From left: Loic le Gaillard, Virgil Abloh, Julien Lombrail. Images courtesy of Carpenters Workshop Gallery in partnership with the Swiss bank Lombard Odier; photographs by Alex Grazioli.

By Jad Salfiti, Phillips Contributor

Several hours before a flood tide in Venice, you'll hear what sounds like a World War II siren, followed by a succession of whistles. It warns of – what Venetians call – 'acqua alta' (or high water): when high tides overlap with strong winds in the Lagoon. It's an apt name for Virgil Abloh's stirring new collection, which is part of Carpenters Workshop Gallery's newly opened DYSFUNCTIONAL exhibition in Venice, Italy, presented in partnership with the Swiss bank Lombard Odier. But why debut the show at the same time as the world's oldest international art exhibition?

"[We wanted] to question what defines an artwork," said Carpenters co-founders Julien Lombrail and Loic Le Gaillard. "Why can't artworks be functional? And when does design become art?"

More than 50 works by 23 internationally acclaimed artists are showcased in the sumptuous 15th century Palazzo Ca' d'Oro (Golden House). Filled with Renaissance and Baroque paintings over mosaic floors, the building is as beautiful as the collection it houses. The contemporary pieces are curated to create a dialogue with the centuries-old works of art as well as the palazzo's elaborate architecture.

Studio Drift's Fragile Future Chandelier Venice Mantegna (2019). Images courtesy of Carpenters Workshop Gallery; photographs by Alex Grazioli.

Take Studio Drift's poetic Fragile Futures 3 which consists of three-dimensional bronze electrical circuits connected to light-emitting dandelions. With real handpicked dandelion seeds in the sculpture, it's a delicate duet of nature and high technology. The artists behind Studio Drift (Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta) want to re-establish a deeper connection with the natural world, explaining, "We want to make people pause and find stillness—even if it's only for a few minutes." The piece is structured around Italian master Andrea Mantegna's San Sebastian (1506). In the Medieval era, Saint Sebastian was popularly seen as the patron saint of plague victims. It's still relevant to contemporary conversations pivoting on our own man-made plague: climate change.

Mathieu Lehanneur's Ocean Memories Acqua Alta Series (2019). Images courtesy of Carpenters Workshop Gallery; photographs by Alex Grazioli.

Mathieu Lehanneur's Ocean Memories Acqua Alta (2019) comprises striking emerald-colored stools made with chipped blocks of granite. Upon closer inspection, they mimic the shifting waters around Venice by digitizing real ocean currents. They're created with 3D special effects software used in the film industry. Two blocks of stone are then machine-cut before being polished to create a glossy, aqua-like finish.

Virgil Abloh's Acqua Alta (2019). Images courtesy of Carpenters Workshop Gallery; photographs by Alex Grazioli.

Flooding waters on the Italian island-city also provide inspiration for Virgil Abloh's Acqua Alta (2019). It resembles a sinking installation with polished bronze benches, chairs and a floor lamp, each standing with one leg askew. As if submerged by rising floodwater, the furniture invites spectators to think about global warming and the fate of a sinking Venice. "That's the message of the work...This land is not our land. We're part of an ecosystem. With growing concerns about climate change, design is a powerful vehicle to explain that message to a broader public. Anyone can understand a chair."

From left: Loic le Gaillard, Virgil Abloh, Aurélie Julien, Julien Lombrail. Images courtesy of Carpenters Workshop Gallery; photographs by Alex Grazioli.

The collection has been developed closely with collectible design agent, Aurélie Julien. It's clear that Virgil and Aurélie's creative partnership has borne great fruits: "Virgil is brilliant, so he easily convinced me to follow him. That's how I became his agent for collectible design." The pair had met through a mutual friend five years prior, in what Aurélie describes as a very "different" period of time for both of them, prior even to Abloh's 2017 collaboration with Nike.

"I could have never imagined the experiences we've shared since the day we first met. I had previously opened Carpenters Workshop Gallery Paris for the two founders. So I presented Virgil's work to them, and that's how the Venice project happened—the first collaboration."

She cites the Lockheed Lounge chair by Australian designer Marc Newson — "The first piece of design that really impressed me" — as a huge inspiration for her work in the design field. The bolted aluminum and fiberglass chaise longue is among the world's most expensive design objects after it fetched more than £2 million at Phillips London in 2015.

For more information about DYSFUNCTIONAL and its participating artists and designers, visit Carpenters Workshop Gallery online.

Phillips will be a sponsor of Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago this summer from 10 June - 22 September 2019.