The stripping down to the essentials of the 20th-century modernist movement did not only remove the ornaments and superfluous details from architecture and design, it simultaneously made space for other elements to further interact with form – light, space, color, movement, materials, crafts and new technologies – paving the way for an interdisciplinary approach, of which the Bauhaus is an illustrious example.

In that respect, the artists of the exhibition Modernism Crystallized (Family Affair), Boris Berlin, Daniel Berlin and Germans Ermičs, are children of modernism. Their empirical approach and material-oriented vocabulary seem to rise like a second wave from its main explorations: focus on materials paired with new technologies and craftsmanship; perception of form, light and space; urban esthetics with a tendency towards geometric abstraction. Even the concept behind the exhibition echoes the collective approach of the modernist movement. When inviting Boris Berlin to exhibit in my gallery, the Russian-born designer responded by asking his son, Danish architect Daniel Berlin (of Snøhetta) and Latvian designer Germans Ermičs (whom he affectively considers his adopted son), to create the works with him, some collaboratively in pairs, others individually, in a twilight zone between art, design and architecture.

However, contrary to their 20th-century peers, this little family of designers seems to explore simultaneously the modernist vocabulary and its potential collapse with, as leitmotif, order and dissolution; geometric regularity and deformation; clarity and illusion; presence and disappearance. A certain sense of drama is palpable here, a theatrical dimension which is underlined by Boris Berlin’s chiaroscuro scenography and textile curtain, softly graduating from white to black, from light into darkness. It’s showtime, with the modernist bride stripped bare by her bachelors. What is revealed through the seductive power of these optically strong objects and their fetish finish is the crucial part played by the spectator in their coming into being: light and color modulations, trompe-l’œil effects, form-altering reflections, optical grids. With their ever-changing surfaces, these works were made to be accomplished by the gaze of the spectator, who takes pleasure in perceiving the mechanisms of perception.

Made from materials cherished by the modernist architects – cool and irresistible – the works seem under tension: The illusionist table, Black Mirror, by Boris Berlin and Germans Ermičs, hardly reaches the floor, as it fades into its own reflection. By a masterful gradation from 100% mirror to 100% black glass, the table constantly appears and disappears, according to the surrounding light, shapes and point of view. Over the table hangs an imposing light pendant, City Light, designed by Daniel and Boris Berlin. Cast on the city of Manhattan, the light in translucent resin reflects the ordered yet chaotic grid of the modernist city par excellence. Programmed to the shifting color/light cycle of the city, this light-clock travels an entire day in one hour, from the first rays of sunrise into a glowing midday sun, to the nocturnal fading of light. At dusk, the reflection of the city slowly vanishes, like the ghost of a Promethean civilization, into the infinite blackness of the Black Mirror table. Another day in the city of glass…

Germans Ermičs’ sculptural glass chair in flaming colors, Sunburst Tall Glass Chair, expresses a delicate balance between two clashing polarities: a perceived fragility and an imagined state of solidity. With its three vertical glass panes, caught in a sublime moment between stability and collapse, the high back and sides provide personal space and protection, although the sitting experience may be closer to that of a falling throne. In its masterful articulation of rectilinear volumes and the interaction of colored vertical and horizontal planes, the chair creates an interesting dialogue between color and form: the burst of orange and red colors evolves gradually from the ground and upwards, alluding to, rather than defining, the shape of the chair. The impact of color on the comfort of the spirit is both enhanced and challenged by the fragile aspect of the glass material. You cannot help but hold your breath while walking around this tall, ethereal piece, which constantly changes according to the surrounding light and perspective. In that respect, Ermičs seems close to the minimalists of California’s Light and Space movement, such as James Turrell and Larry Bell, in his exploration of color and materials to catalyze a shift in how we perceive objects and space. On the opposite wall, a slender, mirrored totem by the same artist, Sunburst Mirror Beam, echoes the sunny colors of the chair, in a movement from earth to sky.

The human body almost seems absent from these works, with their cool reflecting materials and abstract geometric forms: furniture pieces that are not about physical comfort but instead are about our own perception. Yet, they were made to the scale of the body, to be optically accomplished by the spectator moving around them. These surface vibrations are equally present in Boris Berlin’s handmade wooden chairs, High Grid and Low Grid, however in a much more organic form, reminding us that the body is always there. Undulating, their perfect geometric grid seems disturbed from within by an organic presence. A geometrically precise wooden grid of the iconic chair silhouette, transformed by the memory of a human body… to paraphrase the artist. The Grid chairs interpret the fusional interaction between the human body and the chair, breaking its shape down into a skeleton.

In Germans Ermičs’ cylindrical object, Pele de Tigre (Signature Object), three-dimensional marble veins burst through the surface. Inspired by the natural erosion of the material, Ermičs has been developing a new processing method to enhance the unique pattern of the stone. Instead of forcing a preconceived image onto the marble, Ermičs works with the stone’s own texture, uncovering its wild, organic beauty and liberating it from centuries of domesticated polishing in the fields of art and architecture. The marble object is part of a small series of eight cylindrical pieces, Signature Objects, made individually by each designer. While obeying the same dimensions and cylindrical form, each object is defined by its specific materiality and construction. What is left is a sign of its author, his signature. Scattered throughout the exhibition, they look like… fragments of columns brought from the ruins of seven temples from seven continents. Each of them telling its own story, each of them keeping traces of the craftsman, who once created them, in the words of Boris Berlin.

The idea of trace and memory is particularly present in Daniel Berlin’s poetic wall reliefs in composite aluminium, Villa Savoye. By multiplying thirty times Le Corbusier’s famous villa, the Danish architect deconstructs the iconic masterpiece of his French predecessor. In its new compressed state, void of space, it seems crystallized in its essence, yet reoriented, in transition. Solid and void. Surface and depth. From the icons and vestiges of the past, something new is growing in the valley. Boris Berlin recalls contemplating the city of Seoul, from a hilltop from which the city can be seen, lying in the valley like a giant plate with its urban grid and diverse buildings laid bare, surrounded by fields and hills. Day turns into evening; the city lights grow while the night slowly sinks down on the city, lights fading out, until the city almost disappears. Then, the thought that in spite of all human attempts to restrict the city, imposing on it the grid of mathematic regularity, an organic, unrestrained growth is protruding from the bottom of the valley, framed by nature, not quite infected by it yet.

  • Read more
  • The stripping down to the essentials of the 20th-century modernist movement did not only remove the ornaments and superfluous details from architecture and design, it simultaneously made space for other elements to further interact with form – light, space, color, movement, materials, crafts and new technologies – paving the way for an interdisciplinary approach, of […]