What one artist sees in salvage

Noel Mercado is a Chicago-based artist whose work uses found objects to generate new functions and forms. Several Knoll chairs have been the basis for his works. We met Noel at an auto salvage yard early one Monday morning.

Noel Mercado

Let’s start with where we are—a massive scrapyard. Why are we meeting here?
Salvaging is a big part of how I source materials. My practice focuses on seeing new potential in existing objects. A key factor in everything I make is that you can see exactly what I used. All the dents and rust and cutmarks—my goal is to preserve that but with a new form or function. These materials have their own past. That has always called to me.

Do you gravitate to certain types of materials?
I like to take objects intended for a specific function and apply that function to something completely new, like with the seatbelts on the Wassily chair. Or sometimes there’s a more personal attachment, like the ‘Little Trees’ on the Cesca. I always had a specific one hanging in my car throughout high school. I still like the sculptural quality and the vibrant colors. It’s such a recognizable object.

Junkyard Dogs, 2023
Junkyard Dogs, 2023
Little Trees, 2023
Little Trees, 2023

How do people respond to your work when you show it publicly?
It’s fun to talk to people or overhear their conversations. Almost every time, they have specific memories tied to the materials I used because they’re so familiar. Other people see things in these objects that I didn't see. I like that part of it.

There’s definitely a sense of humor in your work.
It's more fun to me when I can finish a piece and just kind of laugh at it. Like, where it looks good and it's also a little cheeky. Technique is what I take seriously.

Noel Mercado

“Deconstructing Knoll furniture has taught me a lot about structure, materials, beauty, and the balance between them all. I’m just trying to contribute a new perspective on what already exists.”

How do you think about technique?
In the world of the internet, as long as it photographs well, execution matters less. And that's really disappointing. Because I am super conscientious about construction.

Whenever I’m looking at art or a designed object, in my mind I’m visually deconstructing it. I’m fascinated by how artists and craftspeople realize their ideas—woodworkers, leathersmiths, my grandmother and her sewing.

I'm making things so that someone who’s an expert in their craft can look at it closely and it’s undeniably good. That’s what gets me excited.

What makes Knoll a good canvas to work with?
Working on Knoll furniture requires a serious appreciation for the artists and the standards they set when they designed these pieces. Deconstructing Knoll furniture has taught me a lot about structure, materials, beauty, and the balance between them all. I’m just trying to contribute a new perspective on what already exists.

Noel Mercado
Noel Mercado

You mentioned your grandmother. How was she influential?
I grew up watching my grandmother sew. She has always made all kinds of things for the family using complex techniques like it’s no big deal. I think she gave me my eye for detail and my appreciation for things made from scratch.

When did you start sewing?
When I was a teenager, my friend and I would thrift clothes that were far too big for us and take them back to his mom’s sewing machine. We figured out how to use it well enough to turn the clothes we’d found into the clothes we wanted. Once I saw the capabilities of the craft, I started sewing everything in sight just to practice and learn more about the mechanics of the machine.

Do you have a particular affection for cars?
Cars can be a representation of self expression, a lot like clothing. Growing up I would customize the things that I had with whatever money I could. Altering my thrifted clothes went hand-in-hand with adding an unnecessary number of speakers to my car.

Noel Mercado

How do you decide what to make from your stash of materials?
At some point, I start to see ideas in all the things I’ve collected. I usually filter out a hundred ideas before I commit. If it’s where your mind goes first, that’s what I’m trying to avoid. So I come up with those ideas first, steer in a totally different direction, and then I just go.

Photography and video by Adam Jason Cohen

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