It’s been a year since Tobias Wong, design’s dark prankster, committed suicide by hanging, an event so shocking that many — acquaintances and distant admirers alike — first assumed that he had perpetrated a hoax. Much of the confusion was owed to the fact that Wong was a master unsettler who delighted in jolting people out of their comfort zones. “Brokenoff Brokenoff,” a recent exhibition at New York’s Gallery R’Pure, paid homage, sometimes by imitation, to this animating force in his career.
Organized by Odile Hainaut, the gallery’s director, “Brokenoff Brokenoff” presented tributes by nine of Wong’s close friends, all of them prominent design world citizens. At a press conference before the event, which ran a brief four days during New York Design Week, and closed on May 17, the eight men and one woman exchanged reminiscences as they sat around a table topped by an unlit cigarette that had belonged to Wong and represented his cool, edgy passions.
The cigarette returned twice in the show. In Secondhand Romance, Todd Bracher inserted a specimen into a glass candlestick that evoked an oil lamp Wong once designed. A cigarette was also present, though more abstractly, in Frederick McSwain’s Die, a photo portrait of Wong composed of 13,138 dice, one for every day of Wong's life, that was inspired by the occasion when a stranger approached Wong on the street to bum a smoke. After some negotiations, Wong bartered the cigarette for a die the stranger was carrying in his pocket.
Several of Wong’s friends honored his love of luxurious materials. In Convex Concave, Stephen Burks evoked the diamond engagement ring whose stone Wong reversed to create a scratchiti tool. Gilding played a part in Call Me or Copy Me, Marc Thorpe’s gold-plated version of the plastic stencil card Wong once handed him with those words. In Tobi’s Shit Was Brilliant, Joe Doucet resurrected the 24K gold leaf capsules Wong packaged as an alchemy stone for excrement, adding a roll of black silk "toilet paper." And in WWTWD?, Brad Ascalon printed a gold-colored portrait of Wong in a crown of thorns. Ascalon numbered the first half of the 100-print edition 1/20 and the second half 51/50, 52/50, etc., which is exactly what Wong would have done, he observed.
In There’s Something About Giving in to Your Desires…, David Weeks alluded to the Jenny Holzer maxim tattooed on Wong’s arm, “Protect me from what I want” and the way in which Wong mingled childlike enthusiasms with dark indulgences to the very end.
This poignancy was echoed in Dror Benshetrit’s broken Vase of Phases evoking the paradoxical certainty of transience, and in Josée Lepage’s The Times of New York Candle, an object Wong designed as an elegy to old media that gives off the scent of newsprint. Burning in the pristine little gallery, it worked equally well as a tribute to Wong’s own brief, brilliant passage on earth.