Form and Function, Found: Artist and Designer Noel Mercado on His Knoll Collaboration
The Chicago-based creative has teamed with the legendary furniture company to create a trio of objects that salute found materials, car culture and design classics.
Noel Mercado is a maker, in the truest sense of the word. The Chicago-based artist and designer’s practice explores the “essence, lifecycle and cultural meaning of found objects,” in his own words, and that exploration can come through any medium — from hand-tailored clothes to chain-stitched artwork or even custom repurposed furniture, like in his just-announced collaboration with Knoll. “I think a lot about the construction and capabilities of materials, and my mind always goes to “What if you could wear it? What if you could lounge on it? What if you hung it on a wall?” Mercado tells Hypebeast. “They all inform each other.”
Mercado’s artwork is informed by his unique life experiences. In his own words, he comes from a “let’s try to fix it first” family, and he’s also had experience in disciplines as varied as woodworking, furniture restoration and sewing. Combine that with a stint in college studying art and design, and you’ve got a mixed-media perspective that skillfully walks the line between art and design. That perspective is what drew Knoll to Mercado in the first place. “Noel’s work — which is positioned right at the intersection of these disciplines — challenges viewers to rethink everyday objects, says Suzanne Michaels, Knoll’s senior director of global creative.
That perspective is on full display across his collaboration with Knoll: remixed iterations of the brand’s famed Spoleto Chair, Cesca Chair and Wassily Chair. Combining Mercado’s fondness for furniture with his appreciation for car culture and longtime love of found materials, the collaboration presents new functions and fresh forms on a trio of design icons. The Spoleto Chair is given an entirely new purpose through a fully functional car audio system, the Cesca Chair contains hundreds of air fresheners for a multi-sensory experience and the Wassily Chair is a remix of Mercado’s Junkyard Dogs piece, itself a chair that uses dozens of seatbelts to “hold you up without holding you in.”
“You can buy a Mies van der Rohe chair for your home and you can also see that same chair on display at a museum,” says Mercado. “That’s what I’m striving for”
Where did your interest in repurposing and using found materials begin, and what’s the most beautiful thing about searching for materials in a scrapyard?
I’ve always used whatever was around me out of convenience and being impatient. I learned at an early age from my grandfather and dad how to save materials and make things we found new again. I come from a “let’s try to fix it first” family and that will be with me forever. The beautiful thing about searching in scrapyards, thrift stores, garage sales, and the like is that I never know what I’m going to find. Sometimes I’ll have a general idea of what I’m looking for but most times these places decide for me. I end up hoarding a lot of materials but they always come to use at the right time.
What first drew you to furniture as a medium?
Years ago, I spent a summer working at a vintage industrial furniture store. My job was to clean up salvaged pieces that the owner would bring back to the shop. My tools were old and the store’s “workshop” was a poorly ventilated, fire-hazardous garage in the back, but it’s where I learned the art of furniture restoration. After that gig, I went to work at a small — and much more up-to-code — wood shop and started becoming more familiar with the tools used in precision-based projects. I wouldn’t consider myself a woodworker, per se, but I knew enough to produce my ideas, which were usually made with salvaged wood. Besides those two experiences. I also had some very basic sewing skills — like I could make a large t-shirt into a medium. All three of those things kind of came together during the pandemic: I was doing a lot of sewing at the time, and I found an old metal frame office chair in a nearby alley. I took a stab at reupholstering it and was hooked, as it felt like it brought all of my skills together.
Besides those skills, you also went to college for art and design. How do all those different experiences inform your process?
My design side helps me create rough visuals, color combinations, graphics, and templating, a lot of the prep work. The structural side helps me understand how things are constructed and how I can put them back together or repurpose them to create a new form if I take them apart. It’s all a combination of what to use and when to use certain skills I feel most comfortable with.
“You can buy a Mies Van der Rohe chair for your home, and you can also see that same chair on display at a museum. That’s what I’m striving for.”
