Talking past and present


Sebastian Errazuriz

The sea is a subject that crosses the mind of Chilean-born, New York-based artist and designer Sebastian Errazuriz often, and on many levels. For starters, it reminds him of his grandfather, who worked all his life for a steamship company in South America and as a weekend hobby built little ship models in a tiny woodworking shop in Santiago.  At the other end of the spectrum, Errazuriz thinks about the mystery and infinitude of the sea and of the ideas of life and death and spirituality that go with it-he's even created Boat Coffin, which allows you to sail into the sunset of life on your own terms.

The Boat Coffin's mix of function and philosophy-and a touch of humor-is a hallmark of the work of the thirty-six-year-old Errazuriz, who grew up in Chile and London, where his father, studying for a PhD in art education, often took him to look at and analyze paintings and drawings and other works of art. "In some ways my fu­ture was preordained-it's not like I reached a certain age and decided, ‘Gee I think I'll be an artist'-everything was set up already," Errazuriz says. But, in fact, he found that he was as intrigued by objects as by paint­ing and sculpture, and ultimately took a design degree in San­tiago and an MFA from New York University.

"In designing objects you have function and aesthetics to consider-like Chippendale design­ing a chair, for instance-and you have measurable qual­i­ties and established techniques for determining success," he says. "But little by little in design I began to miss the elements-psychological, political, existen­tial elements-often found in works of art, but which design has not always accom­modated." The Boat Coffin offers both, fully functional yet also intended to make one think about how one might want to die, not hooked up to machines in a hospital bed, but, perhaps, after final good­byes and thanks to friends and family, wav­ing farewell and motoring out to sea, closing the "hatch," and opening the built-in drain.

The model of the three-masted East Indiaman Friendship in PEM's Mari­time Gallery drew Errazuriz's attention immediately. Evoking the nature of so much of the museum's history and collections (and of the less controllable perils of life at sea than his Boat Cof­fin), the model also reminded him of his grandfather's ship models and the hours he spent with him as a boy, learning to use a chisel, and learning the patience required for all great craftsmanship.

Today, he oversees an eight thousand square foot studio in Brooklyn with five full-time employees and several lucky interns. The range of his output is mind-boggling: a mantelpiece in carved Carrara marble with a tiny wooden figure and backstage setting within the fireplace opening; a Duck Fan featuring a taxidermy duck mounted in a div­ing position and facing an industrial fan, stealing a smile and reminding the viewer that ducks fly against the wind everyday; or a steel Wing Chaise Lounge inspired by folding butterfly knives-a technical feat of balance and counterbal­ance. Among so much else, there is also Errazuriz's signature Piano Shelf, a lim­ited edition wallpiece in lengths of eight to twelve feet, made up of hundreds of hand-crafted sections of wood-like piano keys-each regulated individually with a tiny hidden screw so any num­ber can be lowered to create surfaces of varying sizes, with the resulting rectangles of empty space framing whatever is placed on the shelf created. A recent piece is the Kaleidoscope Cabinet, drawn like much of Errazuriz's work from memories of his family, in this case an elderly aunt who al­ways told him he could look but not touch. The walnut cabinet is lined with sections of mirrored glass that, when the doors are open, create a dazzling kaleidoscopic reflection of the objects inside; a peephole in one end and an interior light allow one to look inside even when the doors are closed and locked and to see, but not touch, those precious objects, infinitely multiplied.

"Humans are so much more com­plex than simple matters of aesthetics and practicality," Errazuriz says. "I am always seeking to create designs that reflect these complexities. At the same time, I try to create pieces that are atemporal, not of any time, in hopes that they will have future antiques." A visit to Errazuriz's website (, or to the Cristina Grajales Gallery in New York, which repre­sents him, offers the chance to see the many ways he is doing so.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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