The Detroit-based designer explores themes of life and death inspired by the challenges the city has faced
“Detroit was pretty beaten up when I arrived in 2009,” says Chris Schanck. “It was empty and derelict, and so bankrupt there was talk of selling off the permanent collection at the [Detroit Institute of Arts] museum. But there were enclaves of independent artists and makers who were pooling their resources. No one was giving them shows, or galleries, or money. When there’s no market to speak of, different things happen. It opens up different channels for creativity.”
For Schanck, the city allowed him to reconsider his practice: “it completely freed up my thinking.” He has since started his Alufoil series, in which mundane materials are sculpted into furniture forms, then sealed in aluminum and coated with a luscious, wet-look resin. The work is fantastical and has a narrative force. A scattered-looking shelving suite called Banglatown, 2018, seems to have been subjected to a forceful gust of wind. His Mortal Bench, 2022, with its crowing effigy of Death and the Maiden, makes reference to memento mori. Both were on show at his 2022 solo exhibition in New York’s Museum of Art and Design.
“I was in New York hustling for 15 or so years in total, being the starving artist,” says Schanck of his time in that city. “I felt very much on my own, it wasn’t the right place for me to find a community.” However, after growing up in Texas, he found the midwest “more shocking than Manhattan. It’s the real deal. It’s the America you see in films.”
The midwest is the real deal. It's the America you see in films.
Having been given a house by a friend in exchange for one Alufoil chair, Schanck set up his studio and got to work. He is especially inspired by his local neighborhood, which is home to many people from Bangladesh. “They are a resourceful group,” he says. “People make things from what’s around them, they grow their own food. If someone’s getting married, they build a ceremonial arch covered in fabric. If you look underneath the textile, you’ll find an aircon unit, a ladder, and a bit of fencing.” Some neighbors became his first assistants. Two of them have now worked with him for seven and 10 years respectively.
Schanck’s work garners great respect among curators and interest among collectors, and is shown by Friedman Benda in New York. Detroit, meanwhile, has revived its fortunes too. “As things began to restabilize in the city, there was a certain guilty tension about missing the old days. I admit that as an outsider I loved the way it was. But many people here were leading terrible lives.” Now with its economy on the up, designer boutiques have come to town, and there are a handful of contemporary art galleries. “Of course I see the advantages,” says Schanck. “But sometimes I’d love for things to slow back down again.”