Origins examines some of the most iconic figures, brands, stores, and neighborhoods in the Highsnobiety universe, breaking down how they left an unforgettable mark on street culture. This installment explores the career of New York City-based artist Daniel Arsham.
Some artists cannot be confined to a single medium. They mix formats, play with materials. They innovate. One such artist, Daniel Arsham, has built a career on dismantling the boundaries between sculpture, architecture, and performance.
Through structural experimentation, historical inquiry, and wit, Arsham explores the “in-between” spaces of everyday objects and fills them, taking the mundane and breathing new life into it. He mines common experiences and confounds our expectations about shape and form. Eroded casts of contemporary artifacts and human figures made out of sand, selenite, quartz crystal, and volcanic ash offer us a glimpse of a world in which past, present, and future coexist.
And this sense of disembodied futurism is what has turned Daniel Arsham into one of today’s most important artists, influencing design, fashion, and more.
Arsham was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1980. The family later moved to Florida, where Arsham nearly died in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew ripped through their Miami home. The event precipitated Arsham’s fascination with architecture. Seeing “what’s inside the walls” of torn-up buildings sparked something in him, as did his exposure to nature’s power to destroy what humanity has built.
Daniel Arsham came to consider negative space a design choice — where one could create the illusion of an object through hollowness. The precision of architecture could be disrupted with subtle yet bemusing changes. Arsham imagined that walls could sway and melt into neighboring objects, that they could disappear and warp into other bodies or natural structures. As he put it, he was “making architecture do things it is not supposed to do.”
Arsham’s colorblindness was another influence. He can see approximately 20 percent of the colors and shades a person can normally distinguish, and this altered perception of the world is the reason much of his work has been in shades of white or gray. In 2015, he finally received a pair of special glasses that corrected his deuteranopia, a type of colorblindness that prevents the eye from seeing green and red, and, soon after, he started incorporating more intense colors into his work.
He moved to New York to attend The Cooper Union after winning the prestigious YoungArts scholarship in 1999. There, he refined his skills in design and architecture, graduating and receiving the Gelman Trust Fellowship Award in 2003. The next year, he participated in a group show called “Miami Nice” at Paris’ Galerie Perrotin, before the gallery started representing him in 2005.
The artist’s thirst for collaboration was already apparent – he co-founded two artist-run spaces in Miami (The House and Placemaker, on the site of Locust Projects today), and in 2004, legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham enlisted Arsham to design the set, lighting, and costumes for his work “eyeSpace.”
Despite having no formal training in stage design, Daniel Arsham was the youngest artist ever to work with Cunningham’s company, joining a list of names that includes Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Frank Stella, with the Walker Art Center later buying Arsham’s “eyeSpace” work. Arsham toured the world with Cunningham’s company and was also the last to collaborate with the choreographer before his death in 2009.
A year after the first Cunningham collab, Arsham was commissioned by Hedi Slimane to design the fitting rooms of Dior Homme’s new flagship store in Los Angeles. The only stipulations were that the rooms had a hook, a seat, and a mirror. The result was Arsham’s signature plaster degradation, with walls that appeared to melt onto benches and mirrors embedded in holes seemingly excavated out of the walls. And, of course, this wouldn’t be Arsham’s last involvement with the luxury house.
While working with the Cunningham company, Arsham met former Cunningham dancer and longtime collaborator Jonah Bokaer. The two bonded over a shared love of space and how it can be transformed and manipulated. “We met on stage and were brothers right away,” Bokaer told W magazine in 2015. In 2007, Bokaer debuted their first joint project, an original choreography titled “Wrinkle” inspired by Arsham’s work exhibited at Perrotin.
Their multimedia collaboration continued with works such as 2009’s “Replica,” 2010’s “Recess,” and 2011’s “Why Patterns.” More recently, the two worked with Pharrell Williams on 2016’s “Rules of the Game,” the rapper scoring Bokaer’s choreography, with design by Arsham and costumes by Chris Stamp of STAMPD. “Mixing audiences is one of my favorite things,” says Arsham. “It’s something of a cross-disciplinary and cross-class idea.”
