Daniel Arsham’s smartphone: “In 20 years it will be used as a sculpture”

The American artist tells Domus how he applied his conceptual framework to a mass consumption item, elevating a smartphone to the status of a work of art in collaboration with Xiaomi.

American artist Daniel Arsham isn't new to unexpected partnerships with commercial brands. After Pokémon and Porsche, its latest incursion into the realm of product design has him teaming up with Xiaomi for a limited edition of the company's flagship smartphone, the Xiaomi 12T Pro. 
The device will be produced in just 2000 units. Arsham partnered with Xiaomi's engineers and designers to turn the smartphone into one of his "fictional archeology" pieces. The Xiaomi 12T Pro Arsham Edition features a bronze-like cover, with quartz crystals shining through eroded areas. It's not just about looks. Users can touch and feel the design with their hands, thanks to the different textures employed for the various elements of the back cover. Arsham also customized the phone's User Interface infusing his signature style into the default Android theme.
"In 20 years, people who have this phone will no longer use it as a phone but as a sculptural object, linked to a particular moment in time and carrying it beyond its functionality," commented the Artist.
We had the opportunity to ask Daniel Arsham a few questions about this unusual partnership and the blending of art and product design.

This is the first time you partnered with a smartphone brand to create an art object that people will use daily. How did this affect your creative process and where does this product fit in relationship with your other works?
With the phone being this ubiquitous object, which to most people is almost imperative to touch and carry with them at all times, it was interesting to articulate the design in both what it looks and feels like while developing the samples and final product. 

I have done a number of sculptural works in the past, where I created - or approximated - the look of a material through another material. If we look at this particular phone, in 10 or 20 years there may be some kind of future technology, in the form of another device or shape, but the object itself will be linked to this particular moment in time as a sculptural object, taken from the present and pushed into its "Archeological Future".

I've been working with Xiaomi's development team and technology to produce the samples recreating this patinated bronze surface which has seemingly oxidised for the past thousands of years within the geological timeframe, with parts of it polished back to reveal a glossy, more reflective bronze surface, also including the physical texture.

Considering the importance of size and scale in your work, how did you approach the constraint of a smartphone design, particularly when it comes to size limitations?
A bit of constraint is always helpful in the creative process. It took a number of sketches before I was able to arrive at a design that best suited the form of the smartphone.

You previously revealed that you have color blindness and that it is one of the reasons why your works tend to have muted tones. This Xiaomi smartphone, instead, is quite colorful. What is the reason behind this choice?
Color blindness doesn't indicate that I don't see color, it means that the range of color I see is simply reduced. For this particular work, I photographed a piece of actual bronze with erosions within it and then we began testing different surface applications for the smartphone to approximate the surface and colouring of the initial bronze piece.

Do you think art partnerships could be a meaningful or scalable way for brands to differentiate their product in a market saturated and nearing "design exhaustion"? 
I think for some creative entities, design is often thought as secondary, as something below art, which I never felt. To me, uniting art and functionality into design is a universal language that speaks to everyone, so I like the idea of bringing art into ubiquitous objects such as a smartphone and for these to be elevated to the same level.

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