Happy to plunder from the worlds of art, music and photography, Idris Kahn is something of a magpie. The 34-year-old takes everything from paintings to piano scores and transforms them into new works that feel startlingly fresh. In his 2005 Struggle to Hear… After Ludwig van Beethoven Sonatas, for example, overlain sheet music from Beethoven’s series becomes a dense wall of notes and staves, suggesting the composer’s encroaching deafness.

When Wallpaper* invited Khan to riff on another classic – Comme des Garçons’ iconic wallet design – his interest was piqued. ‘Although I didn’t know very much about Commes’ philosophy, I’ve always loved the clothes,’ he says. ‘And all their leather goods are very simple and elegant.’

With the loosest of briefs – to create something incredible out of dozens of the brand’s leather wallets, an evergreen in Rei Kawakubo’s product offering since the label’s launch in 1969 – Khan embarked on various printing experiments. ‘A lot of my work in the studio is based on obsessively stamping, so I thought that maybe I could print a few things on the surface of the wallet,’ he explains. ‘But, to be honest, it didn’t look great.’

This was followed by some Agnes Martin-style grids. ‘I really love her work and I tried to create a larger abstract piece, but that wasn’t really happening either,’ laughs Khan. ‘At this point, the whole thing began to defeat me a little bit.’

Comme des Garçons wallets used for 88... After Klein

Khan then thought of Yves Klein. ‘I’d been thinking about the moment when he moved into sculptures and his use of colour,’ he says. However, it was only when Khan drafted in Annie Morris, fellow artist and, as it happens, his wife, that the project began to take form.

Morris’ work also plays with repetition, using everyday materials to make collages, paintings and sculptures. ‘She creates these beautiful stackworks from plaster and dried pigment,’ says Khan, ‘so she showed me exactly how to make them.’

Pregnant at the time, Morris took on a ‘sort of directing role,’ according to Khan. ‘She wasn’t allowed to touch much so she sat and dictated everything to me.’ Having cocooned the white leather wallets in Modroc tape and casting plaster, they were smothered with blue pigment. Khan then assembled a two metre-high vertical stack. ‘It’s a very simple shape, but it becomes a monumental object when you put all these pieces together,’ he says.

The wallets retain their original form – the pair left the signature zip-pull sticking out during the embalming process – but the resulting piece has a wonderfully transformative effect on the original material. ‘I think you look at the repetition and you look at the colour – that draws you in,’ says Khan. ‘It takes it out of the context of what the wallet was for and makes it into a piece of art.’

The piece, 88… After Klein, is a hit with the wallet’s creators. ‘Although we weren’t familiar with Khan’s work when Wallpaper* approached us, it seemed like a great idea,’ says Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons. ‘Now we love it.’

And for Khan and Morris, the project marks a landmark in their relationship. Though they have long shared a studio in East London, this was the first time they had worked together. ‘We always look to each other for inspiration and hopefully it’s changed our practices for the better,’ says Khan.’ I met Annie four years ago and was only doing photography before; now, I’ve just finished a 25ft painting. So, in some ways, everything we do is a collaboration.’

As well as upcoming solo shows for Khan at San Francisco’s Fraenkel gallery and Thomas Schulte in Berlin, the pair have recently contributed sculptural pieces to WWF and Phillips de Pury’s joint project ‘Pandamonium’. But will Khan and Morris ever dare to work together again? ‘Yes, absolutely,’ says Khan, ‘although we do have this great little work by Marina Abramovich in out kitchen that reads: “Artists should avoid falling in love with other artists”. Obviously it’s a bit too late for us now…’ §

As originally featured in the August 2012 issue of Wallpaper* (W*161)