Although “functional art” may be something of an equivocal label, the popularity, presence and growth of SOFA Chicago, which returns to Navy Pier on November 2, attest to the increasingly valued role of the sort of everyday items which would formerly have been classified as merely decorative in the contemporary art scene. This year the festival—which is the longest of its kind in the city—celebrates its fourteenth year with showings from eighteen countries and around a hundred galleries and dealers. Newsday cites Eric Clapton and Elle Macpherson as collectors of work exhibited at the show, giving the exposition celebrity-cred and indicating that its growth in the contemporary art scene measures up to even the toughest of pop-cultural barometers.
In its tenure, the festival has risen to international prominence, aiming to distinguish the objects it houses as aesthetic and to overturn historical notions which assert an irrevocable line between fine art and the everyday. There is much precedent for such ideology—in the sweeping descriptions of manufacture, aesthetics, decoration and functionality, the visitor in-the-know is reminded of the ostentation of art nouveau, the usability of the Bauhaus, or, perhaps, even the banal repetition of pop art—and the historical significance attributed to such earlier functional art should be enough to sway even the most stringent of critics.
This year, in particular, SOFA aims to educate as well as sell; numerous special exhibits and events are scheduled throughout the two days of the festival on topics including “Memories and Perceptions,” a curated show including work by Israeli artists working in decorative motifs, and “Contemporary Furniture at Crab Tree Farm,” which will feature the work of designer John Makepeace, who has earned international acclaim for his innovative wood furniture designs throughout the past several decades. The SOFA lecture series additionally provides visitors the opportunity to hear speakers on a variety of topics including Smithsonian Curator Jane Milosch speaking on the art historical significance of wood as medium and Art in America senior editor Janet Koplos discussing postwar ceramics.
Through combining the intricacies of the art market with an educational experience, the organizers of SOFA are optimistic about the prominence of the festival as well as the increasingly secure situation of functional art within the world of contemporary art. Their sentiment is well-justified, as the number of visitors to the exposition has increased by more than 200 percent since it began in 1994. These statistics manifest the international significance of SOFA on the global art scene and indicate that it may well be worth braving the crowds at Navy Pier during its two-day span. (Britany Salsbury)
The International Exhibition of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art runs November 2-4 at Navy Pier, 600 East Grand, (800)563-7632.