Michael Prokopow likes stuff – and he thinks about it a lot. A cultural historian and curator, he’s also a stuff expert and aficionado (of sorts), teaching courses at OCAD University on topics in material culture: the context in which objects are made and how and why we get attached to them. “It may not be that the person loves the rocking chair, but they love that it belonged to Aunt Mary,” says Prokopow. “I feel very fortunate in my life, that something I actually love – namely, stuff – I get to have as my professional engagement.”
In his Toronto loft, in the heart of vibrant Kensington Market, Prokopow gathers furnishings and artworks, distinguishing little between categories. “Every human-made object, whether art or not, is about expression. How do ideas get put into material form?” he asks. “In essence, the furniture is of the same ilk as the artwork,” whether modernist, postmodernist or contemporary, whether traditionally useful, like a chair, or beautiful, like a painting or sculpture. “Yes, it’s eclectic, it’s quirky, it’s my taste,” he says. Decor, contends Prokopow, gives a glimpse into character. “I am my things.”
Prokopow’s thoughtful preoccupations are revealed through his collection: a paint-dipped globe by Douglas Coupland that comments on ecological degradation; an airport runway sign-inspired lightbox by An Te Liu, built to the exacting standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization; a somewhat figural sculpture by Jérôme Havre, minus any specifying identifiers; a hanging textile by Omar Badrin, raised in Newfoundland, using the techniques of fish-net weaving, to wear or get caught in; a large canvas by Emmy Skensved that makes difficult reading of the sentence “I did this painting for you.” And then, a table by Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia wire chairs, and a recliner and ottoman by Hans Wegner, all modern masterpieces of a different variety.
In his early life, while still in school at the University of Victoria, Prokopow worked in an antique store and was “amazed at the array of things that human societies produced,” he says. Initially drawn to historical styles, his tastes evolved toward an appreciation of modern forms, “where function is retained and decoration is removed, and the stripping away of detail gets to the essence.” But just as modernist designers Charles and Ray Eames, in their own, well-documented home, eventually pivoted away from minimal furnishings to include Mexican pottery and richly textured tapestries, Prokopow continues to tweak his personal style. “I’m interested in colour, I like biomorphic shapes, I like modern architectonic objects. I bring things into the space all the time,” he says.
Certainly, stuff has meaning, but also ramifications. Prokopow reflects on a recent exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario featuring photographic and video works by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, depicting the end result and impact of advanced capitalism, mass production and consumption. “I love things, but it’s a Faustian bargain,” he says. “We can get caught up in their beauty, fetishizing them and the status they afford us, but they come at a cost. We are getting to the tipping point.” This is why Prokopow advocates thrift store shopping to his students – and practises what he preaches. Having already been through the cycle once, vintage items remain useful, oftentimes beautiful, even if anonymously designed and previously worked in. “That old spatula you buy for 49 cents at Value Village can still flip eggs as effectively as the one from Williams-Sonoma,” he says.
Get the Look
Leaders of Men by An Te Liu, price upon request at Anat Ebgi.
Black Eye by Omar Badrin, $120 at Birch Contemporary.
Large walnut and chrome oval table by Florence Knoll for Knoll, $7,305.10 at 1stdibs.
Harry Bertoia Italian steel wire side chair with red cushion, $846.61 at 1stdibs.
Triangle teak side table, $295 at Guff Furniture.