Hovering in harmony with modern homes, today's mobiles energize and calm living spaces with ever-changing viewsFrom the pages of the CA-Modern magazine
By Dave Weinstein
Brad Howe went to Brazil to study international affairs. Instead, he began churning out mobiles.
"I didn't even know who Calder was," he says, referring to Alexander Calder, the art form's chief inventor. But the Malibu-based artist learned about mobiles -- abstract, kinetic art, generally suspended from the ceiling -- from young Brazilian architects who loved their country's wealth of mid-century modern architecture and realized how beautifully the style meshed with these hovering webs of art.
"There was a huge interest in Brazil because mobiles fit wonderfully in modern architecture," Howe says. "Many architects designed spaces for mobiles -- but not many were making them."
He also discovered an affinity for the art form. "I could look at a mobile and build it the next day from memory," Howe recalls.
"I made seven for a Rio architect who sold them all in a week. I made 200 mobiles in a row, and I sold every one. I was sort of sucked into a vacuum."
Howe's story, surprisingly enough, is not surprising -- not to people who know mobiles. They are an art form, after all, based largely on serendipity -- how the parts move in relation to other parts, to the spaces they inhabit and the people who walk by.
Equally serendipitous are the careers of many of their makers. "Serendipity was the word" for the past year, Howe says, and many mobile makers could say the same about their entire careers.
Several, including Brian Schmitt of Sacramento, fell into the field simply by tinkering with mobiles -- then finding a demand for them. A student of industrial design at Arizona State, and a woodworker since childhood when he constructed an immense skateboard ramp, Schmitt began sculpting mobiles out of wood in his spare time.
"What are you wasting your time on?" an incredulous instructor asked.
Matt Richards of Portland, like many mobile artists, including Calder, began as an engineer. "The technical part of me really likes the idea of mobiles," says Richards, whose firm is Ekko Mobiles. "You're using logic to figure out how to get things to move right.
Heather Frazier, looking for a new gig after closing a boutique in San Francisco, indulged her love of garlands by cutting up her old fashion magazines and turning them into mobiles.
The result? Frazier, also of Portland, discovered a major market for mobiles among a particular sub-set of the mid-century market -- parents.
"I wasn't thinking of designing for the children's market. It naturally happened, because decoration for babies and children today, it's huge!" Frazier says.
What is it about a mobile that appeals to people?
"There's a lightness to it, which is nice," says Tom Graham, who has two mobiles in the Sacramento Eichler home he shares with his wife Lisa Foster. "It introduces movement into the room."
"As sculpture it shapes and defines its space," he says. "And the mobile's space is constantly shifting, its shapes and relationships constantly changing."
In their front living area, Graham and Foster have a Calderesque mobile. In their rear, they have a Schmitt 'Camber' mobile floating in front of a clerestory window.
Clearly, motion is key to the appeal of a mobile. "It has a kind of motion, quite often, that will remind you of the same emotion you feel when looking into the flames of a fireplace, waves in the sea, or clouds in the sky," Howe says.
"As a mobile maker, you can vary movement through different linkages, swivels, or no swivels. Whole sections can move together."
"Each mobile," Howe says, "has its own choreography."
Julie Frith, who produces mobiles in Eureka, says, "They're relaxing. They actually move. Buyers are flabbergasted. They lie in bed and watch it move."
"People turn off the TV to watch mobiles," she adds.
"Mobiles add a dimension to the space that wouldn't be there otherwise," says architect Zoltan Pali, whose Culver City firm SPF:architects put a Howe mobile into a medical office. A successful mobile, he says, is more than decorative; it becomes "part of the architecture and part of the space itself."
Mobiles may also appeal, Schmitt suggests, because they are not as intellectually demanding as much modern art. "A lot of art tries to express ideas or requires interpretation," he says. "What I strive for in the mobile, it's an object you want to have in your home. It enriches your environment. You don't have to analyze it."
