An exclusive look at COS’ reflective installation by Phillip K Smith III at Salone del Mobile

An exclusive look at COS’ reflective installation by Phillip K Smith III at Salone del Mobile

The fashion label COS is no stranger to crowd-pleasing collaboration. Every year since 2012, the Swedish-owned, London-based chain has worked with an array of design talents, including Sou Fujimoto, Nendo and Snarkitecture, to construct a series of installations at Milan’s Salone del Mobile. Excitement around COS’ Milan projects increases exponentially with each new edition. Last year – as it unveiled an ephemeral, multi-sensorial experience by Studio Swine, based around a blossoming tree of mist-filled bubbles – that excitement ran to feverish. Sculptural, delicate and mesmerising, it was easily the brand’s most memorable effort to date.

‘It’s not been our intention to create a bigger and bigger presence in any way. We purely go on who we really believe in and who we’re passionate about at that moment,’ says COS’ creative director Karin Gustafsson of the installations, which began with set designer Gary Card creating a cube that could pull apart and showcase the label’s wares. The brief is wide open. They ‘focus on an understanding of our brand and values, [but] we wouldn’t want to interfere with the artist’s work – it’s not about that. It’s more about sharing inspiration, and who we think is amazing.’

For this year’s iteration, COS asked American artist Phillip K Smith III to join its creative roster. Smith, a light-based artist best known for his reflective outdoor installations set against expanses of desert landscape, has used his signature approach to magnify the architectural beauty of the 16th-century Palazzo Isimbardi – a virgin exhibition venue. Tucked within the palazzo’s open-air courtyard and amid its Italian Renaissance architecture, Smith’s arresting sculpture – a circular, mirrored structure angled at a 43 degree upward slant – draws the sky down into the courtyard in fractured, reflected fragments, which visitors can appreciate at close range. The work, titled Open Sky, not only marks the first time Smith has taken on a denser, urban setting, but also his first collaboration with a brand.

An exclusive render of Phillip K Smith III’s installation in situ at Palazzo Isimbardi: Located in the 16th-century courtyard and garden of Milan’s Palazzo Isimbardi, Phillip K Smith III’s Open Sky is a site-specific work designed to offer each visitor a unique experience that changes depending on time and location. It consists of a concrete shell with 34 stainless steel, mirrored panels angled to reflect the sky. Render courtesy Phillip K Smith III

‘I’ve been approached by brands before, but have always said no,’ Smith says. ‘But because of the lineage of the prior projects COS has done, and who it has worked with, it was a list I was honoured to be on.’ He continues, ‘You can just tell by looking at its work that there was a freedom to the concept and a desire to create a very rare experience that is kind of on the edge of art, architecture and design, in the middle of a festival that started as a furniture fair, but now represents the full spectrum of design.’

For COS, collaborating with Smith was a natural decision. Having used images of his creations as mood board inspiration for the label’s collections, Gustafsson cites a set of shared values that is intrinsically reflected in Smith’s work. As a brand, ‘we focus a lot on tactility, modernity and functionality. We like the idea of the interaction of art with its surroundings, and how they connect and communicate.’

She adds, ‘As an artist, Phillip has unbelievable attention to detail. That’s something that we have in common. I also believe that his work has a timeless feel. It’s very beautiful and will live on for a long, long time.’

The 34 stainless steel panels in their concrete shell were manufactured at UAP’​s Long Island City facility, then shipped to Milan for assembly on site. Photography: Richard Barnes

Open Sky cuts a distinctive figure from the get-go. When visitors first enter the palazzo (still a functioning office building), they are greeted by an 11ft-tall concrete form in light and shadow that stands in stark contrast to its classical surroundings. A single opening in the structure directs people along its circumference until they are faced with reflections of the Renaissance architecture on the mirrored inner surface, which peels away to reveal an almost 360 degree view of the sky. ‘What’s exciting is that, while it is a group experience, when you step in, it’s about your experience only,’ says Smith. ‘It’s based on the angle of reflection, the time of day, what the sky is like right then, and so there is a real specific experience that will happen.’

‘I also thought about the contrast of coming off the street and the insanity of Salone, and that you’d walk into the space and be forced to be a little bit quiet, slow down and maybe sit down and spend time watching the sky. All of us as human beings recognise that when we do that, we feel better and it gives us a breath to remember what’s important.’

To realise the ambitious structure, Smith turned to UAP, an international fabrication studio experienced in bringing public art projects to life. (They recently built Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors in New York City.) Each of the 34 chemically polished, stainless steel panels and the enveloping concrete shell that make up Open Sky were manufactured at UAP’s Long Island City production facility before being shipped to Milan and assembled on site.

Smith’s concept also extends into the palazzo’s outdoor gardens, where a collection of smaller, freestanding sculptures has been installed. Stemming from his continued studies of how to distill the spirit of his larger installations into singular, smaller-scale works, these new sculptures flatten and compress the surrounding reflections onto a singular corrugated surface in a highly abstracted way.

COS’ Creative Director Karin Gustafsson in the courtyard of Milan’s Palazzo Isimbardi. Photography: Piotr Niepsuj

Smith notes that the sculpture is remarkably true to his original proposal. ‘All of COS’ efforts have been to help me ensure that my concept gets built. We hope for those kinds of clients, as designers, artists and architects. It’s almost like having a museum come to you saying, “We have a space, we have a budget, we believe in your work. Let’s do something.” Ultimately, they want to support artists’ ideas. It’s clear that art, design and architecture are important for Karin and COS as they think about their projects.’

A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, with degrees in both architecture and fine art, Smith uses his practice expertly to straddle the line between the art and design worlds. ‘I went to architecture school in an art school. What I learnt was more about the conceptual understanding of space and craft, and how things are made,’ he says. ‘When you look at the scale of the projects I’m working on right now, it is art at the scale of architecture. I’m often dealing with the same suppliers, engineers and city people that I was when designing a homeless shelter. With each new site, I’m able to [use my architectural training] as it’s engrained in me to think about and respect context. I still bring that to every project, and I’m definitely obsessed with detailing and how things go together so that the concept and experience are both pure.’

Open Sky is an exciting distillation of where Smith’s practice is today – an empathetic tribute to the world around us viewed through a changing temporal lens. He says, ‘Without COS’ involvement, would this concept have come about? I may have gotten there eventually, but it certainly would have been done at a much smaller scale. To do it as an architectural space that you can walk into and have this experience is rare.’

As originally featured in the May 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*230)