Ambika Subramaniam: Ergonomically Designing Art Objects

Ambika Subramaniam

Ambika Subramaniam

 Ambika Subramaniam was born and raised in an Indian family in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is just today graduating with a BFA in Sculpture at Washington University in St. Louis (with a concentration in film and media studies). She will be attending Chelsea College of Art and Design in the fall at University of the Arts London for an MA in Fine Arts. Ambika’s interests include classical Indian dance (she’s been a trained professional since she was 10), sculpture, architecture, and chairs. It was a pleasure for us to take an interview with Ambika Subramaniam who shared some interesting facts of her biography. We wish you a pleasant reading of Ambika Subramaniam success story and viewing of her amazing art objects.

The First Steps in Design

AP: Hi Ambika, it is nice to meet you and thank you for finding the time to tell our readers your success story. Could you please tell us about your first steps in design?

Ambika: Ever since I was little, I had a knack for the arts. My family is full of doctors (cardiologists, pathologists, etc) so I was the first one to actually love something in the humanities and art realm. Also, my grandfather was a carpenter after he retired so I would always sit in the woodshop with him and watch him work. I took classes at NOCCA (New Orleans Center of the Creative Arts) which is where I build my first object out of wood – a violin, which my grandfather was really proud of! I was also really heavily involved in dance when I was younger, and that also spawned my interests in the arts.

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AP: What a lovely start! So your grandfather’s work was one of your inspirations. Could you please tell us about your education degree? 

Ambika: I applied to Washington University in St. Louis because of their amazing architecture undergraduate program. My two biggest strengths in high school were math and art, so I figured it would be a great way to combine the two. In addition, if that fell through then I could always go pre-med at Wash U which made me parents a lot less skeptical about me entering the arts. They saw how motivated and driven I was to pursue architecture as a career so they’ve been nothing but supportive. After entering Washu’s architecture program, I realized how much I love structural objects and huge projects, but not so much urban planning and dealing solely with exterior/interior spaces. So I switched into Sculpture in the art school. I went abroad to Italy for a semester, which is where I was exposed to really great conceptual and contemporary art – something I wasn’t completely familiar with.

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It was really a challenge to actually make my work something meaningful and to visual a concept in an effective way – this made my semester abroad not only the hardest but also the most rewarding. Since coming back, I’ve had some amazingly talented professors who not only made us look at everything happening in the contemporary art world, but also to read a HUGE amount of art theory, criticism, and literature that could influence us in the long run. For example, we would not only read Hal Foster’s Art and Architecture or Elizabeth Grosz’s Chaos, Territory, and Art but would also have to read Kafka and Deleuze and Guattari. The heavy amount of reading and theory paired with intensive critiques, seminars, and lectures, made my experience at WashU extremely rewarding.

Ambika Subramaniam Success Story

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AP: Wow, you gained priceless experience at WashU. Write about genres you tried yourself in. Do you like working in some specific genre? Or do you prefer genre experiments?

Ambika: Because most of my education revolved around following the best professors and gaining as much knowledge as I could, I’ve dabbled into a multitude of genres (always somehow coming back to building wooden objects). I’ve worked in video, which was extremely difficult, but I had a great passion for it since I’m also a film concentration at WashU. For a large portion of college, I was interested in working in film art departments for art films, so dabbling into making short art films was a lot of fun. I found that it was much easier and more effective to go into this practice though on a more collective level (which is sometimes difficult to do in undergrad). I also in my spare time paint, draw, and sew clothes but I never pursued that conceptually. Somehow, I always found myself loving gestures and objects, and how those two interact and deal with each other in the world.

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Ergonomically Designing Art Objects

AP: You are a very talented personality. We find it just amazing! We really like your ergonomically designing art objects. How would you describe your work?

Ambika: About my chairs – I’ve always had an obsession with chairs. They are extremely mundane objects most of the time – they have set significations yet they also encompass a whole field of design. So many artists have dared to deal with the chair in the work – Kosuth, Beuys, Munari, Engels – but few of them actually try to dissect the notion of what a chair really is as an object. And that’s what I was trying to do with Ergonomically Designing Art Objects. Starting off with the basics – form and function – I questioned how exactly that could change the signification of the chair. Essentially, if you don’t call it a chair, and it doesn’t look like a chair, but it’s built and functions like a chair, then will people use it as a chair. With EDAO, many different parts of a chair are questioned and subverted – cushions are used for cushioning the bottom of the wood not the butt of the person sitting, light bulbs are put on the chair instead of next to it, etc. I’m really hoping to delve into this ideas of chair to the point where all signification is lost – but do so in a very positive way. Jean Baudrillard said that our current society is in a state of hyperrealism and lost referents – and I really think that using an object like a chair, which is so tangible and immediate to our gesture, into a contemporary art setting could maybe bring back that referent in the furniture design world.

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AP: Ambika, thank you so much for such great explanations. This is such a great idea to rethink the meaning of any object. By the way, what’s your favorite project you worked on so far?

Ambika: I have lots of favorites in my chairs for different reasons. I’m very attached to the baby wooden triangles – they’re not chairs at all but assemble with all the other pieces to make them more chair-like. They’re also super smooth and just adorable as a whole.

Equipment and Techniques

AP: What kind of equipment and techniques do you use to create your art objects? Describe us a bit of your creative process.

Ambika: I usually start my design with a lot of drawings. By the time I model them with Rhino and AutoCAD for a CNC cutter or for templates, they change drastically. Certain parts I will CNC and others I’ll cut by hand. The woodshop is where all the action happens – assembly, finishing, fixing.

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AP: What is the formula for success in your activity?

Ambika: As an undergrad, most of the success of these projects rest in whether I receive good critiques or not. Now, as a senior, I’ve started to publish my work online, participate in exhibitions, and enter for design awards. These have really started to alter how I look at my furniture because it becomes not just about concepts and how it could be better – which is something that happens in art school critiques – but also how it functions in the greater context of the design and art world. It’s a whole lot different outside of school in order to make the objects extremely powerful. I’m still working a lot of that out since I just graduated today!

AP: We wish all the best in your endeavors. Who is one person you would like to see interviewed on AstrumPeople?

Ambika: I’d love to see Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin interviewed for Astrum People. They’re an amazing duo based out of Amsterdam who are famous in the fashion world but also incredible artists. They’ve straddled the two realms flawlessly and I’d love to hear what they think about art and design.

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AP: We will definitely contact them regarding interviews. Is there someone who supports you in your creativity?

Ambika: I’ve had an amazing support team – my family who has never doubted my ambition and love for art, my friends who support my work and promote me as an artist. And obviously my amazing professors I’ve had throughout my education who have made me cry and challenged me to my breaking point – it’s where I made my best work and learned the most.

Golden Tips in Design

AP: Tell us three lessons you believe are really important for young designers?

Ambika: The lessons I’d give to young designers – especially in school – is to not just let things happen. You very much have to be actively getting your work out there, accepting hundreds of rejections or getting ignored lots of times before people actually start to think your work is legitimate. In school, people often get lazy because they’re in comfortable environments making their art. But being an artist means you have to have an aggressive passion about it and make people want to see what you’re making. It’s so important to be constantly challenging yourself to do more. Also, to be on top of the field you are entering. It’s extremely important to know what artists are doing the same things as you, exploring the same interests, etc.

Ambika, it has been a great pleasure for us to take an interview with you. Thank you very much for sharing such amazing success story with us. We wish you continued success, great achievements and many more other amazing ideas. To learn more about Ambika Subramaniam design feel free to visit her personal website with lots of incredible art objects.

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