A perfect combination

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 June, 2011, 12:00am


A sleek table with twig-shaped legs stands next to a full-scale pair of lifelike penguin statues; a decorative lotus plant emits a soft light in a room heavy on earthy greys; a mammoth rabbit sculpture that you can sit on. These are the works of Robert Kuo.

An artisan who works in a variety of fields, from practical furnishings to entirely decorative items, Kuo's works defy classification, the designer entirely comfortable in furniture, lighting, sculpture or interiors. But like many a great artist, Kuo's artistic temperament can be traced through his history, a combination of upbringing, exposure and being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time.

Born in Beijing in 1946, mere months after Japanese forces had retreated from the city, Kuo was practically an artist out of the womb: his father was an influential watercolour painter and art professor, a respected man within artistic circles.

His family soon moved to Taiwan -but while most of the world was peacefully rebuilding, the country was facing its notorious 'white terror' period, a 38-year struggle that saw more than 140,000 Taiwanese imprisoned or executed for their suspected political opposition.

There was a touch of silver to all the slaughter; they say art flourishes in times of conflict, and for a young artist growing up in a state of civil unrest, where dissidents are routinely being terrorised right outside your doorstep, influences are made apparent and temperament's quickly formed.

It helped, of course, that he came from a background which encouraged artistic endeavours. 'Growing up in a family that emphasised the importance of the arts allowed me to be comfortable in expressing my artistic side,' says Kuo. 'Choosing this path was actually more natural than pursuing other professions such as medicine or law.'

When Kuo was 15, his father opened an atelier and the impressionable teenager became its first apprentice. Focusing on the art of cloisonn?- the ancient, almost archaic technique of decorating metalworks with enamel - Kuo spent more than 10 years mastering and perfecting the various intricacies involved, the style eventually coming to define the artisan's work over the next few decades.

In 1973, Kuo moved to Los Angeles and opened up his own cloisonn?studio in the chic area of Beverly Hills. The migration was perfectly timed: Nixon had just made his inaugural visit to China the year before, and for the first time, the western world was granted a look into a country they'd only heard rumours about.

On the flipside, Kuo was being exposed to fresh artistic styles - in particular, art deco, which was seeing a '70s resurgence. In it, he found a style that was eclectic and streamlined, with a linear symmetry that worked as well in usable furniture like tables and chairs as it could in more decorative items.

'I think the period is important to design and a lot of the art-deco period was inspired by Chinese design,' says Kuo. 'My intention was to preserve the craftsmanship of these techniques - to design pieces that highlight the quality and timelessness. I feel that pieces that are designed and executed well are not constrained by fashion and the times.'

Indeed, in an era where artistic styles are as disposable as IKEA furniture, Kuo's works felt eternal, which is what drew the American public to his mix of classical Chinese and contemporary western. It's not all completely intentional, though.

'My designs are not purposefully trying to be either Chinese traditional or western contemporary,' he says. 'They reflect the great appreciation and respect that I have for traditional Chinese crafts and techniques, but they also reflect the inspiration derived from the freedom and individuality of the western culture.'

It's that combination of old-world respect with new-world freedom that characterises Kuo's works; pieces that are eclectic, innovative and most importantly, original.