Craftsman Peter Fleming
Expert craftsman Peter Fleming elevates the everyday.
Written By: Laura Fitzgerald Cooper
Photographers: Supplied & Laura Purtee
There was a time when sculpting and painting were not considered art. Instead, they were regarded, merely, as crafts. Time, and the influence of such greats as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, has convinced the general populace that “manual arts” are, in fact, art. Yet, a sharp line still divides “art” from our usable objects—all those functional items and designs that we might appreciate but don’t necessarily hang in a gallery.
To Nashville artist Peter Fleming, the “art/not-art” boundary remains provocative. He designs one-of-a-kind furniture and usable objects, which feel as at home in art galleries as they do in living rooms, forcing us to question where that line should fall.
An interior designer with deep expertise in the history of the decorative arts, Fleming’s own work often builds on a fragment with a utilitarian past—wheels from an industrial cart, for example, or a brass door knob assembly, or an antique turned baluster. He favors plain, low-status materials, like rough wooden sawhorses or the pine craft boxes sold at Michaels Craft Stores.
Under Fleming’s hand, functional bits and pieces are transformed into objects of ethereal beauty. Millwork molding scraps become an undulating, high-gloss cabinet. Turkey feathers carpet a cupboard, crowned by a reclaimed brass knob. A ceramic towel bar bracket in a cheerful blue of a child’s bathroom becomes a serene bas-relief, framed in a metal box on the wall. Cheap Styrofoam coolers become a delicate tower—unmistakably “sculpture” and picnic gear, at once.
“I look closely at common things and at fragments from the functional past,” Fleming explains. “I manipulate them into something that’s altogether new but still speaking to that material truth, to that history.”
Fleming subverts the visual image, too. A gallery-quality photograph of Dutch tulip fields becomes a dècoupage tabletop. In reverse, a framed pencil drawing seems at first a working design—a curved cornice for a highboy, maybe—but is actually a piece of art all its own.
“I’ve spent my life designing in detail to show how something else should be built,” Fleming admits. “These drawings are not that. They’re expression—that’s all.”
Fleming, a native Australian, has long defied categories. A designer working with architects Jamie Pfeffer, Bobby McAlpine, and Robert A.M. Stern (who has earned praise in Architectural Digest and Elle Décor) and a former professor at O’More College of Design, Fleming first graduated from Auburn University’s School of Architecture, where he was also the Tigers’ back-up punter.
That bounds-testing drive still inspires his work, exhibited at the David Lusk Galleries of Memphis and Nashville, and it animates Fleming’s new company, Building No. 9 (named for his classroom at O’More), which showcases his custom design for interiors, millwork, cabinetry, and furniture.
“The Fine Arts will always resist the Applied Arts,” Fleming acknowledges. But his own work—beautifully unsettling as it defies that boundary—makes resistance a bit more futile.
Photos by Benjamin Norton Photography.