February 2016

New York is gearing up for The Armoury Show, taking place from 3rd - 6th March. 

Celebrating its 22nd year, the show is America's leading international art fair, taking place on Piers 92 and 94 with views over the Hudson River. It is a New York cultural institution and a highly anticipated event on the global arts calendar. This week we've caught up with Nana Spears, Co-founder and Creative Director of Fort Makers, an art collective based in Brooklyn. She talks us through New York's hidden gems, where to spend a relaxed evening with friends and of course, what not to miss at The Armoury Show.

You are co-founder and creative director of the art brand, Fort Makers. Tell us a little bit about it

Fort Makers is a brand that’s very much inspired by the Bauhaus. It’s our aim to make art that can be used, art that comes off the wall, literally. I think a deeper relationship with art can be achieved when a person uses the art.

What are your greatest inspirations?

I’m most inspired by the artists I work with. Naomi Clark, Noah Spencer and I have developed an aesthetic language together for over six years. It’s easy for us to jump between ideas and refine an idea without even putting a pencil to paper. They are my favourite people to brainstorm with.

Nature is also a huge inspiration to Fort Makers. We often take our art out into the woods and photograph it so we can see how it relates to nature. We go on fort-making trips that are art pilgrimages. For example, we’ve been to Marfa, Texas to see Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation, and then we hiked in Big Bend National Park. On a trip to Western Pennsylvania we went to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water and Wharton Escherick’s handmade house. We then stayed at it and took pictures of our art in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Duncan House in Polymath Park. These trips synchronize our process of working together and through them we come to a deeper understanding of what drives us and excites us.

What’s next for Fort Makers?

I’m super excited about making hand-painted, stuffed furniture with Naomi. We’re debuting a 6ft wide circular ottoman and a 3ft wide half-circle ottoman at the Volta Art Fair. Naomi painted these in black and white and they remind me, in a certain way, of ancient cave paintings.

Noah has been getting more and more commissions to make large-scale site-specific sculptures. For instance, he made a grouping of wooden light sculptures, one of them being a bench that glows on its underside, for a client’s minimalist ranch in Colorado. These are so good, in fact I think they’re the best things Noah has ever made, and I haven’t even seen them yet in person. It thrills me that customers are entrusting Fort Makers to make objects that take up so much space!

You live in a beautiful Brooklyn property that once functioned as a boarding house. How did you go about designing its aesthetic in a way that reflected your personality, yet still retained the history of the building?

Right now I see the house as a large homage to Ellsworth Kelly. It’s colour blocked with some of my favourite colours: citron, Yves Klein blue, Kelly green, melon and terracotta. I work with a painter, Mike Lancelotti, who owns a business called Conceptual Painting. He’s the best house painter one could ever imagine having. He’s a photo realistic painter (you should see how realistic his paintings are) who paints interiors for a living, amongst other things. Now he also creates green, living walls in restaurants and homes. Anyway, he’s a perfectionist. One of the coolest rooms in my house is my kitchen where Mike painted a grid of Yves Klein blue over white. The wall looks like it’s woven.

We haven’t done any work on the structure of the house and we don’t plan to. One of the things that really attracted me to the house was how it had never been chopped up into separate apartments. It maintains the structure of its original design as a single-family home, and it has this amazing central staircase that could only exist now in single-family home. My husband and I kept everything in tact, including the original pine floorboards.

Let’s talk art; what’s not to miss this year at The Armoury Show?

First, go see Fort Makers at the Volta NY Art Fair that’s occurring at the same time as The Armoury Show! We designed four pieces that will be used in the Volta Artnet lounge where guest speakers will be giving talks.

The Armoury Show is a great place to see foreign galleries that you can’t normally see. So I would say don’t miss the section called Armoury Focus: African Perspectives. That looks great.

Aside from The Armoury Show, where else do you get your cultural fill from?

Documentaries are often my deepest inspirations. They cultivate how I understand other cultures and world issues. I’m a Frontline fanatic.

The city offers an endless supply of cultural information, and I try to get out there and soak up as much of it as I can. I mean, think about how many museums NY has! And they’re all so good. The Morgan Library is often overlooked, and it’s a gem. There’s a Warhol drawing exhibit up now that I want to see. And the Noguchi Museum is sublime. Of course, don’t forget about MoMA PS1. It’s in an old schoolhouse, and it has a permanent James Turrell installation.

I look at art books all the time. When Fort Makers has an upcoming challenge, and I know there are references that I’ll need, I’ll buy a tonne of them. They really guide me and contextualise what we’re doing. Most art continues a conversation that someone else, other than the artist, started. I want to understand how our art fits into the larger picture.

When you're not creating art you're living and breathing New York City. There’s a varied food culture here; where is your go-to place on a Friday night?

Roman’s or Aita, my two favourite Italian restaurants in my neighbourhood, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Neither of them have ever served me anything but excellent food. Plus their employees are all really cool; people you want to be friends with. A lot of them are artists.

Best spot for people watching?

I think gallery openings in Chelsea are so fun for people watching. I went to a George Condo opening last year, and I felt like I was in a Fellini film. One woman had a bird on her head, not alive but stuffed. And then there were lots of super tall, blond, hot women wearing super tall stilettos, hanging on the arms of men twice their age; people wear the best outfits to gallery openings.

Last-minute date spot?

One of the sexiest places to meet in the city is the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel. Behind the bar there’s a lushly coloured mural by Maxfield Parrish of Old King Cole that’s exquisite. Plus, the room is super dark...

How do you spend your weekends?

I watch documentaries and go to art shows. I love to go on long walks with some sort of agenda in mind. I’m really good at organising field trips and researching things, so I take my husband on mini-field trips over the weekend. We often find it's on these smaller trips that we plan the bigger field trips.

Fort Makers is located just a few blocks away from your home – where’s best to grab coffee? Or a cold beer?

For coffee I go to Brooklyn Roasting. They’re fantastic and have floor to ceiling glass windows. And for drinks after work we go to Aita. It’s practically our headquarters.

Tips for an out-of-towner? What’s New York’s best kept secret?

Head over to Red Hook, Brooklyn to feel a vibe you won’t feel anywhere else. This is a place where old school neighbourhood types and artists mix, and where antisocial New Yorkers live. It feels a bit like a ghost town, sometimes, and I mean this in a good way! It definitely feels like you’re nowhere near Manhattan. Go to Pioneerworks on a Second Sunday (a party hosted every second Sunday of the month) to experience one of the hippest and most cutting edge art spaces in the city. Then have drinks at Sunny’s and dinner at The Good Fork. If you’re an art lover, this will be a good day, guaranteed.

Where’s the best place to stay in New York?

For easy access to the Whitney Museum, the Highline and Chelsea galleries stay at the Standard, the Highline Hotel or the Jane Hotel - they’re all groovy. The Jane Hotel looks like a Wes Anderson set, and it has a chic Moroccan restaurant in it called Café Gitane.

If you’re visiting Brooklyn, stay at the Boswijk. It's a cosy yet minimalist Air BnB that also hosts art-related events, and it’s in the centre of the Bushwick gallery area. Plus we’ll soon be showing Noah’s Line Light sculptures there. I think visitors really enjoy seeing this vibrant artistic community. And it’s near plenty of hip and influential restaurants, including Roberta’s, a pizza restaurant with a rooftop garden on its premises. I would say this area is the epicentre of New York hipsterdom.

All photography (c) Nana Spears