Tom Sloan trained as an industrial designer in Melbourne Australia. His cross-disciplinary interests came to fruition in 2006, when as the Head Designer of a leading London-based design practice, he began to create custom-made art installations for private clients and public spaces. Tom’s commitment to the art world has since expanded to Blood Mountain Foundation, an independent non-profit arts organisation he co-founded in 2010 in Budapest. Its mission is to generate fresh discourse and to provide opportunities for new creative expressions through an artists-in-residence programme, educational initiatives and special projects. Blood Mountain’s first curated project was “Stories from Central Europe” (2011), which presented Tom’s unique take on the increasingly hybrid medium we call ‘contemporary culture’.
Stories from Central Europe by Jade Niklai
Stories from Central Europe is an exhibition of new works by Tom Sloan in response to the 2011 Budapest Design Week and was shown at Blood Mountain Foundation (4 to 30 October 2011). It paid tribute to Hungary’s ageing artisan culture, specialist manufacturing skills and the inherent quality of old world materials with three collections of new objects. In light of the European Union’s cultural homogenisation and globalisation’s eradication of artisan skills, it is a poignant topic for contemporary Central Europe, where the remnants of creative thinking and specialist production skills still reside. All objects were found in Budapest with contemporary elements produced by local artisans.
The former dining room of Blood Mountain villa presents The Luxus furniture range. The namesake object is a transparent glass piece with silver leaf detailing originally conceived as the wall decoration of Budapest’s most prominent department store during the Austro Hungarian Monarchy, called The Luxus. Completed in 1911, the opulence and exclusivity of Luxus matched the appeal of its counterparts, Harrods in London and Galleries Lafayette in Paris, and enjoyed Budapest’s appeal as the ‘Paris of the East’. Its design also reflects Budapest’s affinity with Vienna’s creative zeitgeist of the early 1900s, namely the Wienner Werkstätte, which was responsible for the production of Vienna’s Secession building and the opulent panels of Gustav Klimt. Luxus’ original interior was first re-appropriated in the 1950s, when the socio-political climate demanded a more subdued, modern interior; and on several occasions since 1989 as contemporary developers and retail operators opt for a more contemporary aesthetic. With the simple gesture of turning the panel from a vertical and predominantly decorative purpose to a horizontal and functional position, the glass detail here becomes a table surface. Married with a simple custom-made steel leg, it regains its original splendour with revived purpose.
The story of Luxus is commonplace in Central Europe, where socio-political conditions changed on many occasions during the 20th Century. By consequence, the changing cultural climate also affected the fate of family heirlooms. To commemorate a subsequent chapter in Hungary’s history and to highlight the flexibility of the new steel leg system, a socialist era family dining table is retro-fitted with the same leg unit (pic 2). Reworked from a high-gloss polyurethane finish and stained timber appearance to a more subtle play between black finishes and a shade of natural tan peel; its former impression as an object of ‘comrades chic’ is replaced by the understated simplicity of the Bauhaus and post-war Danish design. The Luxus Collection is completed with a study on the design possibilities of the table leg and the original street signage of the Luxus department store: a stylised letter “L” in bronze.
The setting of Blood Mountain’s associated public programme of talks and workshops is the former Salon, which gives home to The Sputnik lighting family. The collection follows a similar approach to The Luxus in celebrating a marriage between old and new. Lighting fixtures from former industrial, commercial and domestic uses are re-appropriated with subtle interventions and a simple electronic system. “The Double Agent” comprises two identical industrial lights found in different states of disrepair at the flea market and restored to varying degrees to highlight the diverse possibilities of their form. On one, the original patina remains untouched, while the other object is stripped bare with an abrasive chemical treatment. Refitted with large transparent light globes and new fabric cables, the mystery surrounding the pair’s provenance is a reminder to the doubt and secrecy that characterised the Cold War.
Similarly, “The Twins” were conceived with minimal interference, as two gas lamps were cleaned and adorned with gold and silver brimmed light globes and fitted with simple brass and steel legs. When turned on, they appear identical; when turned off, their individuality is emphasised by their distinct metallic detailing. The only solo piece in the collection is “The Satellite”, which is a glass reflector lamp cleaned and displayed on a new steel base. Commonly used in pre-war Europe, it became a symbol of Central Eastern Europe production, where it was abundantly made and used in the 1950 and 60s. All members of The Sputnik family were found at Ecseri, Budapest’s leading flea market and re-appropriated with minimal intervention to celebrate their original beauty and purpose.
The Hungarian Traveller
The third and final collection celebrates a heroic and personal anecdote in the myriad Stories from Central Europe. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics a young Hungarian gymnast, poignantly named Zoltán Magyar (“Zoltán The Hungarian”), won gold for a daring move on the pommel horse, which comprised touching down with his hands between the two handlebars. Unprecedented in technique and style, Magyar received a record score of 10 out of 10 and contributed to the modernisation of a sport originally invented as a training technique for the Roman army. Nonetheless, the significance of Magyar’s achievement went well and truly beyond his naming right of the move: “A Magyar Vándor” (The Hungarian Traveller).
At the height of socialism, to excel at sports meant the promise of a better life: international travel, better living conditions and desirable social status. At the same time, it promoted the public image of socialist Hungary as a young, fit and talented nation. While gymnastics is performed by individual athletes, in a professional competition it qualifies as a team sport and thus also came to symbolise the collective efforts of socialism. The achievement of “A Magyar Vándor” was multifold: it symbolised Hungary’s position as the central path between the East and West; enviable for its mild form of political authority in contrast to other Soviet satellite states and as the neighbour to Austria, the gateway to Western Europe. It also propagated Hungary’s international reputation and from a personal perspective, offered Magyar and his contemporaries a chance to experience the material world of the West. In honour of this extraordinary story, Blood Mountain is pleased to name its first product range as The Hungarian Traveller.
The central piece of the collection is a customised leather briefcase. Adopting the wooden handle of the gym horse, its profile echoes the equipment’s trapezoid shape and choice of tan leather. It is designed for the needs of a 21st century urban traveller: customised for a smart phone, tablet computer, A4 notebook, pen and keys. The inner lining is made from a sturdy navy blue linen, the same material that was used for working class uniforms in Soviet times. To commemorate Magyar’s support of Blood Mountain’s project, the luggage is completed with an embossed logo of his signature move. For contemporary viewers, this is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the ubiquitous Air Jordan, the American basketball star’s footwear collection, popular during the region’s heady years of capitalism in the early 1990s.
The accompanying bench is the original horse with customised feet and fixtures. The only contemporary interventions are the two buttons, which replace the handlebars. Its attribution as a 1950s Austrian gym horse, mostly likely used in a school and sold as second-hand equipment to Central Eastern Europe in the 1960s to 70s, is characterised by the exceptional quality of the leather and an engraved love heart. This interpretation was made by Magyar’s coach, László Vígh, an internationally recognised expert in the history and application of the sport. The display is completed with a line drawing and poster of Magyar’s Olympic moves, symbolising his iconic achievement and the pin up status that athletes are awarded in society.
source: Tom Sloan