This article is part of our latest Design special report, which is about crossing the borders of space, time and media.
“Did you have beef or lamb?” It was the first question a design-world veteran asked when I mentioned I’d been to visit Johnny Swing in February. For the last 25 years, the sculptor and furniture maker with the boogie-woogie name has been based in Newfane, a quaint southern Vermont town sometimes described as one of the most photographed in the state.
Mr. Swing’s home is an updated old farmhouse that sits on 50 hilly acres of woods and pastures he uses for grazing cows and sheep. The property includes an improvised chicken coop with several hens that provide fresh eggs, and Mr. Swing is building a new sugar shack for making maple syrup. There’s also a guesthouse to accommodate visitors, whom Mr. Swing — an affable host and enthusiastic cook — often treats to meals of lamb or beef from his own animals, roasted for hours in his vintage Boston Stove Foundry wood-burning oven. (For the record, the beef was delicious.)
Mr. Swing decamped to this bucolic spot with his then-wife and newborn (he is divorced and has two sons, now in their 20s), after spending most of the 1980s and early ’90s in New York City’s scrappy East Village art scene. For years, he worked in a former gas station on Avenue B that he converted into a jury-rigged metalworking studio with an outdoor area that was part sculpture garden and part junkyard. Over dinner and a generous amount of wine, he recounted colorful stories of ’80s nightclub escapades and creative mischief, including arriving at the opening for one of his first shows at the St. Marks Gallery, “riding, arms outstretched, on top of a 13-foot spring mounted inside the bed of my Jeep,” as he described it. “I was like a comic book character in a performance piece. In the East Village at that time, everything was a performance.”
These days Mr. Swing, 59, works a short drive down the mountain from his home in a 5,500-square-foot studio he designed himself, with high ceilings, soaring windows and dedicated spaces for carving, modeling and welding. A small team assists him in creating his sculptures of twisted steel cable and repurposed metal objects, his architectonic lighting fixtures and — the thing everyone knows Johnny Swing for — his sofas, chairs and benches made from shimmering coins.
Typically, he makes only a handful of coin pieces a year, as each design requires thousands of nickels, quarters, half-dollars or dollar coins, all meticulously joined with upward of 60,000 welds, depending on the size of the piece and the coin used. The metalworking alone can stretch to 300 hours or more, sometimes spread out over months.
Intense and playful, Mr. Swing has an expansive, restless energy. “I’m too old to have been diagnosed with A.D.D. or whatever, but I’m kind of manic and I love to bounce between two and three different things going at once,” he said. He’s been known to take breaks by bombing around the adjacent field on his snowmobile at 100 miles per hour.
Lately, Mr. Swing has been focused on his most challenging body of coin furniture yet. It’s a group of seven biomorphic designs that fit together, puzzle-like, in a configuration that suggests an undulating landscape or, more whimsically, a fried egg. There’s a circular stool or table that forms the “yolk,” while sculptural seats of varying shapes and dimensions compose the “white.”
Planned as the centerpiece of his debut solo show with the Tribeca design gallery R & Company, the new designs are being produced in two versions, one made with nickels and one with dollar coins. (Because of the coronavirus outbreak, the show was moved from May tentatively to the fall.) The works will be sold as complete sets and separately, with individual pieces starting around $20,000.
“Johnny is a leader in the American studio furniture movement, a renegade D.I.Y.-type artist and craftsman who’s taken an everyday commodity and used his technical skills as a welder to turn it into a luxury material,” said Zesty Meyers, R & Company’s co-founder. “People are hungry for things that are uniquely handmade. It’s the defining taste for billionaires today.”
Mr. Swing’s choice of coins as a medium invites a variety of interpretations. Is the work a wry critique of capitalism? A wink at the investment value of art and luxury furnishings? A commentary on our obsession with money? Studies that have shown that simply touching currency can elevate people’s emotional states, and a Swing sofa or chair invites sitters to immerse themselves in cold, hard — though surprisingly comfortable — cash.
