In the 21st century art and design have become inextricable, the persistent attempt to maintain distinction perilous. Art, we are constantly and mistakenly reminded, is useless, its enigmatic and obscure value system indebted to the Church. Design on the other hand belongs to the realm of useful things – a chair, helicopter, razor, font – in which beauty meets efficiency. However, this utilitarian view, while dominant, has given way to a very different understanding of the life of objects. No longer do we hold onto Walter Benjamin’s view that the ‘age of mechanical production’ has compromised the ‘aura’ of things. Today the auratic is everywhere, in everything – an iPhone as sacred as the saintly image of Mother Theresa. Karl Marx long ago predicted the fetishization of the commodity and the democratization of desire. It seems that nothing is immune to rarefaction. Objects exist not only as things but as grails for a hyperactive and avaricious imagination. As age-old distinctions wither and desire – the driving force of consumption – becomes absolute, we find the rise of the blithe disregard for distinction.

As Paola Antonelli notes, ‘It is not enough for designers today to balance form and function, and it is also not enough simply to ascribe meaning. Design now must imagine all its previous tasks in a dynamic, animated context. Things may communicate with people, but designers write the initial script that lets us develop and improvise the dialogue’. As Deyan Sudjic further notes, there is more than one kind of utility – ‘the emotional variety, as well as the functional’. Today we consider the finest objects as perfected and synergetic fusions of emotion and form – impressions of ‘infinite space … syncopated by rhythmic structure’. What is believed to distinguish a great work of art and design is its power to channel a deep emotion that exists before apprehension, before conscious engagement with the temporal and spatial, which then finds itself restored to the world in the moment of insight and engagement with the object. Thus, when Antonelli speaks of an improvisatory ‘dialogue’ she is also referring to a far deeper connectedness that bonds the arts to the metaphysical – a fusion of the otherworldly and the worldly.

Objects exist not only as things but as grails for a hyperactive and avaricious imagination.

Robert Macfarlane captures this obscure tactility in the phrase – Deep Time. ‘Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone … opens into the future as well as the past … For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking’. It is this deceleration, this reconfiguration of the life of objects – of stone in particular – the lies at the core Heino Schmitt’s art … mind … desire … drive. For him, stone is the quintessence of deep time rather than any obdurate or inert matter. After MacFarlane, it is ‘a liquid briefly paused in its flow’, for ‘seen in deep time, stone folds as strata, gouts as lava, floats as plates, shifts as shingle’. That humankind and stone are joined as one is the greater insight. ‘We are part mineral beings too – our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones – and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land. It is mineralization – the ability to convert calcium into bone – that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains’.

None of this is declared in Schmitt’s sculptures, but it is certainly implied. It is there in the anthropomorphic reticulation of stone, in an object’s secreted mobility and the love for the dirigible – a thing made of moving parts. It is there in the artist’s care for functionality, in which the human body becomes one with its structural armature and support. Here, consider Sudjic’s description of Gerrit Rietveld’s 1923 Red and Blue Chair as an artefact ‘that floats free of time and place. Its geometry still transforms the spatial qualities of any interior in which it finds itself’. It is this affect and effect – more deeply struck – which informs the life of Schmitt’s objects. Their purpose is never merely decorative or functional, it is also existential and metaphysical, as welded to the fragile body as it is to the infinite spirit, for his is an art distinguished in … through … because of deep time.

Is the human body the fulcrum in the relationship between nature and architecture? Schmitt thinks so. Is the ever-changing human body the engine-room of temporal and spatial change? Surely. As for the singularity of objects, rather than their generic impact? For Schmitt, it is this lone invention that is the key to an object’s aura and power, its utile and/or inutile strength. Under the moniker Heino Schmitt Design (HSD) the artist deepens the uniqueness of things, be it an article of furniture or a light fixture. That the same impact defines what we might perceive as art, reaffirms my opening salvo regarding the inextricability of art and design. What matters far more is our lived relation to things, our dialogue with objects that must be as felt, as intuitive, as elementary, as it is known and knowable. This is because, after Friedrich Nietzsche, felt apprehension is akin to a ‘physiological thought’ – the body thinks and feels in time and space; it is embraced – newly minted, newly understood – in that rarefied encounter.

Heino Schmitt, See the Light, 2023. Stone, copper, 54 x 18 x 18 cm. Photo credit, Anita Erasmus, Barefoot Heart Photography.

The key to Schmitt’s life of objects is frequency – the belief ‘that matter holds frequency, and frequency matters’. This conflation is key. His is an art that is reverberative, attuned to senses other than mere sight, because an object does not only belong to the seeing world, because bodies, lives, are enactments, actualisations, more adjectival than nominal – economies of being and becoming, shot through and traversed by realms internal and external. Indeed, the distinction between the outer and inner worlds is impossible to maintain. But if the frequency of things is the critical factor in their making, so is ‘common sense’. It is not separation that matters most but commonality – that which joins us, sustains a human chain, that which binds the future to the past, evolution to imagination. ‘Sculpture allows me to channel my emotions and philosophical ideas through materiality’, says Schmitt. However, lest we forget, while seemingly rock solid, materiality – psychically – is also fluid and larval. It is mutation that breathes life into things. The mineralization of the world is a sacred truth.

‘Nature has the unparalleled ability to both still and stimulate the mind, inducing a flow state that can allow one to deeply connect to form’. That his most recent works feature ‘androgenous beings and liberated beasts’, reveals the allure of discovery and vulnerability as vital spurs. His is none other than a richly intuitive empathic drive, a search for ‘a new humanism that transcends “civilization”’. ‘By exploring my inner Self through meditation and isolation, I’ve become more aware of my responsibility towards the collective. This has led me to consider how potentiality can expand actuality by considering emotions within metaphysics, and vice versa’, says Schmitt. Once again, we see a confluence of the inner and outer worlds, without which sublimity would remain out of reach. For Schmitt, an empath, this is not a viable option. After Juval Noah Harari, he notes that ‘In a world that’s interconnected, the supreme moral imperative becomes the imperative to know’. However, the knowledge needed to live well is never extractive, it is inductive, intuitive, fragile, tender, profound. That Schmitt draws this knowledge from stone is all the more telling. After all, ‘rocks are a reminder of the cosmic soup bubbling and slowly cooling down in the Mother Kiln. Rocks are containers of pre-human knowledge that form an inherent foundation. Grounding. Timeless. In the cosmic arc of time, human existence seems like a brief bio-chemical collateral’. And yet, despite the mere speck that is human life, it behooves Schmitt to redress the imbalance, shape-shift our dying civilization, hold fast to the greater realm that exceeds us, but also, in this brief moment, earths us.

LEFT: Heino Schmitt. Straightback Martian Springhare, 2022. Stone,
copper. Photo, Anita Erasmus, Barefoot Heart Photography

RIGHT: Heino Schmitt, Prosperity, 2024. Stone, copper, 56 x 26 x 28 cm.
Photo, Anita Erasmus, Barefoot Heart Photography

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