Daniel Arsham and Pharrell had already worked together in 2013 on a recreation of Pharrell’s first keyboard, a Casio MT-500, as an eroded cast made from volcanic ash, crystal, and steel. The collab followed the premise of excavating degraded objects from the modern age as a look back at the fate of humanity from some dystopian future. Arsham continued the project, later renaming it Future Relic.
“Future Relic began as an experiment and a way to think about how I would make films related to my art practice,” Arsham said early in 2019 after releasing a trailer for a film based on the project. “I have been making works for many years that replicate objects from our present as if they were uncovered on some future archeological site. These objects create breaks in time and they expand and collapse it by bringing us outside of our current moment.”
Everyday objects reimagined as archeological discoveries include Polaroid cameras, chunky ’80s cellphones, and ghetto blasters, with each item illustrating how new technologies can quickly become obsolete. Arsham sold 10 full nine-piece Future Relic sets for $28,000 a pop early in 2018, alongside limited quantities of individual editions from the project. On top of the film trailer, he also made short films to accompany each artifact through his own production company Films of the Future.
Typical of Arsham’s work, each film leaves questions unanswered. It isn’t until all nine are viewed in succession that they form a complete narrative. Through this six-year project, Arsham demonstrated with authority what he does best: taking everyday things and playing with expectations.
But perhaps the artist’s most well-known project is New York design firm Snarkitecture. Founded in 2008, Snarkitecture is a multidisciplinary practice uniting sculpture and architecture. The name comes from Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” a poem about the journey of a motley crew in search of a fabled creature. The Snark hunters of NYC are Arsham, Alex Mustonen, and Ben Porto, who together seek new ways to “misuse” existing architecture and subvert traditional design.
Snarkitecture reworks common materials and everyday objects into perplexing landscapes: hundreds of white casts of Air Jordan 1s hang from the ceiling of KITH’s NYC flagship; a topographic display of perfume bottle casts sprawls across Odin in New York; an insane lilac marble run snakes around a gallery and COS store in Seoul, South Korea.
Other projects include the “Fractured” furniture collection made in collaboration with Pentatonic, a Caesarstone installation displaying the transformation of water, and Arsham’s own three-shoe collaboration with adidas exploring the past, present, and future.
In March 2019, Snarkitecture opened a permanent residence in Hudson Yards named Snark Park. The firm said the exhibition space’s first presentation, “Lost and Found,” sought to craft memorable experiences by “infusing art and architecture with a sense of play.” In practice, this meant hidden visual and tactile surprises for visitors to discover, giving even the most mundane objects new life.
Daniel Arsham’s biggest moment in fashion so far came when Kim Jones enlisted him to work on Dior Men’s Spring/Summer 2020 show in Paris. Arsham brought his “Future Relic” aesthetic to the brand, including a plaster recreation of Christian Dior’s office, complete with a hung hat and trench coat, telephone, and desk. “It’s been calcified in my process,” Arsham explained at the time. “It’s kind of this perfect relic of that moment in time.”
A dissolved clock and giant eroded letters reading “DIOR” with rose quartz appearing to grow out of the rot reflected both designers’ fascination with decay. The floor was inspired by the artist’s 2017 pink sand recreation of a Japanese garden, with models “destroying” the runway as they walked through the sand.
As for the items worn by the models, the collection — like Arsham’s own work — was like a futuristic time capsule. Jones channeled the artist’s approach by reimagining the B23 and B24 sneakers in Arsham’s signature blue calcite and rose quartz, with distressed baseball caps by Stephen Jones, miniaturized versions of prosaic objects courtesy of AMBUSH’s Yoon Ahn, and a recycled version of Dior’s Toile de Jouy print.
“Fashion’s favorite artist” is a contested title. But whether inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Futura, KAWS, or Takashi Murakami, the fashion world tends to gravitate toward artists who blur the lines between “high” and “low” culture. But Arsham has carved a niche and still won acclaim and recognition from numerous quarters, including fashion, even as he deviated from this well-trodden path.
In a time when technology can appear to develop and become obsolete in the space of a heartbeat, Daniel Arsham captures the ephemerality of our material world. He tells us a story about ourselves, what we make, and where we’re heading even as we live it — or wear it.