Bloomingdale’s has always had a few art-gallery flourishes: bright lights, sparkling walkways, expensive clothing delicately—sometimes sparsely—hung on well-organized racks. And in at least one section, the department store has fully appropriated the gallery image. Wandering the sixth floor, I spotted Jeff Koons’s name. Jeff Koons? At Bloomingdale’s? Yeah, OK, sounds about right. Like any good former contemporary art history student, I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. (The cliche works when discussing Koons, no?) As it turns out, he isn’t the only artist-turned-designer on view at Bloomie’s: twelve international contemporary artists, which also includes Sophie Calle, JR and Prune Nourry, Marlène Mocquet, Michael Lin, Marco Brambilla, and David Lynch, have designed dinner plates for porcelain manufacturer Bernardaud’s 150th anniversary.
Though Koons’s name drew me to this section, I quickly moved on to the other artists’ designs. I actually love Jeff Koons, usually. I think his balloon-sculptures are, to put it plainly, really cool. His plates include images from his 1988 Banality sculpture series, which feel dated and uninteresting in two dimensions on dinnerware. It seemed like a lazy way out: he didn’t need to consider the form at all, only the shock value of eating off a naked woman holding her breasts in the bathtub. A little too banal for me, perhaps.
Other works, like Sophie Calle’s text-only plates, hold more interest. One line of text runs through six plates, telling the personal story of when Calle met a fellow artist who intended to sleep with her; facing near-rejection, he told her she ate like a pig—a comment she continues to think about. The man, she writes, is still “sitting at my table.” Here, he is not only a part of her table, but a part of the meal, a part of every bite, necessarily a part of the dinner party’s conversation. Calle put her work and her words on the plate, and though they have a shock value of their own, it is subtle and requires more thought (one has to not only see, but read as well) than Banality. She had previously told this tale—it was published in her 2011 eponymous book—but it acquires new meaning when it’s part of your meal, and not just hers.
Most other series were either beautiful, interesting, or both, but I’d probably hang them on my wall before I ate off them. Only a few images would I want to see creep out as my meal disappeared: Lin’s pink images that remind of outdoor gardens parties in the spring (or at least the movie-versions of them), Nabil Nahas’s ethereal starfish plates, Jean-Michel Alberola’s designs, which utilize only the plates’ rims to recall his wall paintings, Sarkis’s white plates reminiscent of sixteenth-century ceramics repairs that use gold to increase value. But Lynch’s Boundless Sea image of an abstracted face, or JR and Nourry’s cupped hands just do not suit me for a meal’s last bites. Though available on Bernardaud’s website, the series are most easily viewable here.
But back to the gallery, ah-hem, department store, itself. As I was reading through Calle’s story, a lingering salesperson quietly approached me, gave me her own opinion on the works and a brief background on the artist. I couldn’t help but think: When did I transport to Chelsea? It turns out Bernardaud has a Chelsea space, at 465 West 23rd Street, to sell these works as well. There, art and design coalesce. Company chairman Michel Bernardaud, in a press release, called the plates “useable art objects.” But…isn’t that just…design objects? In any case, no need to argue over semantics. At Bloomingdale’s, the art/design dinnerware feels most honest. Here, it engages openly with what is often a bit more hush-hush, but what also keeps their creators creating in the first place: commerce.