Historic Milan building gets an 'Open Sky' in its courtyard

Updated 17th April 2018
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Credit: COS
Historic Milan building gets an 'Open Sky' in its courtyard
Written by Natalia Rachlin, CNN
Most days of the year, Palazzo Isimbardi -- a stately building in central Milan -- is home to the main offices of the Province of Milan, and host to a slew of administrative activities.
This week, however, as the annual Salone del Mobile design fair takes over town, the palazzo will reveal the European debut of the contemporary American light artist, Phillip K. Smith III. In collaboration with the Swedish-owned, London-based clothing brand COS, Smith will transform the property's 16th century central courtyard -- a trademark of the palazzo architectural format made popular during the Italian Renaissance -- from municipal mainstay into buzzy design destination.
Smith's large-scale outdoor installation, Open Sky, takes the shape of a conical semi-circle of mirror-polished stainless-steel panels (united and supported by a curvaceous concrete backbone), which reflect and fragment the palazzo's exterior as well as the sky above. Forty-five feet in diameter and over 10 feet high, the installation is engulfing, inviting viewers to enter into its core.
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The Open Sky installation. Credit: COS

Pulling down the sky

"The beauty of the palazzo format is that even though you are in the middle of dense urbanity, you can look up and have this pure, singular vision of the changing sky," says Smith, "I wanted to pull the sky down to the ground and wrap it together with the architecture so while the piece is static, everything else -- the clouds, the light, the people -- is constantly changing." Depending on the time of day, the weather, and their position, every visitor will have a unique experience of the work.
Five much smaller, reflective sculptures will be dotted throughout the palazzo's back gardens, extending the installation's footprint and offering visitors further opportunities to find quiet, private moments, while taking part in a broader shared experience -- a dichotomy that is central to Smith's practice.
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Open Sky is 45 feet in diameter and over 10 feet high Credit: COS
"Phillip's work looks to the natural world for subtle shifts in light and color that inspire new ways of seeing. His works are simple and minimal, yet majestic and constantly evolving with the world around them," says Karin Gustafsson, Creative Director of COS, "The concepts that his work embodies are also reflective of key tenants of our aesthetic and inspire us to think of our designs in new and interesting ways."
The Scandinavian brand has been a dependable presence in Milan during Salone del Mobile since 2012, providing a welcome experiential moment in the midst of an otherwise mostly product-driven frenzy. Past collaborators include Nendo, Sou Fujimoto, Snarkitecture and most recently Studio Swine. Gustafsson first encountered Smith's work in 2013, when it showed-up on a COS inspiration mood-board. "His work prompts a re-examination of the viewers environment. We have been inspired by the simple beauty of his practice," adds Gustafsson.
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An aerial view of the courtyard. Credit: COS

European debut

Known for hypnotizing reflective installations and technology-driven light-pieces, to-date, all of Smith's sensitive, site-specific work has unfolded Stateside, most often, in the desert landscapes of Southern California. Born in Los Angeles and raised in the Coachella Valley, Smith studied architecture and fine arts at the Rhode Island School of Design. He dabbled in architecture in both New York and LA, before setting up his own multidisciplinary studio in Palm Desert. He considers himself an artist, though his work constantly crosses-over into design and architecture.
"The reality is that within the studio I'm part architect, part designer, part industrial designer, part engineer and part politician," says Smith who, due to the public nature of his outdoor work, also often finds himself in negotiations with local government officials.
The piece that originally put Smith on the art world map was Lucid Stead (2013): the artist transformed an unremarkable, 70-year-old wooden shack in the California High Desert into a sensational mirage by adding mirror-strips to the cabin's façade, making parts of the structure seemingly disappear into the dusty surroundings.
Phillip K. Smith III's Lucid Stead.
Phillip K. Smith III's Lucid Stead. Credit: COS
Other highlights from Smith's quickly growing portfolio include Reflection Field (2014) -- towering mirrored cubes by day, bright neon light-boxes by night -- and Portals (2016), an open-air pavilion with a series of LED light installations lining the interior. Both projects were presented as part of the Coachella Music & Arts Festival, which takes place in Indio, California every April.

Slow down

"I think my work, both my earlier pieces and my newer installations, is united by a single goal, which is to get people to slow down and take stock of their time and their environment," says Smith. He cites his own upbringing near the desert as giving him an inherent appreciation for both light and landscape, and providing him with a context for solitary contemplation -- all elements that are central to his practice.
"We've all had our experience of being out in nature and really feeling something that gets to the core of who we are as humans, no matter what our upbringing, beliefs or backgrounds. I'm really interested in trying to recreate those moments, and remind people that though we see and experience things distinctly from our own point of view, we all exist under exactly the same sky," he adds.
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A detail of the mirror-polished stainless-steel panels. Credit: COS
In the pipeline for the artist are permanent installations in West Hollywood and just outside of Seattle, a project on the top of a mountain in Colorado, and a potential opportunity in Saudi Arabia. He hopes to do more projects in Europe once he's wrapped up his first-ever urban endeavor in Milan, though he's entirely open-minded about what location comes next.
"I don't feel that I can be picky about where in the world I work," he says, "All I can hope to do is open people's eyes to the beauty that's right in front of them, no matter where they happen to live."
Open Sky will be open to the public Apr. 17 to 22, 2018 at Palazzo Isimbardi, Corso Monforte 35, 20122 Milan, Italy.