Design Sense

Turning ideas into a reality
Internationally renowned contemporary artist and designer Johnny Swing (yes, that is his real name) takes ordinary materials and transforms them into extraordinary pieces that are both artworks and functional pieces of furniture, the most well known being his coin seating. A fascinating sampling of his inventive work is currently on view at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont in an exhibition entitled Johnny Swing: Design Sense. All in Swing's own words, the explanatory wall texts share the origin of his ideas and explain his problem solving design process and how his pieces evolve from an idea to an actual physical product, a task that can take up to a year or more. He says he wants viewers to be surprised or challenged and for his work to be comfortable (when it is or approximates furniture), entertaining and to spark curiosity. The show opens in the lobby of the Pizzagalli building with several of his seating pieces where visitors can interact with them ----they are actually quite comfortable and people love to test them out. The second half of the exhibition is set up to approximate a private visit to the artist's studio, where behind an orange welding curtain one can examine various found objects, models and prototypes that further illustrate Swing's inspirations and design process.   
The Bird Chair, or Kora-Ilé, 2013, made of welded half-dollars and stainless steel, was inspired by a fever dream and became what Swing describes as a "a primitive throne in the shape of a magical bird made out of coins" on whose back and wings one could sit and ride. The name of the chair was inspired by the tragic myth of an Incan princess whose spirit was transformed into a magnificent bird.
Big Jardaleer, 2009, this massive lighting piece evolved from several smaller chandeliers over a five year period and the desire to provide large-scale lamps that would work in large open-scale interiors.  Using 85 one-gallon glass jars, powder coated steel, electrical sockets, wiring and bulbs, and standing 14 feet tall on three tapering steel latticework legs, its design transformed the usual rigid straight lines for such structures into what Swing describes as "sensual flowing curves." 
Murmuration, Master Form, used fiberglass, urethane foam, auto body filler and epoxy resin to produce a coin sofa inspired by the shapes of swarming flocks of birds. The finished version contains about 80,000 individual welds and took about a year to finish.
Also on view are several dollar bill rugs, of cut and pieced dollar bills with canvas, 2017.  Like his coin furniture, these are made of precious materials, are works of art and are meant to be used. Swing says that people are intrigued that he uses money for a lot of his work and inquire about their value. He likes using it for a variety of reasons, such as the richness in texture of the coins, its richness also in associations and history. It leads him to wonder about the reactions of viewers or owners of the pieces, questioning whether they like to sit on money or be surrounded by it and also to question if they like that the furniture might be worth more than the original value of its material. 
Found objects and industrial materials abound in Swing's work and it is pleasing to see how things are repurposed.  On view are a collection of antique iron anvils that Swing collected because of their sculptural qualities and their functionality.  A foot rest found in a dump, part of an old dental patient's chair, was used in a new chair Swing made.  Valve Chair, 1986, uses cast steel and car springs.  Jar Chair, 2002-2003, using 96 glass bottles and and 400 pieces of hardware, was inspired by Swing's baby son's baby food jars, which he liked for their simple shape and strength.  A satisfactory final structural design for the chair took Swing a year to work out. Miniature tin foil models 2002-2019 are shown as well. Swing explains that he has used them for years to test out furniture models as they are "fast, cheap and relaxing" to make and have a shine similar to the finished pieces. A variety of prototype chairs are shown made out of steel, aluminum, wood and plywood (2017-2018). They were made for a friend's restaurant when the original burned down and he was asked to design everything "from soup to nuts", from the building to the seating, for the new one, the Fat Crow in Newfane, Vermont. He particularly liked these as he said they so clearly demonstrate the evolution of his design process. 
Born in 1961 in Salisbury, Connecticut, Swing received his BS in fine arts from Skidmore College, attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and subsequently obtained a Welding license (he said he had been welding since he was thirteen).  After working and living in the Lower East Side of New York City, where he exhibited sculptures and furniture made from salvaged industrial materials, he moved to Vermont in 1995, where he maintains a workshop and farm in Brookline in the southern part of the state.  His works have been on view in numerous museum exhibitions, including the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City and his artworks can be found in permanent collections in the U.S. and abroad, including the Storm King Art Center in New York State, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.
Johnny Swing: Design Sense, Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont, Feb. 2-June 2, 2019. To view a video of the artist, please visit


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