Your work lives in a unique grey area: it’s art, design, and sculpture all at once, and defies easy categorization. How did you come to that ethos?
It was pretty unintentional. I’ve always enjoyed making functional art. Dual purpose was a top priority in my early days, and at this point in my career I like having fun with the idea of appearing to be functional. Sometimes you can sit very comfortably in a chair I’ve reupholstered, like my Choice of Champions punching bag Brno chair, and other times you can’t like the Spoleto Noise Violation chair. I used be pretty strict with myself to make [my work] functional, but later realized that it’ll always function — as art. You can buy a Mies van der Rohe chair for your home and you can also see that same chair on display at a museum. that’s what I’m striving for.
How did you choose the chairs that were used in this collection?
The Wassily, Spoleto, and Cesca chairs are some of my favorite chrome base Knoll silhouettes. I already had some experience with the Wassily and Cesca but I’ve always wanted to work on a Spoleto so that was a new one for me.
Salvaged car parts and other automotive ephemera offer a very unique aesthetic – even taken out of their original context, they’re instantly recognizable, just like the chairs they’re fused with here. Why do you think they serve as such strong signifiers?
Cars and furniture serve basic purposes, but like any enthusiast, I start wondering about where they’re manufactured. What is their country of origin? Who designed it? And how do they all compare? There are endless connections between the two categories but one connection I look to the most is self expression and style. I treat all of my work like putting together an outfit for the day.
The seatbelt-equipped Wassily Chair is one of your most famous designs. What was it like bringing that back to life?
I was excited to bring the Wassily back to show the Knoll audience. Junkyard Dogs was the first Knoll chair I ever reupholstered, so it only felt right to spotlight it in this collection. I spent a lot of time constructing it and thinking about how I wanted it to look. It was also one of my most process-driven piece —s going from a Chicago junkyard to being showcased by Knoll. A true start to finish.
“What’s possible? What’s silly? What’s dramatic? Let’s do that.”
One of the most interesting things about this collection is the juxtaposition of man and machine: the chairs that you use as a canvas were designed by humans and crafted by machines, and your reinterpretations of them bring another set of human hands to their story. Do you play off that mechanical element, reinterpret it, look to rebut it in a way?
Reinterpretation is how I approach these projects. We know what works in the traditional format so the fun part is to think what else works. What’s possible? What’s silly? What’s dramatic? Let’s do that. This usually leads to a much more meticulous construction, but if it works then it’s worth the experimentation.
Several of your earlier works included Knoll chairs that you found or salvaged. Now, you’re rocking with Knoll officially. Does the fact that you’re working through an official partnership change your process from the first time around or is it still the same?
Having the opportunity to work with Knoll was an honor, considering their history and influence to design and art. Going into this project I wanted to execute at their level of quality while using some experimental concepts I’ve had for a while. At this point, I’m not looking at Knoll pieces as just a chair you can buy but approaching this project like I’m working on thee Mies van der Rohe Wassily chair under thee Florence Knoll’s name. I have to live up to the greats.
Though clothing, sculpture, and artwork are very different mediums, there’s a defined through line in your work. How do you ensure that stays intact, no matter what you create?
I think a lot about the construction and capabilities of materials, and my mind always goes to “What if you could wear it? What if you could lounge on it? What if you hung it on a wall?” Whenever I’m in the middle of working on a garment I think about how it would be a great idea for a canvas or a chair and vice versa. They all inform each other.
What’s something that people don’t know about your practice that you’d like them to?
A lot of the time, people think I concept my pieces and have someone else make them for me or that I have some sort of outsource fabrication process, and are surprised when I tell them I do everything by hand. I enjoy having total control of my process but I’m not opposed to fabrication in the future.
You’ve got an aux jack hooked up to your Spoleto Chair. What’s the first thing you’re playing?
“Love Sosa” by Chief Keef.
Each artwork from the Noel Mercado x Knoll collaboration is available for purchase on Mercado’s website now. The artist will receive 100% of the proceeds.