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Anything can be art.

By now this has become a familiar refrain, a generalisation that speaks more to the lapsed boundaries between objects, products, lifestyles and #aesthetics than to any radical attitude of possibility. It’s more of an exhaustive response to the underlying suspicion that there are no more authentic spectacles, no more moments of genuine artistic transcendence that can restore a fixed understanding of what ‘art’ even is, beyond its loftiest, most anti-democratic values.

The inverse of this over-laden ideal is in many ways a much more complicated stance: Art can be anything.

It’s a subtle semantic turn, one that skims a stone over the category of art itself. Instead of the objects waiting to be labelled as such, we are directed towards these ripples— the contexts, relationships, practices and politics that surround our encounters with beauty and brokenness in the mirrored vistas of our daily lives.

These are some of the ambient impressions stirred by a conversation with Nora Peterson, who spoke with TWIST about her approach to design, work, collaboration and beauty. Discussing her navigation of the overlapping public and private spheres that in many ways are the focus of her work as a designer, the measured outlines of her trajectory through the worlds of architecture, design and social media are not only reflective of the simple shapes that recur in her work, but of a deeper, exemplary appreciation of natural forms within both life and art.

Nora Petersen lives in LA. After graduating with a degree in architecture from the University of Toronto, she found herself, like many of us, stuck in quarantine, rekindling old hobbies and posting videos onto TikTok. In her case, sewing clothes from scratch while also accruing hundreds of thousands of views for educational clips in which she shared her thoughts on design and architecture, resulted in a wide audience for her new undertaking— in a gradual yet unexpected shift into a full-time job as an independent fashion designer.

In many ways this has become a familiar kind of story, from the vocational transitions inspired by lockdown to the monetisation of a creative skill following a stint of internet virality. Yet that’s about where the typical narrative ends and the capitalist paradigms fall flat. Which is to say that Petersen isn’t looking to scale herself into a brand or entertain the rampaging trends of the #grindset. After what she describes as a difficult, consuming start to her practice, she has since managed to put herself in a position where she can work less, get by, and realise the true value of being self-employed— an escape from the rigid hierarchies of the office and the work-life balance.

The desire for stability can often be a misleading virtue, where between the extremes of the ceaseless hustle and the privileged bubble, Nora’s version of working for herself is a measured balance aimed at dissolving the distinction between the pragmatic and the artistic. “My ultimate dream would be to be able to make things just for the sake for making things, for the sake of art, for the sake of beauty,” she explains, a sentiment that strikes interesting chords with the monochromatic, utilitarian register of her clothing.

This brings us to the movement of Minimalism, which, as extolled in a 2020 New York Times article, is less about owning less, and more about being open to the sensory provocations of unexpected, often deceptively minimal forms— starting with the things that already make up the clutter of our own lives. As a positive tenet for resisting both the object-fetishism and the uniform ascetics of capitalism’s various postures, it also a provides a reference for appreciating the look and feel of Petersen’s signature black garments— although their appeal isn’t difficult to interpret. Her hand-made shirts and long-sleeved tees crest utility and beauty via one elegant interstitial — simplicity. “I’ve seen clothes where the arms zip off so it can become two different shirts,” she remarks. “I like to add details that are there just for the sake of making it look interesting. It doesn’t have to perform a function just to perform a function.” Most clothing occupies a normative position between decoration and utility, and yet Petersen’s designs seem to invite us back to these considerations, reigniting the potential of our wardrobes without getting needlessly complicated. Her subtle construction details can be appreciated visually, but above all they lend themselves to the experience of being worn, in a tactile embodiment of the simple yet substantial possibilities represented by these textiles.

Petersen’s background in architecture speaks to a keen attentiveness to backgrounds themselves, one that has become a distinctive feature of her work. After turning away from the typical path of an architecture graduate— working on mundane structural details or producing glamorous, highly-visible statements for wealthy clients— she sees her clothing pieces as objects that can be readily accessed and appreciated in almost any situation. “Rather than holding out for that statement piece that you’re only going to pull out once a month, I like making thoughtfully designed pieces that you can wear around the house or wear to the grocery store,” she explains. This weaving together of different spaces extends the logic behind the clothing to the contexts in which we normally assign different values to content and beauty— whether at home, at work, in a store or within an art gallery— moving us to question those boundaries in order to more openly examine what should take up space in our lives. This emphasis on form is evident in Nora’s extension of her design tenets to the creation of furniture, as well as to the holistic way she now constructs her daily life.

After gradually refining the amount of time it takes to produce her clothes, Petersen has been able to spend fewer hours working each week, creating the space for rest and reflection outside of the daily boulder-grind. This has allowed her to pursue that crucial pastime that should ideally counterbalance one’s time spent working on interiors— going outside. Taking inspiration from the natural world is just one way of cutting through the feedback loops that cocoon us in our online, indoor existences, which nevertheless form an inescapable, and meaningful, part of our personal and professional realities.

Social media played a huge role in launching Petersen’s career, and she continues to spend hundreds of hours doing research for videos and interacting with her followers, a dedication that permits her a light touch when it comes to sharing her own designs with her audience. “I didn’t want to be constantly advertising myself. I wanted it to seem more like —Hey, I’m just someone you think is interesting, and by the way I do this too—” she explains, grounding her transactions in a wide-reaching set of connections that manage to go beyond the merely superficial. Because Nora’s garments bear no branded labels, and are sold exclusively between herself and individual buyers that have reached out to her. They wear her clothes, knowing who she is, while advertising nothing of her commercial identity to the world. Within a close-knit network of buyers, friends and fellow artisans, Petersen traces the growth of her artistry alongside the significance of these relationships. Nowhere is this more evident in the centrepiece of her career thus far— a black table constructed together with her partner and fellow designer, Francis Barrera.

“We both bring different things to the table,” describes Nora of their collaborative process, which draws from an unspoken, un-hierarchical understanding of each others’ strengths and roles, as well as from their shared design tastes. A low-centred addition to the cushions that they sit on each evening for their meals, the table expresses many of the elements that already comprise their life together. As a labor of love, it stands both gentle and firm— figuring within the underlying patterns established by their relationship while also originating as a sculpted monument to Barrera’s Mesoamerican ancestry. “For me the design came from this subconscious symbol that kept recurring, that I wanted to bring to life,” he elaborates, linking the table’s imagery both to the representation of Zapotec petroglyphs within the realm of furniture, as well as to fraught histories of immigration and assimilation that underlie it. The table is heavy, dense with monumentality, and its weight speaks both to a desire to create a home, as it does to the lost homelands that are carved into it.

Comprised of a geometric + shape rising from a rough, arboreal base, it manages to convey both extreme, abstract intensity while also crystallising into something coherent via the petrified oil and wood that mark its physicality. Decay, resurrection, exhibition, function— above all it is in the liquid harmonics between the lacerated base and the central divot upon its polished surface that a positive impression of use emerges, inviting objects to be carefully placed; vacuums to be gradually filled; lives to invariably form around it— all the while remaining attentive to its raw, enduring presence. Its fossilised appearance is furthered by the natural materials that it is made from— plaster with a shellac finish— where Nora describes a slow, affirming process of assemblage that hopefully designates further such statements as her various practices and collaborations coalesce in 2023.

Images courtesy of Nora Petersen

Something New to the Table features in Issue 2 of TWIST

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