William Thomas

Homage À Richard Serra
Desk with Desktop Organizer

African mahogany veneer, poplar, white oak, glass
59-1/2″ deep x 48″ wide x 30″ high59-1/2″ deep x 48″ wide x 30″ high

I built this desk as a study of the form that Serra used in the series of sculptures he called “Torqued Ellipses.” I wanted to see if I could reduce the form to furniture scale and still have it follow the sense of his original idea. For this reason, I made it an open form with a glass top so the interior is visible. The desktop organizer is my original prototype. After I built the full-size form, I realized that I could include the small version by adding drawers.

Serra envisioned his sculptures as an elliptical space that rotates, or “torques,” as it rises from the floor. He developed the form by wrapping sheets of lead around an armature that had elliptical ends at different angles to each other. Quite by accident, he came up with a unique shape that doesn’t exist in nature. As I discovered when first attempting to reproduce the idea, the form is not actually a twisted ellipse, which would simply be a helix, but a space that in plan is a constantly varying ellipse where the major and minor axes converge as the space moves towards the center, become equal at the center, and then reverse towards the top until they reach their original dimensions, but rotated through 90 degrees. This produces a form with walls of constantly changing slope, which in Serra’s full-size sculptures can be disorienting.

Serra’s intention was to enclose the space he had invented so that it could be experienced from the inside. He chose to build the walls from steel plate bent to the form, which involved the use of a shipyard capable of bending 2-inch steel plate to the required curves. The 12-foot tall enclosures are massive and quite interesting to experience, as I was able to do.

Having seen Serra’s actual sculptures, I realized that the inside was as important as the outside, so that presented a challenge for a piece of furniture. I decided that a glass top would leave the inside visible, and since a desk would require a space for the user’s knees, the opening would allow more visibility. It wouldn’t be possible for an adult to actually get inside, but at least it wouldn’t be hidden.

The next challenge was figuring out a method to build such a piece. Serra chose steel plate partly because the walls could be constructed without the need for a form, or mold, which would have been gigantic.

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