The Side Project

18 July to 24 August 2013

Cesar Cueva and Karl Firla

Karl Firla, Carrots, ceps, curd, sorrell, Oscillate Wildly Restaurant Newtown, Sydney; 2013. Photo: Creative Image Photography.

The Side Project by Grace Cochran

It shouldn't be a surprise to find out just how closely Cesar Cueva's practice as a jeweller and metalsmith is linked with food. 'Nina [Cesar's wife] and I spent all our spare cash on eating out from the time we got together in our teens',i he admits. When he moved on from study in architecture and industrial design to the Gold and Silversmithing course at the Australian National University (ANU), Nina studied hospitality management and marketing in Sydney, then ran her own café, Fioro, for six years.

What a team! In 2004 they decided to open Metalab as a gallery and workshop in Sydney's Surry Hills, followed by the retail outlet Courtesy of the Artist (COTA), moving it in 2009 from Bourke Street to the Strand Arcade in Sydney's CBD. They represent over 60 jewellers and metalsmiths who make one-off, special series and production works, and present theme exhibitions and solo shows. As well, Cesar and close colleagues also work on special commissions for such as jewellery, sculpture and lighting. Both businesses now operate under the name of COTA, with a new website and great plans for further development.

Influenced by the Bauhaus approach to designing through making, Cesar Cueva is committed to working from an understanding of materials and hand-skills, but is also excited about opportunities provided by new technologies such as rapid prototyping, 3D scanning, CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled) machinery and laser cutting technology. Involvement in these technologies is often also through collaboration with colleagues who have particular skills, as well as small local specialist industries. He wants to remain at 'the bespoke end of the market' but at the same time likes to 'tag on' to related events, often developing something specific for a particular occasion, such as the Strand Arcade's Designers Night. Another of these was the Small Stories Big Picture event they devised with the Surry Hills Association Incorporated, where cyclists toured round local businesses with cameras and 'passports' offering discounts, while Metalab exhibited 'Designer Sushis'.

And they work with food. Some years ago, Cesar and Nina met Karl Firla, at that time chef and now owner of Oscillate Wildly, a restaurant in Newtown. Firla's approach to food is described as being part of a culinary movement known as 'molecular gastronomy', a scientific approach to cooking with the intent of creating exciting and inventive dishes. 'All sciences are useful for this enterprise' says Hervé This, its co-founder, 'not only chemistry and physics, but also biology, as well as history and sociology. However … the main aim for chefs … is to surprise and delight their guests or their family with exciting, tasty and healthy food.'ii For Firla, 'the kitchen is a playground for the adventurous, a place to continually evolve through a better understanding of product and technique … [working] closely with producers and suppliers to ensure the products he works with can reach their fullest potential, without compromising their integrity.' iii

Cesar Cueva recognised immediately a philosophy similar to his own, saying 'We both like what we do in operating niche businesses, but need different modes of working to attract people and get them back regularly while not compromising what we do'. He and Nina meet, talk and eat regularly with Firla and his partner Sally-Anne Cornelius, a jewellery client, and have travelled to Europe and America together three times since 2010, enjoying on each occasion, extraordinary dining experiences in top restaurants known to Firla. Cesar describes the experience of dining in these places as theatre, or as an excitingly extravagant artform. In Spain, they met chef Ferran Adrià at the El Bulli restaurant, north of Barcelona, and Cesar was impressed that food for 45 courses was served on dishes made in Spain especially for the restaurant, a venture that has resulted in a company now combining food, tableware, books and lecture programs. At El Celler De Can Rosa, in Girona, Spain for the first course of 15 subsequent dishes, a bonsai tree was placed on the table with olives and anchovies hanging from hooks. And in Chicago, Cueva had researched the Alinea restaurant, where they found chef, Grant Achatz, who collaborates with blacksmith/designer Martin Kastner from Crucial Detail in Chicago, serving food in or on service ware ranging from innovative glasses and plates to helium-filled balloons.

After returning to Sydney in 2010 Nina and Cesar refitted COTA in the Strand, and at the memorable opening party, food was served from a large metal tray designed by Cueva, with oval cut-out sections in the base curved to make small serving plates. The perforations were illuminated through transparent acrylic by LED lighting, in a system designed by Cinnamon Lee. Initially made in copper as a prototype, the final version was made as LIK LICHT in 2012 in stainless steel, the first of the serving trays in the range of prototypes to be exhibited in The Side Project. Rather than put it into production, Cueva decided to keep it as an exclusive product, making only three and hiring them out for special occasions. Since that time, he has further considered the idea of serving trays, with the idea of some being designed to wrap partly around the body.

The prototypes in The Side Project are designed as variations on a system of overlapping rectangles and circles, made in different materials including acrylic and the versatile Alupanel (aluminium composite) board. A range of small multi-rectangular stainless steel joining mechanisms slide into slots in each panel, either providing legs for the plate, or a support for the top panel. The prototype designs have the potential to be made in materials as diverse as timber, stone, porcelain, glass, plastic, commercial tiles or metal, depending on issues of cost and sustainability and on the requirements of the food to be served, such as keeping it sizzling or frozen, or at room-temperature. They can also be made in a number of different ways using hand and studio workshop technologies, or through contracting friends or local industries specialising in rapid prototyping, laser and water-jet cutting, with finishing taking place in the studio.

The exhibition of Cesar Cueva's prototypes of serving plates is complemented by enticing photographs of food presented on them, made by Karl Firla at Oscillate Wildly. These two friends and collaborators have successfully brought together their very similar work philosophies and artistic sensibilities while using very different materials, for different purposes and with different skills – though no doubt for similarly appreciative audiences.

Grace Cochrane is the former Senior Curator of Australian decorative arts and design at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia. Grace has been an advocate for highlighting and supporting Craft as a diverse form of Contemporary Arts Practice in Australia for over 20 years.