Functional Art

A mate of mine was telling me recently that a builder mate of theirs has never been busier. With so many people working from home, they’ve a whole new appreciation for their living space. That table and chair, fine for the odd session on the laptop, isn’t quite up to snuff when you’ve to sit at it for 8 hours a day, five days a week. That kitchen, grand for warming up take-aways or firing something into the microwave, isn’t quite up to cooking family meals seven days a week. That living room, once rarely used but now the hub of the home, seems old and dated. And with the money people are saving on their daily designer coffees, lunches out, and drinks after work, this builder mate is one happy man.

I don’t have those issues. I’ve been working from home for years. And it’s just the way I like it. Other than the noticeable increase in the price of food, my spending habits haven’t changed since the onset of the pandemic. My COVID-related life change is more to do with reusing, recycling, and refurbishing. Perhaps repurposing is a better word. I’m slowly amassing a wealth of old stuff that will someday be repurposed. I’ve huge coloured glass palinka bottles that will make great table lamps. I’ve old iron grids that, when mounted on an exterior wall, will make an excellent place to hang plant boxes. And we’ve a mountain of pallets that will one day be something other than a mountain of pallets. When I buy, I buy yesterday’s stuff with an eye to what it could morph into tomorrow.

My COVID savings relate more to travel than to going out, and thanks to the travel restrictions, I’ve been able to divert some of my flight money to indulge in art. I’m a fan of original, one-of-a-kind pieces that speak to me and I’m happy to support artists who, for the most part, seem to have fallen through the cracks of government support packages. But there’s still a part of me that sees buying art as an extravagance, something that teeters on the line between want and need.

But then, I discovered Tamás Balogh of Tomitéka fame and his world of what I like to call functional art.

Balogh grew up in the village of Herceghalom, not far from Budapest. After graduating from the  Teacher Training College in Eger with a degree in Hungarian and drawing, he then worked as a decorator and graphic artist. Today, he makes new stuff out of old stuff. And I find his work fascinating.

Initially inspired by simple Hungarian peasant furniture, he started making small pieces of furniture – shelves, cupboards, and cabinets – from old pieces of scrap wood. Then he added industrial accessories and rusty metals and started a line of custom-made lamps. He uses old wood, old nails, and scrap iron as for him, recycling is an important consideration.

I’ve been following him on Facebook for quite some time. I bought one of his table lamps, the shade of which still has a sticker showing it was once part of a car engine. I also bought one of his cupboards and every time I look at it, I notice something different. I wondered what inspired him. Did he picture the cupboard in his head and then find the materials to make it or was it more a case of seeing what he could do with the materials on hand.

These cupboards are born in two ways. On the one hand, I build the furniture around something interesting, placing it in a different environment or function. The other way is when a picture flashes, as a vision, and I try to realize it. In both cases, improvisation plays a very important role. I never plan exactly in advance what I will prepare. I never really know what the result will be. It is formed continuously during the creation.

Wall-mounted shelves are usually made with one or more drawers. Some also have storage compartments with small doors. Antique wood and rusty iron accessories give these small pieces of furniture a rustic, occasionally industrial, loft look. I love that fact that no two pieces are alike. Right angles and smooth surfaces are in short supply. Blueprints are non-existent. He uses what’s to hand. And so much of what he does depends on the mood he’s in. He introduces each of his creations to his viewing public as a proud father might introduce his child.

Sometimes people bring him things to be refashioned, Tomitéka style. Sometimes it’s a renovation job; other times what they bring becomes the focal point of what he builds around it. For example, he made a table lamp out of a retro aluminium lunch barrel. Who’d have thought it, eh?

Interestingly, most of his customers are women. And from the reaction I’ve had to my two pieces, I can fully understand that. My women friends love them. They get that they’re unique pieces made from old stuff that serve a practical purpose. They get the whole functional art thing. Not so the men.

But for Balogh, the most important thing in his job is being able to do what he likes best.

I found a form of creativity and creativity in which I feel like I can be successful and myself, and I start each day with pleasure. It can even be called environmentally conscious that I reuse things that are doomed to be thrown away, but the main aspect is the adventure and creativity inherent in the creation.

Tomitéka blends the best of old and new. Refashioning old materials with new creativity results in some wonderful pieces. He has a growing list of followers who appreciate how he makes the most of what otherwise might have been discarded. There’s a comforting reminder buried in there somewhere, that no matter how much we may think we might have outlived our usefulness, there’s always a way to keep contributing.



First published in the Budapest Times 16 September 2020

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