Not that there isn't plenty to analyze. Alexander Calder (1898-1976), the Philadelphia artist-engineer who gave mobiles to the world in the 1930s, spent time with the French Surrealists and was equally fascinated with chance procedures and the unconscious.
A mobile, Howe suggests, "is almost like a structure that references a dream activity. They are bodies floating in space, they are planetary, they are like cloudscapes or thought bubbles floating above your head."
Frazier says the appeal is simple. "They make people happy."
Schmitt enjoys the unpredictable way they move. "They're almost like a goldfish you don't have to feed," he says.
"Because it's dynamic," he suggests, "it adds a personality to a space you don't get with a static object. In a corner of an atrium, it really sets off the space."
Mobiles work well in modern houses, Frith says, because high, open-beamed ceilings benefit from the energy of mobile art. "Eichlers have angled roofs, so they're perfect to hang a mobile," she says.
Matt Richards, who began his mobile-making ten years ago, building ten-inch table models he hawked over eBay, still sells some production mobiles through Design Within Reach, but focuses instead on large scale, individually designed commissions -- many for hospitals.
Mobiles succeed in hospitals for the same reason they succeed above cribs -- they're relaxing. Many of his mobiles hang in hospital lobbies and atriums. "Patients or family members sit and look out," he says. "It's slowly moving, just a little movement. In the end it gets mesmerizing. You spend ten minutes gazing at it. That's something other art doesn't do, it doesn't allow you to get lost in it."
About half of Brad Howe's mobiles go into people's homes, often to mobile collectors, who number maybe a thousand worldwide, he estimates, with up to 200 in Los Angeles. "Some people love their mobiles like pets," Howe says. "They're very, very fond of them."
While there is general agreement that a 'mobile' has to move and has to hang, and that its movement must be generated by wind or a breeze generated by passersby and not by a motor, definitions vary.
Many say a 'mobile' must involve interconnected pieces, one hanging from another.
"A suspended interconnected, balanced sculpture," is Howe's definition, "with elements that are cantilevered, with linkages that allow for more or less rotation before the next link can move."
Others use the term in a broader sense to mean art using "anything that might move," Richards says, interconnected or not.
Richards uses a broader term 'hanging kinetic art,' within which 'mobiles' are a subset.
Whatever you call them, mobiles have a natural affinity with mid-century modern design.
Calder and other pioneers of kinetic art -- the Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo in the 1920s and the American-born Scotsman George Rickey in the 1950s -- produced one-of-a-kind, avant-garde artworks.
During the 1950s, mobiles went mass market, with production by several European and American firms, including the Danish company Flensted, which remains in business.
Many sculptors from the early 1940s through the 1960s produced a wide variety of mobile sculptures, including the San Franciscan Robert B. Howard, the Frenchman Jean Tinguely, and Otto Piene, who focused on inflatables. French artist Jackie Matisse worked with kites.
Later mobile artists of note include Timothy Rose of Sausalito and Jerome Kirk, who settled in Healdsburg.
Meanwhile, many advances were made in the much broader field, 'kinetic art,' which ranges from mechanically controlled robots to electronics and sound sculptures.
One of the world's most unique creators of mobile sculptures is San Franciscan Ruth Asawa, whose freeform, basket-like wire designs, which she began in the 1950s, have become iconic. Asawa was married to architect Albert Lanier, who designed mid-century modern homes.
The connection between mobiles and mid-century modern design is acknowledged by many current mobile makers. "A lot of my clients come from that mid-century modern mindset," Matt Richards says.
When Schmitt heard a tour of modern homes was planned for Sacramento last year, he scurried to sign on as a sponsor and 'gifted' a mobile to Graham and Foster, whose home was on the tour.
"The style is timeless, clean design," Schmitt says of mid-century modern. "That's how I'm trying to approach my own aesthetic."
If anything haunts the otherwise joyful world of the contemporary mobile maker, it's the ghost of Calder.
