L.A.-Based Artist David Wiseman Shares Nature-Inspired Designs in New York

Two weeks ago, 31-year-old artist David Wiseman unveiled new and wonderful works at his first official solo show in New York, at Soho’s R 20th Century. Having worked with the gallery for a few years, the L.A.-based sculpture savant was finally fêted at a jam-packed reception, curated by interior designer Rodman Primack and immortalized in a hardcover monograph.

Brimming with exceptional limited edition and one-of-a-kind pieces, from ornamented porcelain plates to elaborately framed mirrors, most everything bore the flora, fauna, and animal aesthetic Wiseman has become so well-known for.

According to the out-of-town talent, three-quarters of the items on display, from the purely decorative to the beautiful but utilitarian, had sold before the doors even opened. “It was so exciting,” he told me a few days following the frenzied event, where guests had gathered ’round him to sing his praises and snag an autograph. 

“Exciting” might be an understatement, as price points tended to hover around $50,000 and approached $100,000, though some wares commanded a cool $9,000 (the aforementioned plates, for example). It was a delightful—and successful—evening indeed, and much deserved given all the RISD-educated man has accomplished since graduating in 2003 with a BFA in furniture design.

The past nine years have brought both private and public commissions the globe-over, from Manhattan to San Antonio, Asia to his hometown. Wiseman’s signature installations can be found in a few notable locations, including the Christian Dior flagship stores in Shanghai, New York, and Tokyo, as well as the West Hollywood Library. The craftsman, however, tries never to repeat the same exact pattern twice.

The exhibition continues through January 12 and afterwards will travel to destinations as yet unconfirmed. For those currently in New York City—and those bound for Design Miami—I highly recommend checking out his fantastical, fairytale-like collection while you can. Wiseman’s creations are nothing if not inspired and imaginative, arousing the fascination and earning the appreciation of even the most minimalist and austere critics and connoisseurs alike.

Read on for more from the established visionary, a curly-haired, baby-faced guy with a voice made for radio. Even though you can’t hear him speak in his soft and soothing style, learn all about his process, his homage to history, why New York City just wasn’t sustainable, and why he believes he’s blessed.

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Unique Collage table in bronze with glass top. Designed and made by David Wiseman, USA, 2012. 29" H x 40" D. Photo by Sherry Griffin/Courtesy of R 20th Century.

First of all, congratulations on this show and your success so far! How did you come to connect with R 20th?
R 20th came about because I was working with Rodman [Primack], who has a very special client right around the corner from R 20th Century. [R 20th] has a lot of amazing clients. [When I first started working with them,] I was focusing on custom commissions. I was doing whole room installations. [R 20th] brought an incredible amount of exposure and committed clients [who] were into the idea of working together in this old world, artist-patron style, where I was pretty much living with [them] and making pieces that were personal to their family narrative.

We’ll come back to the notion of narrative momentarily. How did this specific solo show come together?
Four years later, commission after commission, that led to new bodies of work and pushed me in a new direction, [pushed me to] understand new processes. That then led to more objects and installations, so this show is really a combination [of all these things].

Back to this storytelling. How do you go about these intimate commissions?
It’s different with every client. I don’t want to repeat things; I want to keep it fresh. So, there’s this exploration process, a back-and-forth where I get to know them and the site [and] the city.

Can you offer an example?
[My] Noho project that spans four stories. The wife’s last name means “valley of the wisteria.” The husband’s last name on his mother’s side was Lindenbuam, which means “linden tree” in German. So, the installation was a dance between these two species that connects the four stories. They’ve subsequently had children and there’s animals that show up in the installation to represent each child.

Is your own home totally covered in your signature vines, too?
No, I have real vines! [There’s a] little grape orchard right outside my patio. But, my house is barren. I’ve only lived there a year and this last year has been brutal in terms of work, so I pretty much just sleep there. I get really into things and it takes over.

Brutal as in awesome.
I found what I loved to do really early on. This is what I’ve been working so hard for. I love working. I love being in the studio. It’s an exciting time, where a lot of the work is very labor-intensive. I’m at a point where I can trust assistants I’ve trained and worked with. I can do more of the creative stuff. Making stuff is still really important, though, because there’s only so much I’m able to design on paper. A lot of the design process happens touching the metal or porcelain, engaging with the forms directly. But, it’s exciting because I can hand them off for the mold to be made or the piece to be welded together.

