Peter Strassner in his workshop staining a candleholder. The artist cut back on working with ceramics after discovering the joy of wood.
photo: Ján Svrček
"I do it to differentiate the sexes," says sculptor Peter Strassner. "If there's a penis in the furniture it's male. If not, it's female."
Strassner is not being gratuitously crude. Genitalia are a natural component of what he calls "sculpture you can sit on or furniture that reminds you of a sculpture". His works are designed to carry human or animal attributes, hence the knobs that resemble ears or antlers, the tongue-like support beams, the unlikely organic offshoots, the slightly asymmetrical forms, and the curious horn-shaped appendages.
If you eat out or drink beer regularly in Bratislava, the chances are you've sat on one of his creations.
"For a year I was debating whether to get factory furniture or go with a craftsman, and then I saw a Strassner exhibition in Bratislava," said Marian Voltemar, owner of Korzo café on Bratislava's Hviezdoslavovo námestie, whose downstairs Slovak restaurant was designed by Strassner. "Every piece of his furniture is extraordinary, each has its own soul and is alive in its own way.
Was he concerned about phallic symbols in a restaurant that serves tripe soup and caviar appetisers? "That's a part of life too," said Voltemar.
Strassner says his work was rejected by communist ideologists.
photo: Ján Svrček
"My furniture is built to stimulate people in some way, to spark their imagination," says Strassner, while working on one of his recent creations in his Devín workshop. "There is always a built-in joke to my work, and very often something that moves. Mankind has already made enough serious art, I like to think of art as fun."
A sculptor by education, Strassner (46) was shunned by the Czechoslovak art system after finishing school in 1980. He says communist society wanted him to produce hammers and cycles and sculptures of partisans and blissful labourers. Instead, in 1985, he gave the regime a sculpture based on a character in a book by Columbia writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez who rules a global superpower and makes decisions according to the level of pain in his testicles. Strassner did odd jobs and lived hand-to-mouth through most of the 1980s.
One day in 1986, on a whim, Strassner made a miniature green stool - his first piece of furniture. "If you had told me 20 years ago I would be making furniture sculptures I would have laughed in your face," he says. (Before he had made mostly ceramics and artistic medals.) "But a few friends liked that first stool, so I continued. Gradually I got more into it."
Animal imagery runs through all Strassner's works.
photo: Ján Svrček
Chopping trees in a forest near the Devín Castle is Strassner's first step in making furniture. He calls what follows "a dialogue with the wood" in which he incorporates the natural shape of each tree, its knots and deformations, and the lie of its grain in his designs. He uses glue alone to join his wood, which he usually works with in large slabs, and in recent years has abandoned all paints except red - the colour of blood. He blackens some of the wood with a torch, a process that also prepares the furniture for outdoor use.
Despite his success, Strassner's shop and yard are littered with art - a half-finished giraffe chair, a chair with a four metre back, bird feeders - because he spends most of his work time (12-hour days, seven days a week) making what appeals to him. Only later does he promote his work at galleries and exhibitions (most of his furniture costs between 10,000 and 40,000 Slovak crowns, or $200 to $800).
Even so, more and more people are knocking on Strassner's door with customised orders - like the spacious outhouse Strassner just finished for a prominent "150 kilogramme" Slovak artist.
And some happy customers are coming back. Korzo's Voltemar took a piece of Strassner furniture - a chair with a phallus and testicles built in - from his restaurant and gave it to a friend last year. Lately he's been having regrets.
"I liked it so much I gave it to a very good friend," said Voltemar. "But I've actually started to miss it. I think I'll call Strassner sometime and ask if he can make me another one."