Art in the Air

Hovering in harmony with modern homes, today's mobiles energize and calm living spaces with ever-changing views

mobile maker brian schmidt with mobile

Brad Howe went to Brazil to study international affairs. Instead, he began churning out mobiles.

"I didn't even know who Calder was," he says, referring to Alexander Calder, the art form's chief inventor. But the Malibu-based artist learned about mobiles -- abstract, kinetic art, generally suspended from the ceiling -- from young Brazilian architects who loved their country's wealth of mid-century modern architecture and realized how beautifully the style meshed with these hovering webs of art.

"There was a huge interest in Brazil because mobiles fit wonderfully in modern architecture," Howe says. "Many architects designed spaces for mobiles -- but not many were making them."

He also discovered an affinity for the art form. "I could look at a mobile and build it the next day from memory," Howe recalls.

"I made seven for a Rio architect who sold them all in a week. I made 200 mobiles in a row, and I sold every one. I was sort of sucked into a vacuum."

Howe's story, surprisingly enough, is not surprising -- not to people who know mobiles. They are an art form, after all, based largely on serendipity -- how the parts move in relation to other parts, to the spaces they inhabit and the people who walk by.

two of brian schmidt mobiles

Equally serendipitous are the careers of many of their makers. "Serendipity was the word" for the past year, Howe says, and many mobile makers could say the same about their entire careers.

Several, including Brian Schmitt of Sacramento, fell into the field simply by tinkering with mobiles -- then finding a demand for them. A student of industrial design at Arizona State, and a woodworker since childhood when he constructed an immense skateboard ramp, Schmitt began sculpting mobiles out of wood in his spare time.

"What are you wasting your time on?" an incredulous instructor asked.

Matt Richards of Portland, like many mobile artists, including Calder, began as an engineer. "The technical part of me really likes the idea of mobiles," says Richards, whose firm is Ekko Mobiles. "You're using logic to figure out how to get things to move right."

mobile maker and three of his mobiles

Heather Frazier, looking for a new gig after closing a boutique in San Francisco, indulged her love of garlands by cutting up her old fashion magazines and turning them into mobiles.

The result? Frazier, also of Portland, discovered a major market for mobiles among a particular sub-set of the mid-century market -- parents.

"I wasn't thinking of designing for the children's market. It naturally happened, because decoration for babies and children today, it's huge!" Frazier says.

mobile in  streng home

What is it about a mobile that appeals to people?

"There's a lightness to it, which is nice," says Tom Graham, who has two mobiles in the Sacramento Eichler home he shares with his wife Lisa Foster. "It introduces movement into the room."

"As sculpture it shapes and defines its space," he says. "And the mobile's space is constantly shifting, its shapes and relationships constantly changing."

In their front living area, Graham and Foster have a Calderesque mobile. In their rear, they have a Schmitt 'Camber' mobile floating in front of a clerestory window.

Clearly, motion is key to the appeal of a mobile. "It has a kind of motion, quite often, that will remind you of the same emotion you feel when looking into the flames of a fireplace, waves in the sea, or clouds in the sky," Howe says.

"As a mobile maker, you can vary movement through different linkages, swivels, or no swivels. Whole sections can move together."

"Each mobile," Howe says, "has its own choreography."

Julie Frith, who produces mobiles in Eureka, says, "They're relaxing. They actually move. Buyers are flabbergasted. They lie in bed and watch it move."

"People turn off the TV to watch mobiles," she adds.

mobile maker and two of her mobiles

"Mobiles add a dimension to the space that wouldn't be there otherwise," says architect Zoltan Pali, whose Culver City firm SPF:architects put a Howe mobile into a medical office. A successful mobile, he says, is more than decorative; it becomes "part of the architecture and part of the space itself."