But Swing is no ideologue. He views coins as an intriguingly malleable, multivalent material and as “beautiful little sculptures in their own right.” Having always repurposed found and castoff materials, he likes that coins possess past lives, trading hands countless times and traveling unknowable distances.
Mr. Swing started designing coin furniture shortly before leaving New York for Vermont. His first piece, crafted with pennies, was based on Harry Bertoia’s iconic Diamond chair. “I liked the fact that pennies were discarded — no one even bent down to pick them up anymore,” he said. “And I felt like I was borrowing, the same way rap musicians take some old funk or jazz line.”
But it was not until Mr. Swing began developing his own forms several years later that the coin furniture began to find an audience. Early designs included the Nickel couch, featuring a gently rounded back that curves into an elegantly bulbous armrest on one end, and the barrel-back Half Dollar chair, whose gracefully spreading sides give the piece its other name, the Butterfly chair.
Over the years, the pieces expanded in scale, culminating in the 11-foot-long Murmuration, an asymmetrical curl of nickels with a low seat at one end and a flat circular bench at the other. It looks like a wide-handled soup spoon with a playfully twisted bowl.
To create his free-form shapes, Mr. Swing starts by carving blocks of Styrofoam with a sanding disk. He coats the forms in fiberglass and epoxy resin, giving them a smooth, hard surface. At that point, “I sit in the work a lot and if I don’t like the way something feels, I go back in and just cut that whole section out and redo it,” he said. The final pieces are used to make concrete molds that the coins are pressed into as they are welded together.
Mr. Swing prefers not to get too literal about the influences of his curvaceous designs. “If I was going to get specific, I would say the female form, lying in bed — the hip or the waist,” he offered. “Also, Ferrari racecars from the ’50s and ’60s. You could even throw Brancusi in there or Jean Arp or Henry Moore.”
Underlying the shimmering surfaces of the designs are complex frameworks Mr. Swing engineers to support the thin layer of welded coins. “It’s like an eggshell — there’s not much strength to the welds or to the coins,” he said. “So they’ve really got to have this superstructure in addition to the legs.”
Mr. Swing’s best friend, the artist John Carter, who met him in 1986 when they were both attending the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture’s summer residency program, said there was always been an element of risk-taking in Mr. Swing’s work. “When we first started making things, it was like, cut stuff out, never grind it, slap some Bondo on it, throw paint at it — sort of like Jackson Pollock in three dimensions,” he said. “Now it’s like some German engineer took control of his head and process.” Mr. Carter recounted bumping into a fellow Skowhegan graduate, Judy Pfaff, at a party about a year ago. She jokingly remarked, “Whoever thought Johnny Swing would become so refined?”
Mr. Swing’s work was already finding its way into significant private and institutional collections in 2009, when Sotheby’s sold a Nickel couch from the estate of the designer Robert Isabell for $104,500, smashing the $20,000 high estimate. (His current auction record stands at $155,000.)
James Zemaitis, who directed the sale at Sotheby’s and is now R & Company’s director of museum relations, said, “As beloved as Johnny’s coin pieces are, the reality is that his talent is as a metalsmith. You can put him in the American studio furniture pantheon as a sort of successor to Albert Paley and Paul Evans.”
According to Mr. Zemaitis, R & Company encouraged Mr. Swing to push beyond the “literal representation of money” and focus even more on “the beauty of his sculptural forms.” In making his new nesting pieces, Mr. Swing decided to take a different approach to the coins (which he obtains from banks, weeding out any that are too dirty or scratched). Now, after the coins are cleaned, he runs them through a machine that flattens, distorts and blurs them so that they are less immediately recognizable as currency.
“The material being abstracted may actually bring the work up a notch,” Mr. Swing said. “The coins are now almost more beautiful as objects. Each shape is independently dynamic, and I’m making them more my own. They’re also a bit more mysterious — there will be some really beautiful ghostlike images when they’re polished.” And that, he hopes, will give them a new bit of magic.