way.
MK: For sure. With these NFTs, I got to design the architecture of the little space that the animation is moving through. Ironically, it’s not as psychotic as some other installations I’ve done, but I felt like the pieces themselves were so detailed that this space was a foil to that. I think there’s so much potential to keep building from in so many ways. I hope there’s a chance to explore all of them.