Clarke & Reilly | Limitless Rootsock

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Photographed by Emma Lewis

Photographed by Emma Lewis

Growing up on the Great Plains, the idea of perennial plants always fascinated me. Out in the expansive, geographic center, you’ve two realities—freezing and hot—with wind and annual temperatures ranging from around -40 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Rather extreme. That a small seedling might withstand these two poles, that it might languorously splay in the August sunshine after months below a frozen topsoil—is something just so god damned cool. One such perennial maverick out in the endless flatlands is the Blue Wild Indigo, that mysteriously medicinal, mystical, and marvelous herbaceous shrub, with its stunning wealth of blues and its stubborn taproots—a historically treasured plant worldwide and a desirable host, as it were, for queen bees and their dominion-obsessed colonies. 

For design duo, Clarke & Reilly—whose practice embraces the essence of the perennial—indigo is also something of an obsession. The radical dyeing power of the plant, its centuries’ old integration in far-flung cultural ceremony, and its poetic near-opacity as a color hue, has lead the reclamation at the heart of their artistic practice down a handful of azure-intoxicated tunnels of discovery. Recently, the partnered duo—David Grocott and Bridget Dwyer—collaborated with director, Alexa Karolinski, and musician, James Lavelle (UNKLE), to present short film, AD2021, which stars Clarke & Reilly’s new furniture collection. 

AD2021 features 11 new works and seven rare objects, filtered through the perspective of undulating and disorienting indigo-dyed fabric, as a hypnotic soundscape supports a cocooning of the viewer. The film’s location? The eerily brutalist and bunker-like former LA home of 20th century film, aviation, engineering, and healthcare tycoon, Howard Hughes—as thematic a “four walls” as possible, given Hughes’ late-life reclusiveness, and isolation, of course, being our lifestyle de rigeur in this latest trip round the sun. 

Following a viewing of AD2021, I enter venerable design destination, Blackman Cruz—in the heart of Hollywood’s Media District—and the same indigo-soaked fabric from the film hangs in the showroom’s entry foyer. David Cruz—whose voice can be heard intermittently in AD2021, and who lent antiques (a mirror and a cross from Oaxaca, MX, for instance) from his personal collection for added texture—walks me through Clarke & Reilly’s objects, peppered about the large showroom. Objects originate across a few recent centuries and boast modern reincarnations, the resulting auras sent into a sort of sublime, romantic toughness and functionality. One such remarkable piece is a large, mid-20th century Italian cabinet, sheathed corner to corner with an abandoned oil canvas discovered in a school in Northern England. Uniquely—and perhaps true to the spirit of every Clarke and Reilly endeavor—not a square inch of the canvas went unused. The unlikely combination was meant to be. 

Clarke & Reilly. “Single Use Plastic Table” Plastic, metal, and 24 carat gold leaf. Photographed by Jim Turner.

Clarke & Reilly. “Single Use Plastic Table” Plastic, metal, and 24 carat gold leaf. Photographed by Jim Turner.

The canvas motif similarly envelops a groovy, 1960s fiberglass chair (photographed amongst the wildflowers of the Hollywood Hills herein), and the technical treatments of the objects sing with a kind of brute longevity, finish, and renewed purpose. The stuff is cool! The indigo? Integrated thoroughly throughout, in the silk of a regal chair and footstool, and as a sort of dining table lacquer. “Everyone thinks indigo is this one thing, but it’s so complex and different,” Dwyer remarks. “It’s difficult to truly show the intricacies of it.”

As a duo, Grocott and Dwyer function in a nimbly contemporary manner, leaning on one another’s strengths and understanding that the tensions there are not limitations, but opportunities. Dwyer’s historic experience in the fashion industry bears fruit for Clarke & Reilly when it comes to presentation, image, and strategy, whereas Grocott’s decades of experience as an artist—with textiles, objects, and furniture—supports the duo’s ambitious yet simple credo, as stated by Grocott: “Time and age adds beauty to things.”

Amidst the alarming proliferation of throwaway commodity culture and scaled means of production, distribution, and output, most people want to agree with the declaration. But where Clarke & Reilly make the consideration not just a situational practice, but an inspirational ethos by which to live, comes back to our consideration of the recalcitrant, dogged perennials of planet Earth. Things, objects—and the ideas they purport—are only dead when the spirit of creativity deadens. At a moment in time when rebirth, repositioning, and recalibration seem ever the imperative, the work of Clarke & Reilly reminds us of our taproots, of the dedication our gardens warrant, and the human spirit’s stubborn, indigo-blue resilience.

I had the privilege of conversing with the pair, who dialed into the video call from a 1700s home they’re—no surprise—in the throes of restoring in their recently located new community of Somerset, England, to discuss the latest collection, their creative outlook, and what’s in store for when the sun rises high and welcomes its dormant seedlings to do the same. 

Clarke & Reilly. “1960’s Armchair” English, fiberglass, fabric, cement, and paint. Photographed by Jim Turner.

Clarke & Reilly. “1960’s Armchair” English, fiberglass, fabric, cement, and paint. Photographed by Jim Turner.

I understand you’ve different backgrounds—both creative—but different in many regards. Can you share where the fusion happened and how it’s amassed strength? 

Bridget Dwyer: David has always worked in object arts and the medium of furniture, and he’s the artist of our duo. I had a background in fashion and sort of came across David when I was buying for Liberty, or something like that. We met and started collaborating from there—quite organically and naturally. Our styles completely clashed and complemented each other.

Over the years, since 2006, we’ve been doing things together. We’ve shown bodies of work that David’s done in galleries in London, and Hong Kong, Vienna, or we’ve done private commissions, like one-off pieces, but we’ve also done together more commercial projects in retail, and we’ve done cabins in the woods in Yosemite. 

