"It was difficult and intimidating — the space was windowless, dark,
and dilapidated—and we were halfway around the world, so we couldn’t even visit. We had to take a leap of faith.” Angie West—who, along with Alberto Vélez, cofounded the Chicago-based design studio Refractory in the fall of 2021—is describing the firm’s striking presentation for independent design platform Alcova at Milan Design Week this past June. “We felt that the display needed to be multisensory,” she continues, “not just focused on sight, but also on scent and sound.
We [tapped into] imagery of the [American] frontier—of a place that can look otherworldly—by coating the walls in turmeric, so you walked into this yellow concrete cocoon. And we had Ry Cooder’s theme from Paris, Texas echoing around the space.”
The installation, Holotype, which also incorporated ethereal images by Austin-based photographer and documentarian Sarah Wilson, presented some 20,000 visitors with a heady mix of sensory experience and rich thematic context. It transformed the unusual setting of an abandoned former military psychiatric facility into a memorable showcase for Refractory’s debut, 40-piece collection of furniture and accessories.
Anchor pieces include the cast-bronze Tributary dining table and circular upholstered Ammonite ottoman, while sculptural lighting and objects (the cast-resin Cofre box doubles as an incense holder) provide smaller-scale interpretations of the studio’s industrial-forward design.
“I was skeptical all the way through to the end,” Vélez says with a laugh. “But the whole thing really came together, the combination of this strange space with a hint of the American West. One of the best parts was that we had a seriously powerful spotlight pointed straight at the entrance, so when people came in, it was like they were walking into punishing sun.”
Vélez and West are well-positioned to pursue work with an emphasis
on crafted materials. West is the founder of West Supply, a foundry and
glassworks studio that now functions as Refractory’s production partner
and sister company. Vélez benefits from time spent working in the millwork, custom, and licensed design divisions of New York design firm Studio Sofield. The partners first met at another venerable studio, Chicago’s
Holly Hunt, and formed Refractory years after leaving the firm.
“When the pandemic hit, Alberto called,” West says. “We started meeting in the
summer of 2020. We could see that there was going to be a significant
pause in the field—a chunk of time that we wouldn’t normally have—and we hoped that in the middle of a nightmare, we could find a silver lining.”
Holotype reflected Refractory’s ongoing interest in “frontier aesthetics,” and conveyed Vélez and West’s strong belief in the potential of unexpected collaboration. It also underscored the significance to their practice of the natural process of wear and tear, and the memories and histories to which such decay
is often linked. Conveyed in part through subtleties of texture, this focus has an appeal that many of the duo’s contemporaries fail to consider.
“Cast-bronze work can look precious and untouchable in a showroom,”
West reflects. “We want our work to be the opposite; it’s meant to
be touched and lived with.”