Initially known for her blobb rings and the childhood nostalgia they embody, Sofia Elias has since expanded her practice, applying her ludic style across a range of sculptural media. The multidisciplinary artist brings both her playful approach and background in architecture to her work, resulting in highly crafted objects presented in glossy, candy-colored finishes and spontaneous, irregular shapes. Each original, one-of-a kind piece solicits tactile, sometimes full-body engagement: encountering it isn’t only about looking, it’s about playing.
Let’s begin with a bit about you.
⎯⎯⎯ I’m from Guadalajara, I moved to Mexico City nine years ago when I came to study architecture. It was a very strict school where I mostly felt like an engineer, with lots of restrictions on what I could do. But in my final year of school I chose to design a playground for my thesis, and that’s where all the experimentation started. During my time on exchange, I felt more creative than I had in five years of school in Mexico. I had wonderful professors - they were giving reading material specific to my interests and more personalized directions for my research. It wasn’t just the entire class reading the same thing.
Where was that?
⎯⎯⎯ In Israel. I went to Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. I actually studied one year of fine arts there before I started studying architecture at Anahuac University in Mexico. And then I went back there on exchange, but to the architecture campus. I always had the dilemma of whether I should study art or architecture. I thought if I studied art then I wouldn't be able to do architecture too, so I went for architecture and now I’m exploring the art part.
I was actually going to ask about the shift from architecture to your artistic practice
⎯⎯⎯ I started experimenting with different materials when I was working on the playground I was designing for my thesis. For the first time, my professor was accepting my drawings and maquettes. My models were made of bubble gum and pasta, and of course everything was covered in glitter. I was searching for a material that was very lightweight because of the kind of models I was making. That's when I started to do the blobb rings. I had left over material and started to experiment with making rings for myself, and then I made more, then my friends wanted them, then stores wanted them, and suddenly I have a brand!
So it was completely organic. What were you thinking of doing before blobb happened?
⎯⎯⎯ The goal for me was to do sculpture. I was in this inbetween of architecture and sculpture with the playground, making this sculpture creature that people could play on. When I started playing more with my hands and invented the material the rings are made of, it was a way of doing sculpture. For me, the rings were always mini sculptures for the body. I still don't know anything about jewelry. Then the brand grew too quickly for me to even get into sculpture because suddenly I had to maintain orders. But I’m finally being able to explore things on a larger scale and experimenting more with sculpture.
So, you moved from an interest in architecture and exterior forms to making objects and forms for the interior. Have you carried anything from architecture into your practice?
⎯⎯⎯ Yes, completely. Studying architecture was very complete and I learned a lot - the theory fascinates me. And I learned Autocad and Rhino that I still use. It's funny that now I’m doing chairs that you can't even sit on because you fall. Even though they look fun, there was a long engineering process behind them. It took more than a year to develop, with lots of trial and error. I had an architect friend who was looking at the first prototypes, and said to me: I’ve figured it out, I know how to make them not collapse. And I said, No, you don’t get it, I want people to fall on them! In architecture school, they teach you that everything has to be functional. Everything I'm doing right now is not functional at all.
Your work favors formlessness and play, which feels antithetical to what you’d learn in architecture school.
⎯⎯⎯ Yes, but at the same time, I give myself a very free side with blobb, not having molds, each piece is unique, this bumpy surface. Then I have this very OCD side to me, where if something’s not symmetrical, I’ll start all over. That happens with my drawings, for example.
With your sculptures, everything is so free and irregular, then you see your drawings - they're so detailed and meticulous.
⎯⎯⎯ Those are the two sides of me. On the blobb side, it's less restrained, but when I’m drawing I'm very meticulous. I’ll use the smallest pen size possible, I'm not even playing music when I'm drawing.
I want to talk about the Pofi chairs. They're soft sculpture, made to look like actual chairs - but you only find out once you sit on them. Where did that idea come from?
⎯⎯⎯ For a long time I’ve been researching people like Claes Oldenburg, GUFRAM, all these Italian radical groups who were doing soft sculpture. Something about my work that you can see in the playgrounds I did, is that it's very ludic, and it invites all ages. It's not only for the kid to play, but also for the adult to find the inner child, to laugh again, to lose control for a little bit. People usually know what to expect with the chairs, but when it's a surprise, it's nice to see an adult totally lose control.
