Sometimes a chair is not a chair. Sometimes it is a way to muck up the prevailing cultural orthodoxy, as well as a place to set your buttocks on and take a load off. An unsuspecting, nondescript metal folding chair, for instance, might go into the workshop of furniture designer Tanya Aguiñiga and come out mummified with yarn. Or looking like it grew an epidermis of wool, or sprouted a thin layer of fuzzy pink moss.
“The idea was to transform the folding chairs into the opposite of what they are,” she says. “You know — no longer cold, no longer uninviting, no longer mass-produced.”
Among merciless chair snobs, there is no more alternately coveted and derided piece than the Eames chair. Aguiñiga’s gallery manager asked her to cover one of those in wool. He happened to have a bunch of the chairs sitting around in his basement.
“Well, I don’t know,” she said, wincing. “I don’t know how I feel about messing with someone else’s design.” But in the end, the temptation of felting an iconic Eames chair proved irresistible. Such is her passion for the form.
“We had 16 chairs in the bedroom alone at one point,” she says. “Right, honey?”
“Hmm? Did we?” says her husband, Todd, slouched deep into the sofa in the living room. The sofa is a Knoll. Someone had put it out to pasture at the curb, and Aguiñiga scooped it up and then reupholstered it.
“I’m superobsessed with yarn and wool,” she says, “mainly for its warmth, depth, texture and story.” Story?
“Yes. I look for yarn that has good stories behind it. Like the cones of wool woven by rural women in Uruguay.” She imagines that the women’s husbands are no-good, useless drunks, and so they get together to make the yarn as solace and as a source of income.
Or the goat-hair yarn from England, which hasn’t been manufactured since the 1970s. It’s deep gray-brown and prickly, like a goat in spool form. She wrapped two chairs with it.
What goes through her mind while she’s making a chair? “Not making the chair.”
It takes 30 hours of hand-rubbing pelts of soapy wool. Your fingers start to cramp. Your skin goes raw.
One of her more intellectually challenging chairs is part of a minimalistic desk-chair-lamp triumvirate called the Shadow Trio. It is so minimalistic, in fact, half of it does not exist. A white chair with only two legs is bolted to a white wall. The shadow cast on the wall forms the chair’s other half. Ditto for the table and lamp. The three items seem to float in midair.
“At first, people said it was gimmicky. But it’s one of my favorite pieces. It needs the wall to exist, otherwise it falls down. It’s about strange half-relationships. All of my work started coming out with a double-sidedness. Just coming out and coming out, and I didn’t know why.”
“It’s so obvious,” friends told her. “It’s because you’re from the border.” As in Tijuana, the United States–Mexico border.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art was interested in acquiring the Shadow Trio for a while. Then hard economic times hit, and suddenly the museum didn’t need another chair that nobody would be allowed to sit on.
Aguiñiga is 30 years old, slim, tall, bespectacled, and tonight is wearing her black hair in a single lopsided bun, which looks like a Mickey Mouse ear missing its partner. She moved here from Tijuana when she was 18. But she’d been coming over for school in San Diego since she was 5. She and her parents told the border guards lies about why they were crossing. It was easier that way.
“It really messes you up crossing the border every day, living your life in two different countries. Going from somewhere with no running water to somewhere clean and modern and perfect. I was always afraid of getting kicked out of school.” They used fake addresses so she could attend U.S. schools. To be in class by 8 a.m., she’d leave at 4 a.m. She lived so close to the border that she could take a short walk to the fence and peep through to see the U.S. The fence runs straight into the sea.
In her 20s, she joined the Border Art Workshop and helped to build a community center in the Maclovio Rojas squatter settlement out of old garage doors. People take discarded American garage doors down to Mexico and re-use them to build housing. Four garage doors, and another one for a roof, and you have a room, like a house of cards.
Her husband watches as Aguiñiga flips through photos of old artwork. (Irony of ironies: He works at Crate & Barrel.) She did an installation of wooden crosses labeled with the names of people who’d died trying to cross the border. Some froze to death. Some starved. The names came from the coroner’s records.
Political-protest art and chairs aside, Aguiñiga is also known for her Forest Roll. It’s a burrito-shaped thing perfect for reclining. Like a log split lengthwise, you get two half-cylinders to lie on, with a carpet of lime-green felt grass in between. “It’s a forest that you can take with you,” she says. “It’s meant for two people to lie opposite each other. You unroll it and hang out.” Instant nature.
Her “soft rocks” — squashy boulders you could probably use as ottomans — are made of pink wool hand-dyed in Oaxaca, with crushed bugs that attack cacti.
She trots out to the garden of her Atwater Village house. Last year, she got a $50,000 United States Artist Fellowship grant, quit her job as a private art consultant telling rich collectors which paintings to buy, and set up shop in her back yard. A prototype purse she’s working on rests on a plastic folding table. It looks like prosthetic lungs. Three gray industrial-felt bladders are fitted on top of each other. You sling the contraption over the shoulder, and voilà! You’ve got gills.
Her soul wanted to make art, but her conscience needed for it to be useful. Hence, furniture. Hence, the Hole Table. It’s a round dining table with holes cut out, like open manholes across an expanse of wood. Into the holes go the plates, the glasses, the forks and spoons, and a big vase for flowers. It’s table as sculpture. Eating as performance art.
Aguiñiga’s multidisciplinary approach is weird among furniture makers. “Wood designers stick to wood, and glass blowers stick to glass. Maybe they incorporate steel,” but she’ll weave camel-hair wool into her metal chairs. Or bits of English porcelain into a welded-steel chair. Or raw birch bark into a bent-steel bench.
With her power tools stashed in the shed — it’s been raining in the city lately — to kill time, she’s making accessories. “I saw a puddle of thread tangled up on the desk and thought, ‘How do I preserve that?’” She made squiggly thread necklaces. Tomorrow’s going to be busy, she decides, sneaking a peek at her agenda. “I have to make another rock.”
See selections from Aguiñiga’s work at www.aguinigadesign.com and at the group show “Inspired,” through Feb. 21 at Tinlark Gallery.