In New Orleans, a Designer With a Daring, Completist Vision

Bowers’s designs share a propulsive motion, each one an expression of the artist’s desire to

Bowers’s designs share a propulsive motion, each one an expression of the artist’s desire to stretch the boundaries of what an object can look like. One of his earliest pieces, a sleek fiberglass chaise he designed while a graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), in Georgia, looks more alien than the work of Alvar Aalto. Optic white and paper-airplane thin, it’s effectively a compound curve on a human scale. And it seems to float, only making contact with the ground at a small point, which means it might take a minute of sitting in it before you achieve balance — a neat metaphor for fully understanding Bowers’s work, which requires a viewer to think as expansively as he does. For a time, he used the chaise as his bed. “I had the wildest dreams in that thing,” he said.

Bowers, who is 35 and grew up in Atlanta, came to design mostly by accident. A few credits short of finishing high school, where he was a self-described “problematic student with a bit of a reputation,” he found few of the faculty there willing to indulge him, save for a pair of art teachers, one of whom, he says, “taught me the foundation of design and architecture and space planning. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll try this art thing a little longer,’” he said. His portfolio earned him a scholarship to SCAD. There, Bowers was mainly drawn to industrial design because it was the discipline that required the most to make a project come to life. “You had to understand materials and manufacturing, and you had to understand people,” he said. “I need something that’s not redundant. I want to be able to do a bunch of stuff and still call it one thing.”

Bowers credits a post-college stint in the leather accessories division at Ralph Lauren, whose founder is considered the patron saint of total lifestyle vision, with crystallizing his multivalent approach. “That was the first time I was on the other side of the curtain,” Bowers said. “And it really set in my mind: You can shape this whole thing. The work that I do is a little bit peculiar. It’s not standard. And it’s hard for people to visualize how this thing I’m calling a chaise would work in a traditional house. So I find myself having to create the world around the object, and then you go, ‘Oh, OK, I kind of get it now.’ It’s almost like a fashion show coming down the runway. We’re showing you a head-to-toe look — hardly anyone is going to put it on that way, but we just need to show you you can actually wear this and it’s actually a jacket.”

His Halo series, a suite of sculptural crumpled cotton rag paper lanterns, looks like what might happen if John Chamberlain designed housewares, or if an Isamu Noguchi Akari lantern were fed through a combine harvester. The lamps’ forms are at once intentional and serendipitous, the result of a laborious, multi-day process of treating the paper in a soaking bath so that it’s fire retardant and mildew resistant, then curing and drying it. “Everyone thinks I just crumple up the paper,” Bowers said. “I wish it were that easy.” In fact, he views shaping the material as a kind of performance, or dance: “The paper has limitations, but I have intentions. It’s a nice meeting to see who wins, and usually it’s the paper.” The other part of Bowers’s vision for his lamps is for them to be at least relatively accessible — there are a range of sizes and prices, and each one is a totally singular piece. “My idea was, you can have it, it’s signed, it’s a literal piece of art, but you got it for the same price that it would cost to get another tired, played-out Castiglioni lamp,” he said.

Bowers likes to accept commissions having never actually produced an example of the thing before. “Why not?” and “wouldn’t it be crazy if?” are guiding ethos, and were certainly animating principles behind Bowers’s recent entree into wallpaper, a segment whose available range of “floral, animal or really bad ’60s abstractions” he found dull. Instead, he turned to 3-D-rendering software, exploiting its algorithms to create trippy, striated patterns, first in black and white and then doused in kaleidoscopic color. “In high school I obsessed over van Gogh and Monet,” Bowers said. “I loved the notion of creating the illusion of color just by the proximity of other colors.” Similarly, the patterns can read as geometric, but there are no shapes in them, just line work — continuous, dotted, not-quite sine waves, which produce a moiré effect, appearing to vibrate and pulse off the wall. “I’ve always thought that people are so unique and variable, why not give them the option to express themselves beyond — what is it? — chevron or pinstriping?” said Bowers. “To me we’re more than that, and we resign ourselves to the options we currently have because we don’t see another alternative.”

​His 3-D experimentation extends to a series of silk scarves whose rich daubs of color belie their source imagery: aerial views of jagged, imagined topographical fields manipulated into a radiant if surreal mountainscape. These, too, are governed by a see-what-happens approach, or, as he put it, “Can I take something with the dynamism of 3-D and screw it up a bit?” He applies color to the mountains’ peaks and valleys and lets the program create a spectrum between the applied hues. Bowers went on: “I like to not know one hundred percent what’s going to happen, because then I’m bored.”