To get discombobulated
⎯⎯⎯ Yeah! Adults always need to be upright.
And behaving ourselves…
⎯⎯⎯ And you don’t know how you’re going to fall on the chair. Some people are really rigid when they sit, because they don’t want to lose control, so they stiffen their legs. I think it's nice when people let go. It can also be for the person who arrives late to the dinner party.
Tell me about your show at LABOR last year, with the Pofi chairs and the cake drawings
⎯⎯⎯ I showed drawings of cakes that had this extra structure - they have columns on each level, and they're super ornamented. They’re drawn how architecture was drawn traditionally, with no color. And then a pile of Pofi chairs that look like frosting, all colorful but with no structure. I liked this juxtaposition.
And visitors were welcomed to throw themselves into the pile.
⎯⎯⎯ I wanted the show to be interactive. My work is very hands-on. Whenever you go to shows, people are not touching things.
Exactly, we’re expected to be on certain behavior in the gallery
⎯⎯⎯ Yes. I also wanted to see what happened with the chairs when people jumped on them. And then people were stepping on them with their shoes and I was like - I didn’t mean it like that! [laughs].
Yeah, you're like, there are some rules here!
⎯⎯⎯ It was an experience, I like that my work is an experience.
Where does the playful, interactive aspect of your work come from?
⎯⎯⎯ I have a lot of nephews, and I love it when they overhear me talking to my parents about a problem and tell me their solution. They’ll say something like, why don't you do it like this, put a slide out the window. And I'm like, you're a genius! When I was doing my thesis I was doing lots of research on Gaetano Pesce, Noguchi, Calder’s Circus, and so on, and I was telling my nephews about my projects. When I was talking to them about my work, I came to this realization that, when we’re kids, we’re the most pure versions of ourselves. We’re not afraid of saying the wrong thing, we're not aware of what's allowed and what's not, there are no filters. So I was trying to go back to that place. I started working a lot on my inner child.
So it's been like therapy (laughs)
⎯⎯⎯ Cause I started questioning why all of the things that I'm doing are such childish, playful things - like, is there something wrong? (laughs) But what I'm really doing is experimentation and exploration of different materials. So if I'm interested in recycled plastic then I'm gonna do something with recycled plastic - like with the bracelets. When I did the collaboration with my friend, Varon, for example, I got to learn how to make my material hug the silver and interact with other materials. I do lots of experiments and tests. With the Pofi chairs, I wanted to see how to make them look like they had never dried, like wet paint. That's where the idea for these coasters came from. They look like wet paint on a dry surface. The coasters tip the cup a little bit, but because of the material they’re made of, they make a friction with glass so that it sticks.
So they're a bit functional…
⎯⎯⎯ Maybe. [laughs].
Okay, so the rings, for example, look like playful little play doh sculptures. But they’re made of sixteen layers of resin and are time intensive to make. Where does the idea of presenting highly crafted objects in a childlike manner come from?
⎯⎯⎯ There’s a lot of experimentation. There was this element of surprise I was looking for - like that “Ahh!” that you get with the Pofi chair - for people to be surprised by how lightweight they are. People expect them to be heavier, but they almost bounce when you drop them on the floor. The reason I use so many layers of resin is for the gems to be hugged by them, to give this sense of things emerging.
You share the playfulness of your own process - which seems to really resonate with people
⎯⎯⎯ Yeah, they’re these childlike objects, they’re for little girls, but also for my mom and older women, and guys wear them too. Even serious people who are looking for a pop of color wear them. And you have to properly care for them, so this idea of taking care of this unique little thing, it’s almost like taking care of a tamagotchi.
Yeah, I’m someone who wears all black, even when I was younger. But I’m so attracted to the blobb rings, I think because they remind me of when I was little, trading rings at school with my friends then coming home with all these new things and getting into trouble with my mom.
⎯⎯⎯ I love that. And my obsession with making them so lightweight is so that people can wear ten at the same time.