Too many people, Julie Frith says, "they think, if it's a mobile, somebody has copied Calder. No, that's not what it is."
Frith, a "100-percent mobile maker" who's been turning them out for 12 years since being floored at a Calder exhibit, insists she's no copyist. "I want to be different from Calder and from everybody else."
Richards too acknowledges the influence. "I cut my teeth on pieces reminiscent of Calder," he says. "When I get the opportunity I like to try something new."
"To me," Howe says, "mobiles don't belong to Calder. Calder was just a virtuoso in the mobile world. Calder didn't invent them and he didn't own them. He pushed the science of mobiles in a lot of different directions."
"There a quasi-physics to it," architect Zoltan Pali says with a laugh. "A crazy physics."
Ever since Calder, who would often build several models for each sculpture to get the movement just right, artists have twisted, tied, weighted, and otherwise manipulated their works' hanging elements to get the balance and movement just right.
It is how a mobile moves, as much as its appearance, that defines its style.
That's why so many mobile artists began as engineers -- and why Matt Richards collaborates with Ben Cogdill, his in-house industrial designer.
"It has to work. It has to turn," Julie Frith says. "It has to move nicely, to be graceful."
Mobiles, originally mostly metal, today come in plastic, paper, and in a few cases, wood. Schmitt, who uses bamboo and various woods, plans a new line in metal -- and perhaps one in felt.
Metals used range from stainless steel to aluminum, to various combinations. Connections vary too.
"Some mobiles by artists are more Calder-style, using bent wire with paddles," Schmitt says. "Others are connected with rings that limit the motion, so you know the pieces will stay in relation to others in a certain way.
"I strive for every piece to have full 360-degree rotation. I think it makes a more interesting piece."
Getting the right balance isn't easy, Schmitt says. "That's a little bit of a trade secret. It's part of the mystery."
"I can only approach it knowing the elements look good together," he says, "and as they spin it's going to be a fun effect."
At the end, science gives way to art -- which is another serendipitous thing about the art of mobiles.
"You may start with the basic idea," Howe says, "but once in process, a lot of unexpected things occur. The original idea morphs."
"When working on a piece," he adds, "you end up having all these spontaneous new ideas burst out in front of you. So when you're done, you have ten new directions to work in. And each one of them inspires ten more directions.
"It's a self-propelling experience. You end up with more ideas than you could possibly accomplish in a lifetime."
Photos: David Toerge, Carl Van Vechten, Dave Weinstein, Paulo Tavares Pereira, Chris Schroeer-Heiermann, David Zuttermeister; and courtesy Brian Schmitt of Schmitt Design, Heather Frazier of Frazier & Wing, Julie Frith, Brad Howe, Matt Richards of Ekko Mobiles
Looking for a mobile?
Type 'mobile' into your favorite search engine and the siege begins. As mobile maker Julie Frith notes, "There are a lot of mobiles out there."
They range from cute -- teddy bears floating above cribs -- to cheesy, to high art. Many resemble Calder. "A small portion of it is inventive," mobile maker Brian Schmitt says, "and a huge portion is reinventing a style that's been done for decades."
If you're looking for a mobile, bear this distinction in mind: Some are made by people like Schmitt, who considers himself both an artist and a product designer and aims his work at 'normal people.'
That means mobiles produced as multiples in the $100-$200 range. Many mobile makers provide their artworks for less.
Other artists produce only one-of-a-kind works, often for specific sites. Brad Howe sells his residential mobiles for roughly $5,000 to $10,000.
Mobiles can be bought in galleries and museum shops, at crafts shows, or online.
CA-Modern magazine is the full-color publication of the Eichler Network. Its content is aimed at mid-century modern homeowners and enthusiasts throughout California, with an emphasis on Eichler homes, Streng homes, Cliff May Ranchos, and Palmer & Krisel homes. Its content focuses on home maintenance features, solutions, and furnishings for modern homes; profiles on special California neighborhoods; breaking news; and much more.