And what would you say is the constant in those projects? 

BD: It always works or involves usable furniture. I think our shared love of objects is what made our collaboration quite easy, and our shared way of thinking about the past in a really beautiful way. But then David’s process is to add another layer, to add another process to it, that gives it some more life—not just to kind of throw it out and start all over again. 

David, can you speak to that spirit of reclamation and new life-giving in your practice? 

David Grocott: Yeah, for sure. To me, the beauty is all around us. All the time, everybody’s looking so far for it. But sometimes, it’s right under your nose. That’s how I feel, and the objects and the things I’ve been drawn to—used, kind of period objects, antiques, for whatever that period is—the 50s, or the 60s, or 70s, or the 1600s, you will make these things exist. I’ve never been drawn to ‘Let’s make shit, create something from scratch,’ in a way. It’s all there to be drawn on, to work with and take inspiration from, and you see where that goes. Bringing in other kinds of people to take on it, then, just adds other layers and layers and layers and layers. And I think you end up with a better thing.

And what do you feel has allowed you two as a duo to withstand the ups and downs of creative collaboration? 

BD: I think allowing tension and escalation of tension, at times, is what gives you a better piece at the end of it. I think the only way to survive in a relationship, and collaboration for work, is to know that nobody ever wins unless you both do, which sounds so hippy dippy, but it’s the truth. Because the piece has to ultimately win right? Sure. Everybody has the same goal, right? You want the work to be beautiful.

One very cool piece from the new collection is the Italian cabinet unit, with the canvas facade. I suppose this piece illustrates this sort of positive tension you’re speaking toward? 

DG: Absolutely—that was the first point. That the canvas wasn’t meant to be used, which I love. And the end result is not something which is too precious. The details were really good on the cabinet, which is again why we kind of found it, and picked it, and then lived with it for probably two years—I would say, until the right piece came along, this complete marriage of the canvas and the piece of furniture, and it just organically came together, as you see. It was almost weird. It was too easy, even though it took a few years. And you know, every single bit of the canvas ended up on that piece, which was bizarre, and we came to a time when there was nothing left over. It was amazing. There was absolutely nothing. Every sliver is on there. 

And how about the resonance of Clarke & Reilly in California? What about the culture out here lends to what you’re doing? 

DG: Maybe people are hungry for that—that European mystique. I mean, there’s very cool people with great style and taste, and then you’ve got the cool houses. So when you throw it off a bit, and add something that doesn’t really belong there, it kind of works, and makes more sense of it. 

For me personally, I just think the light is so cool out there. We get a lot of inspiration from California, and I think that comes through in the passion for the pieces—the fact that we love the place… which is really kind of harsh and gritty, and there’s this conversion of that with people’s perception of ‘the beautiful California’—but I’ve always been drawn to the grit of it, and walking around the place, that’s what I love about it. 

How about the expression of the collection in this very stylized and emotive film? 

BD: I think a proper collection of pieces is always a challenge. The last time we were able to have a body of work was in 2013, and from then there’s been a lot of one-off commissions, so it became a very considered effort to collect all the pieces and see what story might come out of that—showing it in another medium, in a way that wasn’t so uncomfortable for David, ultimately.

DG: Yeah: is there any other way of doing it, where it’s not necessarily in a gallery, or how do you show the work? Is there another way? The only way is trying to see what happens as a result of getting interesting people to work with, to see where you go with it. 

And I suppose that’s where UNKLE comes in? 

DG: We worked with James on a few things in the past, and we were on the same wavelength completely. He gets the emotion of our work and how you can draw people into it. Yes, it’s an object, and you can kick it and do whatever you want with it, but it has actually had a journey and a process, and James gets that—he gets what goes into it—and I respect him and his process and what he puts into it.

How about the actual product installation at the former Hughes residence? What went into that? 

BD: It took David about two weeks to install it, I think, and feel good about it. A big aspect, of course, was the indigo wall, which is actually kind of amazing. It’s a pretty amazing bit of textile, like 80 feet long, and lots of different pieces, with three different sets of indigo dyed over different times of the year, and then hand-stitched.

And was there a brief for your director, Alexa? 

DG: Two random photographers—one was quite dark, and one was very beautiful—so she just responded to that with a bit of direction. 

BD: Yes, and she always wanted to shoot through the indigo, so she shot everything through the indigo. 

DG: You can’t see a fucking thing!

BD: At all! And there was absolutely no agenda. We just wanted to create a beautiful piece of work, if that was possible—darkly romantic—and just see what it looked like.

It’s a very striking piece, congratulations. Finally, how about what things might look like for Clarke & Reilly after the dust settles on the pandemic? What’s ahead? 

BD: I mean, is it a cheat to say I’m just looking forward to the continuation of where we are at? I think this project, which we are almost at the end of, is very much the beginning of what we want to continue doing through a series, so I think it’s just continuing with that energy. We definitely have had a chance to sit back and think and be a little bit more insular—I don’t think introspective is how I would put it, because I think we tend to be that way anyways just by nature—but insular was a nice way to be. I think it has pushed us to get back to our bravery, really.

DG: Post-pandemic, I want to see people again, I want to connect with people. I mean, we all have a community, but you have a barrier there, with the masks—and struggle with that, not seeing people’s expressions. To me, it’s fucking hard, it really is. So yeah, to just live life again, do something fun. I also just feel fucking incredibly lucky as well. We are in a position where we live and we are not stuck in a tragic building where you can’t leave, so I think: man, we got it fucking easy.