For two years, Susi Kenna has been elevating the humble manicure from fashion accessory to fine art. Kenna manages social media for Fitz & Co, a public relations firm specializing in contemporary art, and in her spare time, she takes paintings by modern and contemporary artists—from Picasso to KAWS—and reinterprets them onto her fingertips. You can see the results of these uber manicures through her site Nail Art History.
For many women, a manicure is an exercise in efficiency: 20 minutes of pampering, and then back to the office. Not for Kenna, who budgets at least five hours per manicure, on top of hours spent on research and planning. "My nails are my way of making art," she says. "I've always been drawn to how a painting is constructed, whether it's Old Masters or abstract." Nail Art History, she adds, "has given me a different way to appreciate them."
Nail art has exploded in recent years, as evidenced by its ascendency in photo-friendly social media (nail artists are commonly known by their Instagram handles). Fashion tastemakers have been featuring high-concept manicures at shows, on the red carpet, and in editorial spreads. Nail product sales grew by 20% in 2011 and 2012—but then hit a wall in 2013, as women grew weary of adventurous styles that proved difficult to pull off. Now Kenna and others are giving the trend a second life with manicures that are more gallery-quality than glitter-bomb.
On a recent Saturday afternoon at Kenna’s airy apartment 42 floors above Manhattan, chaos reigns: wall-to-wall contemporary art, Miller Lite tallboys on the kitchen counter, camera equipment on the floor. A crew of filmmakers that Kenna has hired to document her manicure circle in constant motion. But at the center of the action, there is quiet focus.
Kenna, a slight figure in leather shorts, sits with practiced stillness, her hand extended, while nail artist Mei Kawajiri applies paint with a brush as tiny as a pin. They’ve been working for hours, carefully translating the reds and blues of a 1974 painting by French artist Jean Dubuffet into 10 nail-friendly homages to the original. When at last the left thumb is finished, the film crew gives a cheer and Kenna and Kawajiri exchange a careful high-five.
Kenna first encountered nail art in 2012 through Rita Pinto, a curator who was running nail art pop-ups at galleries, museums, and fairs. "The art world is very strict about anything that you position as fine art. You can't have fine art in a restaurant," Pinto says.
She decided to buck that notion and last July, Pinto opened Vanity Projects, a nail art "atelier" that also features contemporary video art programming. The model of salon-gallery hybrid has attracted a diverse set of clients, she says, from MoMA trustees to sanitation workers. Here, a custom gel nail art manicure sets you back $100 or more, plus extra for 3-D designs, Swarovski crystals, and other add-ons.
Most Vanity Projects clients defer to the nail artist, but Pinto hopes to see more collaboration like the one between Kenna and Kawajiri. "I want more Susi Kenna's. I think it's really inspiring to find people who challenge the artists," she says. "That's my job, to create a context where they're always being pushed."
And Kawajiri does think of herself as an artist, drawn to the particular qualities of the nail as canvas. She operated a salon in Japan for six years before moving to New York with an O-1 visa that recognizes her as an artist. "I like drawing small things. My art is very, very detailed. Very tiny lines," she says.
After two years of working together, Kenna and Kawajiri now have their collaboration down to a science. "I do the research, I compile the imagery, and then I mock up the manicure through a Photoshop template," says Kenna. Together, they mix colors and draw grids, making sure each detail is correct. Then, four to six weeks after the manicure starts to grow out, they repeat the process. Like other freelance nail artists, Kawajiri charges between $120 and $200 per manicure.
A more accessible version of the trend is playing out on a fashionable stretch of Crosby Street in New York, where former Cosmopolitan beauty editor Eleanor Langston recently opened Paintbox. Langston observed that women aspired to the increasingly sophisticated manicures in magazines, but were intimidated by the idea of hiring a freelancer. "I wanted to simplify the process," she says. "We're not nail art, but nail design."
Paintbox offers 25 pre-designed manicures, each costing $50 to $65. Current looks include pastels with gem accents and metallic-hued minimalist shapes.
With a friend’s wedding approaching, I decided that it might be time to upgrade my "minimalist" look (read: short and polish-free). I considered contacting a freelance nail artist, but with only an hour to spare between meetings I found myself booking a lunchtime appointment through the user-friendly Paintbox website and choosing the "shadow boxer" design in a bold red.
Back at work, I admired the nails as I typed up my notes. They were (literally) no Picasso, but I began to understand Pinto’s sense of mission. "When you have a design on your fingers you're constantly looking at it, appreciating it, enjoying it," she says. "It gives back so much."
At prices at least triple that of a standard manicure, it had better.