You’re the next Warhol or Koons!
Not like that! It’s a very small team. It’s not a factory by any means. But it’s a thrill to work this way.

It’s impressive the price points you can command. I’m blown away, but not at all surprised.
I want stuff to be accessible, but right now everything is so labor-intensive. There will be a time when I make bigger run[s] of things, which will allow the minimums to come down.

David Wiseman for Target!
I don’t know if I have anything to contribute to that market right now. But, I have no problem with mass market. It just has to be done ethically and responsibly.

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Unique Glacier votive candle holder in hand-blown smoke-colored faceted Czech crystal with bronze and copper cradle. Designed and made by David Wiseman, USA, 2011. 3" H x 5" D. Photo by Sherry Griffin/Courtesy of R 20th Century. 

Is there anyone out there doing anything remotely close to what you’re doing?
I don’t know. It’s a big world. This type of work has been done for millennia, where someone was interested in having meaningful, handcrafted objects in their life, in their architecture. I feel like the 20th century is a bit of an exception. People are still making exquisite interiors, but it was much more part of the architectural tradition to bring in artisans. Construction has become less handmade. I’m of the historical precedent, like English country homes, which had decorative plasterwork on their ceilings. I’m definitely referencing that [with my work], but modernizing it and abstracting the forms and pushing the asymmetry and the naturalism a little more than historical artisans were perhaps allowed to or interested in exploring.

Can you describe your fascination with nature?
Nature is my departure point. Patterns, going back to ancient traditions, were about trying to make sense of the world in which we exist. Recreating it in human terms. It’s about being part of this wild and mysterious planet, internalizing it, and trying to analyze it. So, my fascination stems from that. Often, in architecture, up until the modern period, people brought nature indoors, whether through paintings or decorative arts or furniture or ceramics. Then, in the Western tradition at least, we went away from that. The utilitarian and machine age changed [things]. I wanted to get back to that tradition and pick up where the 19th century left off.

What draws you to nature-related renderings and depictions specifically?
I started with deer and owls. There’s a couple different birds—starlings and finches—that live in our urbanized environment, yet also have a wild existence. They’re mysterious and magical. They’re like these spirit animals that embody the same sort of imagined world of nature that I’m trying to bring into people’s homes. So, my installations and wall reliefs are about that unbridled, beautiful facet of nature, bringing it into our interiors.

You’re in L.A. now, but what once brought you to New York?
I got a job in the city working with Todd Oldham. He came to lecture at RISD and I gave him a little deer hat hanger I designed out of cast plaster. Then he hired me. This became, like, a business while I was in school. I moved to New York [and] I needed to find a place to continue making these, and other ceramics, because I was selling them in stores in L.A., New York, Japan, and Australia. So, I rented a ceramic share studio in Williamsburg.

How do the two places compare for you?
I love making work in L.A. I’m really happy here. New York was great, too, but it wasn’t for me. There’s a very distinct Brooklyn design movement, which is wonderful, but I never felt like I was part of it. I was more interested in exploring my own themes, naturalism, wandering through forests, and being outside. Half of [my studio] is outside, and it’s amazing to just open the door and be able to grind in the daylight. You can only do that so many months of the year [in New York]. Nature’s present [in NYC], but it’s more present [in California].

What would you be doing if not this?
I don’t know. I had a mid-college crisis where I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I took a biology course at Brown. Because I’m not providing an obvious service for somebody—I’m playing with clay—I feel an obligation to work really fucking hard, because it’s, in a way, egotistical to say that I’m an artist and I’m going to spend all my time working on my own expression. I’m lucky enough to have this as my job. I’m going to work my ass off.

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Unique Talon pepper well in bronze and porcelain. Designed and made by David Wiseman, USA, 2012. Edition of 12 plus 2 artists proofs. Signed and numbered, DW1. 6.5" L x 3" W x 2.25" H. Photo by Sherry Griffin/Courtesy of R 20th Century.

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