Kim Markel doesn't have the typical CV you'd expect from an artist and furniture-maker. Before moving back to the Hudson Valley to work at Polich Tallix, one of the largest fine art foundries in the U.S., Markel logged four years working in environmental and public policy in D.C., Baltimore, and Rhode Island. "I liked working in policy," says the 31-year-old Markel, who studied the subject at Carnegie Mellon. "But I thought I would love to be in a world where things are made and there is art and design around."
So she took a job at the foundry, where she got a crash course in fabricating large-scale fine art pieces from the likes of Jeff Koons, Frank Stella, and Matthew Barney. Before long, she moved to her own studio in Beacon, New York and started making furniture and art objects that drew from both of her past work experiences. Her Glow collection, which she debuted last weekend at the annual Architectural Digest Design Show, is a series of whimsical, candy-colored chairs, tables, vases, and mirrors made from recycled plastic.
Markel says the idea for the collection arose from a tension she felt between wanting to make something beautiful and new, but not wanting to contribute to the planet's waste. "When people started expressing interest [in my work] I thought, 'I can’t put all of this new stuff into the world, but I still want to make things. How can I do it in a way that I can still feel good about?'" she says. "Coming from an environmental background, I knew that I wanted to make things as responsibly as possible and use as much material that already exists as I could."
She spent a year calling plastic scrap dealers and experimenting with materials until she found the look she wanted. For heavier items like chairs and tables that need to be structurally sound, she uses a mixture of plastic from eye glasses and plastic lunch trays that have outlived their function. For the mirror frames, she uses plastic bottles that have already been recycled the number of times that's allowed before they're no longer useable.
Taking a cue from her foundry days, Markel creates molds of her work and fills them with plastic cut up into tiny pieces. ("I tell people it’s like making a giant snow cone but instead of the pieces of ice it’s pieces of plastic," she says.) Each piece of furniture requires a specific ratio of different kinds of plastic for the desired strength and opacity. She adds pigment for color and resin to bond the plastic, then lets it cure for a couple of days. After they're taken out of the molds, she sands and polishes the piece by hand.
The result is brilliant: waxy, faintly glowing objects that looks like they're made of sea glass or some sort of hard candy. Markel says she's happy with how the pieces turned out, and it seems others are too—she says the feedback she has been getting from the AD show and online is encouraging. "There are so many other materials and waste products I want to use—experimenting is fun," she says. "I’m going to keep making [the Glow pieces] and hopefully that will enable me keep making new pieces out of old materials."
Find the Glow collection here. Prices range from $130 for the hand mirror to $1,900 for the table.