I’m sure everyone has their own stories that come up when they see your work
⎯⎯⎯ Well, yes! The trading thing has actually been on my mind. When I do events where they want to gift rings, I’m like: make people trade in the middle of the dinner. I want to bring people back to that pokemon card era. And it makes the conversation start. I recently had a dinner party and put rings on the place settings, but the sizing made it complicated, since they’re all handmade pieces.
Since they’re mini sculptures, has the sizing been an issue?
⎯⎯⎯ Yes! They come in these little capsules, have you seen?
Yes, like kinder surprises
⎯⎯⎯ Exactly, the idea was to bring back that moment from childhood when you put a coin into a machine to get a toy and you don’t know what you’re going to get. You’re crossing your fingers and hoping to get the purple giraffe, but you get the orange monkey instead - I want to bring back that feeling of surprise. That maybe you won't get to decide which finger you put the ring on, that the ring will choose you. But, yes, it’s been a problem. I don't have sizing on my website, just small, medium, and large. Because if one day it was raining and I needed to put two extra layers of resin on a ring, those two layers make a difference in the size.
Let’s talk about the other objects you make - the wobble vases and the bags
⎯⎯⎯ The bags that I haven't released! So, the vases: the way buckets are sold here in Mexico and displayed in the street really interested me. It was a way for me to make a jump with scale but keep my practice of not using molds. Each curvature is different, no two vases are the same, yet they’re all made from the same readymade. The outside is manipulated with heat, then I add beads - it kind of looks like coral.
Yeah, like coral dipped in candy
⎯⎯⎯ Yeah, like coral dipped in candy. For me, the interesting part with the vases was using the buckets, something Mexican, then manipulating it into something else. At first I was recycling these two buckets I had in my studio, but now I'm purchasing and repurposing them. The original color of the bucket stays. For me it's very Mexican. They’re producing a lot of trash here, on a large scale. I’m researching how to repurpose the trash I make. And the bags - they have taken such a long time [holds one up].
Is that glitter on the bottom?
⎯⎯⎯ Yeah. I wanted it to look like if you set it down on a table, that the things on the table got stuck to it [shows the bottom of the bag with coins, silver rings and glitter].
⎯⎯⎯ There’s a little magnet at the top so it closes, to make it more like a bag, but what I'm interested in with the bags is the handles. Some handles come out very long, some come out short. I work with cold water next to me to preserve the shape. The idea is that you would wrap yourself around it and wear it like a sculpture, but also you can stretch it around your body in different ways.
It's another sculpture for the body, like your rings and bracelets
⎯⎯⎯ Yeah, I don’t know - it’s very weird. I'm very excited to release them. It’s been challenging to price them and to get the material. The handles are made of recycled plastic, like the bracelets I make. The bottom is silicone.
I make the bracelets myself, but I have to go to a factory to make the straps for the bags. It’s the long handles that I'm most interested in, but it's been hard to find enough material to make them, since they’re recycled plastic. And they don’t always let me come to the factory. So I might not be able to release more than twenty bags. I do have smaller handles, so I might release some miniature ones.
With the handles, when they come out of the extractor, do you let them form their own shapes?
⎯⎯⎯ I shape them and put them in cold water so they set straight away. If I don't, they come out too straight. That works for people who don’t want to be uncomfortable, but I like them to look like this [points to the purple bag with extremely long, squiggly handles]. The thing I'm most interested in with the bags is how uncomfortable they are.
Typically with fashion and clothes, and architecture too, you're thinking about functionality and how this is going to work for the body
⎯⎯⎯ Yeah, I like the most uncomfortable ones for some reason. It becomes almost like a new organ for the body.
Something I’m noticing with each project you describe is this subversive element where you’re throwing away conventions and expectations - is that the intention when you go into a project?
⎯⎯⎯ I don’t do it intentionally, but, recently I keep hearing more and more from people that my work really reflects me. Someone came to the showroom recently and made the connection between the loop on the design for the swing set, and the loopy strap from my bags. I didn’t even notice that myself.
That's amazing. So what’s next?
⎯⎯⎯ I’m working on a collaboration with a brand called Dream Baby, based in Guadalajara. I’m their biggest fan, she's amazing. I'm very excited to drop that. We’re working on some bags and rings together. Bags that we can actually get produced and sell - not like mine [laughs].
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