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Gesamtkunstwerk. A tricky knot of syllables, the word doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Still, artist Michele Oka Doner smoothly peppers the term — an old German word for an all-encompassing work of art — into a conversation about her new book, “What Is White,” a limited edition folio published by Dieu Donné earlier this year. In addition to the artwork featured, she crafted the book’s paper pages and even handwrote the text with a paintbrush.
Gesamtkunstwerk is actually an apt description of Oka Doner herself, who’s also a sculptor, author and jewelry designer. In 2011 alone, she completed the book; designed the label for Chiusa Della Vasca, an olive oil produced by her friend, former Artforum editor in chief Ida Panicelli; created an etched glass canopy for the Miami Intermodal Center; launched a line of wallpaper in collaboration with Studio Printworks; is participating in the current “Night Scented Stock” group show at New York’s Marianne Boesky Gallery (it ends Oct. 22), and, at December’s Miami Biennale, will host a paper works exhibit titled “Exhaling Gnosis.” But her pièce de résistance this year is still upcoming: a massive installation for Fifty One East, the luxury superstore in Doha, Qatar, set to be unveiled next month. “She’s a renaissance woman,” her friend Yeohlee Teng remarks.
Need further proof? Oka Doner is the artist responsible for the sun-kissed brick walls in the underbelly of New York’s Herald Square subway station (1990), not to mention the marine-inspired granite and cast-bronze floors throughout Miami International Airport (1995-1999). As for the TV world, she once taught Martha Stewart how to make banana-leaf paper on the decorating doyenne’s show, and was a guest judge on the first season of Bravo’s “Work of Art.”
“People say sometimes, with surprise, ‘You use so many different materials, you make so many different things,’” says Oka Doner, a Miami Beach native who splits her time between there and New York. “Well, of course. Why wouldn’t you? Why do people feel they need to stake a claim in a small arena?”
For this interview, the artist, dressed in a custom-made draped black dress (more on that later) and black Prada slippers, is giving a tour of her cavernous SoHo loft — a former button factory which, by the way, was the real-life template for Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore’s apartment in “Ghost.” The 4,800-square-foot space is a rich panoply of textures and curios, and practically everything in it is of her own creation. She designed the closet doors and bar stools, the fireplace pokers, the colossal bronze table. Ditto the crystal fishbowls that sit on top of the latter (electric blue Siamese fighting fish swim inside), which were a 2007 collaboration with Steuben Glass. She did not, however, craft the curved Bugatti bench and chairs that rest near the entrance. They belonged to Andy Warhol.