SOFA takes stamina, a keen and curious eye, and a pair of comfortable walking shoes. A long parade of blown glass, statement jewelry, and iron sculpture can get fatiguing. Else, you’d have to fetishize decorative arts to walk every row of the massive Navy Pier pavilion, densely packed with some seventy dealers’ booths. Entering its 20th year – an important milestone – the fair of Sculpture Objects and Functional Art can feel intensely variegated and unwieldy. A few pieces approach the sublime; some are intriguing; most are background noise, as habitual and non-remarkable as a pair of whimsical glasses atop the nose of an aging middle-school art teacher.
It may be easy to gently mock SOFA, but it isn't especially satisfying to do so. These days, folks flock to the cosmopolitan glamour of big art fairs, studded with stars, connected to international conglomerates, and adorned with princely price tags. Amid the proliferation of art fairs that seduce the market with loud VIP signage and whispers of seven-figure deals, SOFA can come off as quaint, maybe even naïve.
IIT's section in "Connect". Photo by Cheri Eisenberg, courtesy of Carol Fox & Associates.
And yet SOFA is not to be dismissed. For one, it was recently acquired by a major Atlanta-based operator that is rumored to have big plans for enhancing the show's cachet and footprint. Fair director, Donna Davies, who will continue to serve in her role under new ownership, won't reveal details but says changes will bring SOFA more in line with its peers. If the shape of the market is any guide, this will likely mean year-round programming and satellite locations for the veteran fair. With the trendy category of design cutting across traditional decorative disciplines and mediums, Davies envisions the fair as design's early, important ally. Cross-disciplinary design is still a rarity at SOFA, but this year's experiment with "Connect" – three-dimensional environments created by university students – bodes well. The strongest entries, from IIT, Pratt Institute, and University of Iowa, each created an immersive space complete with walls, roof-like planes, seating, and media components. Vakhtangi "Vako" Darjania, a senior at Iowa, said that the “Connect” project interprets a drawing by Leonardo DaVinci. He found inspiration in DaVinci's position as an iconoclast who refused to recognize disciplinary boundaries. Iowa's 3D program, he said, was likewise situated beyond traditional disciplines. For SOFA, Darjania's thought may be prophetic: embracing design may mean rethinking the fair's longstanding commitments to the decorative arts.
SOFA's longevity is its greatest strength. In a flimsy, unpredictable marketplace of hares, this tortoise may just win the race – if it manages to define "winning" and "race" to its advantage. At Aaron Faber, a jewelry gallery from New York, Patek Philippe pocket watches in rose gold predate the fair by a century. These are magnificent pieces, crafted inside and out by hands of master craftsmen – functional objects par excellence. Dealer Edward Faber says he has been coming to SOFA for each of its twenty years. And, like the watches in the display cases, his involvement started before the fair; Faber began showing in Chicago seven years prior to SOFA but this isn't mere loyalty. Aaron Faber's continued presence on the fair floor is an index of financial success – a slow, steady winning streak.
University of Iowa's installation at "Connect." Photo by Cheri Eisenberg. Courtesy of Carol Fox & Associates.
Another promising sign is the Selects program: a kind of greatest hits compilation by a panel of curatorial experts that include industry heavy-hitters like Kara Mann. If you were to only come to SOFA for an hour, a trail of blue tags that mark curators' choices would point the way to a representative – and mercifully not exhaustive – collection. Among the Selects is a soulful plywood bench, meticulously polished and stained, whose edge deconstructs into a curved, root-like, origami. As situated in the craft tradition, but more playful, is a pair of ceramic sneakers by Montreal-based artist Pascale Girardin. The sneaks served Girardin from a commission in New York City to a fellowship in China and everywhere in between, she said. Now, shiny and bright as a porcelain doll, the preserved shoes are an optimistic take on an old travel trope. Perhaps even more well-traveled are the objects at the booth of Craft Scotland. There, neatly compressed, is an entire country's craft. Luxurious cabinetry and seating (another Select), is watched over by a ceramic menagerie – Susan O'Byrne's strangely anthropomorphic quartet of animals, inlaid with ornate patterns. At its best, that's what SOFA can be about.
The urgency of staying relevant – by being selective, by encouraging multidisciplinary work, by evolving standards of craft – isn’t lost on the fair organizers. It is not incidental that the SOFA’s 20th birthday was not marked by a retrospective. "When you celebrate a milestone," says Davies, "people want to reflect on where [SOFA] has been. But it's important for us to look ahead and set a new path." SOFA’s greatest challenge, and its greatest joy, will be to steer a clear path amid a forest of visual confusion.
(All images: SOFA CHICAGO, Opening Night Photos, 2013; Photos by Cheri Eisenberg.)