COS Play: Karin Gustafsson and the soft power of art and architecture

Stepping into the shaded archways of the 16th-century Palazzo Isimbardi in the heart of Milan this April, a cement/wood composite shell had been wrapped around the cortile, blocking the view towards the sky and forcing visitors to walk around its circumference until they discovered an opening. Once there not only did the sky open up, but it was invited in thanks to a series of 34 angled stainless steel-panels which playfully cast changing light onto the surrounding Renaissance architecture. Just past the courtyard, accessible via a darkened hallway, a hidden Milanese garden boasted a series of freestanding, totem-like painted-steel sculptures, each one covered in zigzagging patterns of mirror-polished stainless steel. Where the courtyard intervention created an interplay between the sky and the palazzo’s architecture, the garden sculptures redefined the spatial experience of their surroundings through ricocheting views of the greenery, of Renaissance sculptures, and of each other.

Open Sky (2018) by Phillip K. Smith III at Palazzo Isimbardi, Milan. Photo by Adrianna Glaviano for PIN–UP.

Entitled Open Sky, the installations were the work of American artist Phillip K. Smith III, perhaps best known for his mesmerizing mirror installations in the California desert, such as Lucid Stead (2013) or The Circle of Land and Sky(2017). Open Sky was the Palm Springs-based creator’s first non-U.S. work and was on view to the public for six days during Milan’s 2018 Design Week — a perfect context, according to Smith. “Typically our experience with a mirrored surface is in the most intimate domestic circumstances — in our homes, our bathrooms, as we’re looking at ourselves getting ready for the day. When you put it out in public you provoke a real sense of curiosity, and even a sense awkwardness.” But perhaps the most curious of all is that Open Sky wasn’t commissioned by a museum or an art foundation but by the London-based fashion brand COS, which has made art and design an integral part of its image.

Launched in 2006, COS (short for Collection of Style) emerged exactly at a time when skimpy Y2K maximalism was on the way out and a new wave of more thoughtful, minimalist-inspired collections was appearing on the runways, conveniently coinciding with the rise of “affordable luxury.” The creative force behind COS is 40-something Swedish designer Karin Gustafsson, who has been with the brand since its inception, head-hunted on graduating from London’s Royal College of Art with a Masters in Womenswear Design. Working her way up from Assistant Designer to Designer, then to Head of Womenswear Design in 2011, and finally to Creative Director in 2016, the soft-spoken Gustafsson learned traditional tailoring and dressmaking from her mother in her hometown of Linköping, and later developed her own draping technique. “I’ve always started off by working with materials in three dimensions. I find for me it’s more free, because I like the idea of not knowing in advance exactly what’s going to happen.” At COS, Gustafsson explains, they aim for timelessness, and “if something’s going to be timeless, it needs to be functional and that goes very much hand in hand with modernity. That’s always our starting point. Consequently, we felt it was natural to look for inspiration for our collections in the world of art, design, and architecture.”

Open Sky (2018) by Phillip K. Smith III at Palazzo Isimbardi, Milan. Photo by Adrianna Glaviano for PIN–UP.

From being inspired by architecture, art, and design to supporting elaborate large-scale installations such as the one in Milan by Phillip K. Smith III was a gradual process. It all started in 2010 when “we were feeling we wanted to explore that field and be more directly involved,” remembers Gustafsson. For their first outing in the cultural sphere, COS chose to support Frame, a special section of the Frieze London art fair which provides a platform for lesser-known artists and smaller galleries. “It felt really natural because we’ve always, as a team, felt passionate within that field,” she explains. “And then it just continued.” Partnerships with Frieze New York, Stockholm Market Art Fair, and the Serpentine Pavilion’s annual Park Nights (a selection of live, multidisciplinary performances staged inside the annual temporary building) were to follow. Most recently COS supported a large-scale exhibition at Dia Beacon by the octogenarian artist Dorothea Rockburne, a Black Mountain College alumna known for involving her mathematical background in her process to create what she terms “visual equations.” Curated by Courtney J. Martin, the show spotlights pieces made in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “I’d seen an exhibition of Dorothea’s work at MoMA (in 2013), and it really stayed with me,” enthuses Gustafsson, who sought permission to use shapes and folds of paper from Rockburne’s Locus series for a special COS capsule collection. “The qualities of paper and its crisp folded lines are so subtle, yet when seen in reality, they are so captivating,” Gustafsson explains.

Another area in which Gustafsson is using COS’s monetary might — Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M is the brand’s parent company after all — to explore the thread between curators, architects, and artists is the biannual publication COS Magazine. By far one of the most thoughtful and sophisticated print publications from a corporate non-traditional media entity, COS Magazine is produced in collaboration with Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom, founders of both Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman (COS also organizes architecture tours in partnership with the latter, most recently to Ernö Goldfinger’s 1938 family home in Hampstead, London). In a comprehensively digitized world, Gustafsson asserts that, for her, “it’s still really important to feel and experience at the same time. That’s why we think it’s essential to do a magazine — a physical magazine. There’s something about being able to touch and smell the paper while you’re reading a story.”

But COS’s most memorable — read: Instagram-worthy — forays into architecture and design have been the brand’s crowd-drawing temporary installations during Milan Design Week, of which the aforementioned Open Skywas the latest edition. Starting with Gary Card in 2012, followed by Nendo’s alphabet of geometric abstractions (2014), Snarkitecture’s all-white ribbon forest (2015), and Studio Swine’s magical bubble tree (2017 — see PIN–UP 23), the projects evolved from being mere showcases for the brand’s clothing collections to immersive spatial experiences without a single frock in sight. Gustafsson herself describes the collaborations as having “developed and grown so organically over the years that we actually didn’t tend to think of our partnerships in terms of a ‘commission’ until quite recently.” As for the brand’s involvement in the projects’ creative direction, it’s decidedly hands-off, the artists being given pretty much carte blanche. “When we first met all the COS team presented to me was the location — Palazzo Isimbardi — and the idea of maybe doing something outside,” remembers Phillip K. Smith III. “Then they just said, ‘Well, let’s get together in a month, a month and a half. We look forward to seeing what you’d like to do.’ And what I presented at that first meeting was essentially exactly what was realized,” he continues, still somewhat incredulously.

As for Open Sky, since its six-day run in April the installation has long been packed up and been safely stored at an undisclosed location in Europe, with a possible re-emergence planned for later this year. Meanwhile in London Gustafsson and her team are now hard at work looking for a worthy successor to Smith for Milan 2019. And there’s of course the COS fashion collection to design as well — in fact, several a year. Does she ever take a break? “I do,” Gustafsson demures. “When I go back to Sweden now, for example, I go to the countryside mostly to, where my family has a summer house. Open seas, islands, fishing, relaxing, things like that.” She pauses. “And it’s only a two and a half hours from London, so that’s quite good.”

Open Sky (2018) by Phillip K. Smith III at the garden of Palazzo Isimbardi, Milan. Photo by Adrianna Glaviano for PIN–UP.

All installation images of Open Sky by Adrianna Glaviano for PIN–UP.

Originally published in

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