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A Bold New Vision: Denise Domergue ’64

Denise Domergue '64 champions artists, designers and innovators of all sorts who recognize the huge potential in what we consider trash.

The following is an interview with Denise Domergue, originally obtained for a story in the 2021–22 Convent & Stuart Hall Alumni Bulletin featuring alumni who are bringing fresh ideas to business and society.

What are one or two of your fondest memories of your time at Convent High School?
Just walking up the marble stairs of the fabulous Convent every day made me happy. My favorite places were the Cortile and Williams Library with its panoramic view of the bay. I liked sneaking peeks into Mother Mardel’s office, which was formerly Mrs. Flood’s boudoir, complete with mirrors and decorative, painted panels on every wall, and even a view: a very far cry from your generic intimidating principal's office. I loved having costumed roles in the period dramas we’d put on, like Molière’s Le Malade Imaginaire and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in which I played cranky old Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Were you drawn to artistic pursuits as a child?
My family wasn’t involved in the arts per se, but as a child, my twin brother and I loved to draw which we did constantly. I loved writing little illustrated stories. We also liked to build castles, houses and little villages out of everything from toy blocks to mud. We grew up unafraid to express ourselves in all sorts of ways. My life-changing moment came at age five when I was taken to France for the first time to visit family and life began! After seeing Paris, castles, cathedrals, quaint villages, farms and the countryside where I got to stomp barefoot on my uncle’s wine grapes and watch baby pigs in a field with my little farm girl friends, my cultural awareness exploded!

What inspired you to start Made Out of WHAT? Is there a moment of inspiration or anecdote you’d be willing to share?
Made Out of WHAT grew out of a long incubation period. I have always been attracted to out-of-the-box thinking. As a conservator specializing in contemporary art for my entire professional life, I often dealt with ground-breaking art made out of unorthodox materials by living artists. I had a lot of contact with them and saw how they lived. Their unorthodoxy migrated into their lifestyles, and I saw that their ideas of furniture design and comfort had often little to do with the modernist dictum “form follows function.” So I decided to conduct a survey of contemporary American artists and wrote a book in 1984 called Artists Design Furniture, published by Abrams Books. I was L.A. editor of Metropolitan Home for five years, wrote catalog essays and articles and kept my interest in creative outliers. In the early 2000s, I started to notice art made out of unusual materials, and began to explore the idea for another book, this time global in scope. That is pretty much the story of how Made Out of WHAT got its start in my mind.

Can you talk about the idea of creative reuse or upcycling and how you've engaged with it over the years?
Besides being attracted to clever adaptations of detritus, what really eclipsed the surprise and novelty of all this art and design increasingly popping up everywhere in my world was the intent of many of the creators. I most appreciated the underlying messages of work that acted as a visual manifesto of the existential plight of the planet. What I liked was that the work also modeled possibilities and solutions to the huge problem brought on by our feckless consumerism. Most importantly, the work unearthed inspiring personal stories and I wanted to celebrate those stories.

This was all happening concurrently with a growing trend in upcycling and reuse. I believe that both movements are crucial now and these practices, in fashion alone, for example, are happily becoming more and more mainstream. Fashion brands are attaching positive connotations to it, featuring new products that reuse textiles, and incorporate deadstock and waste materials. Young up and coming designers are increasingly adopting upcycling strategies in their work, like British Bethany Williams and New Yorker Ella Wismiak, to name just two. And thankfully, addiction to “fast fashion” is losing its addictive appeal.

Is there one particular art piece or artist you admire most, and if so, why?
At the moment, I am in awe of a young artist called Moffat Takadiwa, born in 1983, who lives and works in Harare, Zimbabwe. His medium is culled from his country’s boundless landfills, a vast spectrum of consumer trash. Everything including computer keys, toothbrushes, bottle caps, you name it, are woven together into sculptures and tapestries in the tradition of Zimbabwean textiles. His work speaks of power and colonialism, global consumption and raises concerns of the growing problem of our unresolved waste management issues. The work is majestic, elaborately crafted, poetic and impactful. He recently had a fabulous solo exhibition at the Craft Contemporary in Los Angeles called “Witchcraft: Rethinking Power.”

How do you hope people respond to the artists and artwork that you showcase?
My hope is that this work and the personal stories behind the ingenious artists, designers and innovators from all cultures and from all economic strata will ignite agency on an individual and grassroots level in all who become acquainted with the mission of Made Out of WHAT. My hope is that promoting these highly personal solutions to the problem of trash will inspire and grow a worldwide web of sorts where humans inspire each other to employ their own imaginations, creativity and activism after their own hearts and capacities. My belief is that together we can impact climate change through our own varied and site-specific devices.

What do you think you've carried with you from your Convent days?
I am grateful to the Convent for my deep and lasting friendships and for a great foundational education. Oh, yes, and especially Latin class!

What makes you optimistic about the future?
I am heartened by young people, like Greta Thunberg and so many others around the world, who stand up and speak truth to power with passion and courage. They make perfect sense with unassailable critical thinking that derives from their lived experience. Their straightforward, no nonsense ability to effectively promote peace, compassion and cooperation in our world is my hope for the future.

Is there anything else you would like to share?
I hope that everyone reading this will check out my website, madeoutofwhat.com, and my Instagram and join our international family. Also on the website are our short documentary films that can also be viewed on YouTube. I welcome all comments and feedback. You can email me at denise@madeoutofwhat.com. I am thankful for this opportunity to share my project with you.