A bird nest rocking chair, piñata chandeliers, inflatable mirrors. These are not wonders from Willy Wonka, or descriptions of Surrealist paintings, but are the whimsical creations from the spry mind of Misha Kahn.
When browsing Kahn’s breadth of work it is hard to comprehend that his pieces exist outside the animation or within the laws of physics. It was this furniture’s audacity which inspired me to personally meet their creator.
On a sunny Sunday morning, Misha, whose energetic aesthetic has refused to grow up, met me in a Greenpoint bakery appropriately named, Peter Pan. His thin frame was draped in loose fabrics. He covered his awkwardness in a smirk. His strong profile peered from a tangled wisp of brunette waves. At first glance he is practically a caricature of bohemian Brooklyn. However, his style is not calculatedly trendy. Its origins derive from how he discovered his interest in furniture, “it was so accidental” – a confession given as we each grabbed barstools and ordered breakfast.
Growing up in Duluth, Minnesota, Misha attended Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “I made some tables – looking back they were awful” – he said with a laugh, “but they sold, and I think they would sell again.” Quickly he transferred to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) after his Freshman year “where I thought I would end up in Apparel – which just seems so wrong now.”
Rambunctiousness has remained an important aspect in all of Misha’s work. He used class critiques as opportunities to make “a big ordeal… dress up to match my project, or serve food.” He gleamed impishly, “-one time I made everyone go into the basement, that had all these old safes, and I passed out hot dogs in crystal napkins.” He admitted that this showmanship “was probably irritating to other kids in my class” but that it “takes a while to keep the volume turned up.”
In contrast to his rapid success, Misha’s experience was not one of overwhelming favor at RISD. “The response that you get in that environment…is more like – ‘ok, Misha’s doing something weird again.’ It’s nice coming out of school where you can find environments to fit in a little bit more.”
Upon graduation Misha earned the prestigious honor of a Fulbright Scholarship.“I think I just needed a year to re-boot, or just reset some things.” He chose Israel to spend his Fulbright experience and observed Israeli designers being “more comfortable incorporating personal narrative.” To him, “American Art School methodology is rooted in bullshit – the pseudo-conceptual and the theoretical. Israeli perspective is self indulgent in a different way and was nice for me to encounter.”
Misha has been churning out audacious designs for two years via his Navy Yards studio. He transitioned seamlessly, earned representation from, Johnson Trading Gallery, has had notable showings while beguiling impress both critics and press. He does not doubt New York’s artistic relevance, or his ability to survive its pressures, and “anytime I do – things keep happening and moving forward in a really nice way.”
Refilling his cup, he subtly spiked his coffee with what appeared to be a flask, catching my surprise he shrugged, “Soy milk.” He reflected on how infusing personality in his pieces offers more intimacy, while indulging on a Red Velvet Donut, “it just doesn’t make sense not to portray it. I don’t have serious issues to talk about in my work,” and even when things “…appear happy, they are kinda fucked up and a little deflated. – I allow room for a little bit of sadness. I try not to make things that are completely early Katy Perry. There’s always a little bit of complexity.”
There are physical attributes with Misha that infer hidden complexities as well: his relaxed energy, the patient cadence of his speech, and his reserved timbre of voice, offset assumptions one could make from work that revels in its garishness.
Misha confessed that an element of vulnerability is central to his design philosophy: “my work is never too cool, and always needs to be a little bit relatable. Nothing is too sleek, it is always human. I try to make things in a way as if one person struggled with it, and that is something we both feel in a dialogue. In furniture we see a bunch of mass produced objects or, if not mass produced, then people getting off on craftsmanship totally inaccessible to a person. Where with my things you can see how they were made – and are really weird and relatable.”
It is impossible to categorize where Kahn falls on the artist/designer spectrum . He feels “very uncomfortable saying both. If you design objects and then call yourself an artist you look like you are pathetic and clamoring, but if you call yourself a designer people only see the objects. – Yet, none of my objects are replicable so then that feels a bit off from what people think of as a designer. Ultimately I hope everyone takes away a conversation more interesting than that.”
The brunch bustle began to overwhelm the atmosphere. Misha’s poignance cut through the chaos, “I do feel that as a designer I am doing something that is a little bit pushing some boundaries, but as an artist I am not doing that at all. I’m making really stubborn, pretty objects that just kinda sit there.”
Misha continues to blur labels and push boundaries even with his own goals. This month he’s showing a series of lamps he made in a collaboration currently on display at the Whitney Biennial, his studio time is spent working on a large scale new piece he’ll be showing at the Museum of Art and Design. More epic still is his dream to bring his Navy Yard studio creations, even closer to the water: “I want to make a floating exhibition, make a floating hotel, and also create The Royal Exoticist – a very huge, very fucked up Import store.” When pressed for details regarding his scope, he winks “everyone is going to be involved a little. I want all of this to be on a boat. I want to buy a 100 foot barge. I keep talking about it hoping enough people will think it is going to happen – so it will.”
Vacating the crowds we walked to Misha’s bright yellow Jeep – a hoarder’s paradise. A theme emerged: the cloud of chaos inherent in his living style is inseparable from the accidental style of his creations. Smiling to myself, I recalled his quote before we were aggressively asked to make room for new customers: “This is the look: take it or leave it.”