Tobias Wong

Ballistic Rose brooch

Provocation in Principle

Whether it’s disposable lighters wrapped in mink fur, a matchbook homage to the WTC, or a bulletproof rose, Tobias Wong’s work elicits a response. Educated in architecture and sculpture at the University of Toronto and the Cooper Union School of Art in New York City, Wong’s designs challenge the viewer to consider the possibilities in the use of everyday items to push the boundaries of art into an area that he calls “paraconceptual.” His work has been displayed at the MoMA (New York City and Berlin), the Cooper-Hewitt and the Biennale Saint-Etienne in France. He has also been named one of Forbes’ “Tastemakers” and received numerous awards including ArtForum’s Top 10 and Wallpaper’s Young Designer of the Year in 2004. Currently residing in New York City, serving as creative director for 100% Design Shanghai, Wong stayed up late with SOMA to talk about dissolving the line between art and design.

Do you consider yourself an artist or a designer first?
Personally, it no longer matters to me. Call me what you want. I just make things, but technically, I studied sculpture. I happened to stumble into the design world at a good time.

Your portfolio is wide-ranging. How do you choose a form or medium? What is your creative process?
I am grateful to have this platform. I create because I need to respond. Most of my work is simply a dialogue. It’s not a new thing in the art world, but the design world needs more of it. Every project is different, so I just think “how do I make this one relevant to the current world I live in?” There is no form or medium needed to choose from. It’s just part of life.

What reaction do you hope to inspire in the viewer? For example: Box Cutter (2002), versus Dreams (1999)?
I just want people to think and respond. It’s that simple. Here’s what I give you. What do/can you give back? It’s a very natural evolution. It’s like saying, ‘How are you today?’ And, by the way, 9/11 was a perfectly executed project, no?”

How does humor play a role in your work?
When you can laugh at yourself then you can be as liberal as you want with humor. Humor is a wonderful vehicle to pass on a truth that might not be so pretty.

Why is it important for you to dismantle the hierarchies between art and design?
Because in the end it’s all the same and then we die, but we also need to learn from each other. I’m trying to level the playing field. That is when we can understand each other. Don’t get me wrong, it’s necessary for there to be completely different fields, but for now, and as long as fashion dictates, they are colliding, so I’m right there in the mix.

Andy Warhol said, “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.” What’s your perspective?
Hell yeah! Go for it! That’s what my dad tells me all the time. He’d rather have a giant, ugly Lazy Boy chair than any $20,000 chair! Life is exactly as Warhol describes it… I am honored to get to play with this platform that he created.

You have “Protect me from what I want” tattooed on your right forearm. What does that mean to you?
It’s for me… only me, from Jenny Holzer personally. She wrote it on my arm one day, so I had it inked. It’s on the arm I write with, so I can always see it when I work. It keeps me grounded and real (as much as one can be). If you think about it, what you want; what you truly want is amazingly dangerous. If you cross that line, be prepared to deal with the consequences.

Tobias Wong is currently working on a “Souvenir Collection” of 12-20 unique pieces for Project 8; opening in November at the Ace Hotel in NYC. Products range from personalized bottles of natural lubricant and custom candy pretzels, to New York strip steak, postcards and other NYC-specific creations.

–  Gustave Ochoa