Bahdeebahdu is the invention of two creative forces: interior designer R.J. Thornburg and sculptor Warren Muller. Together, they offer design services to homes, hotels, restaurants, and corporate settings. Their work has been featured in numerous magazines, and in places like the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Digitas Health, and the Westin Hotel in Philadelphia. Bahdeebahdu has gained a notable reputation in the Philly art scene because the work of R.J. and Warren perfectly complement each other. While R.J. designs interiors, Warren illuminates them.
Warren’s pieces could be called chandeliers, but that’s too narrow of a term. He produces unique light sculptures with recycled materials one might associate with scrap or refuse. In Warren’s creations, you will see old toys, rusted wheels, contraptions that stopped working long ago. Maybe you will be in a country club or hotel lobby designed by R.J. one day, and look up to see a glowing cluster of car parts, glass bottles, and deer horns. Warren’s sculptures range from the wild and complex, to the simple and delicate. Though they look chaotic, they also show finesse and coordination, a balance between freedom and control. Each piece has its own personality, which not only comes through in the unusual combination of materials, but in the use of light. Lightbulbs of varying shapes and sizes protrude from every corner, and point in every direction. The objects used in these sculptures may have been forgotten salvage in the past, but they’ve now found new life through Warren Muller.
How did you come up with the name “Bahdeebahdu”? When R.J. and I started this business, we wanted to bring pleasure into other people’s lives. Whatever we were going to call it, we thought it should be something fun. The name actually came from a dog. When I first moved to Philadelphia on 18th and Pine, there was a man outside my window every morning who would call to his dog, “Bahdeebahdu! Bahdeebahdu!” That just stuck in my mind. It had a nice rhythm to it, and it didn’t mean anything. We also thought it would sound good when we answer the phone and say, “Good morning, Bahdeebahdu!”
What is your background as an artist? I have degrees in photography and filmmaking from University of the Arts. At the same time I was going to school there I got involved with a dance company called Group Motion. They’re originally from Berlin, Germany, and still exist in Philadelphia. I made films of their performances and did a documentary on them. I eventually became a dancer in the company, and met another dancer who was a ceramic artist. I started helping him in his studio, and making my own pieces. I would create objects out of clay, poke holes in them, and incorporate light in different ways. I just liked experimenting with how light and form interacted. That was the beginning of my foray into making sculptures with light.
How did you discover yourself as an artist? I’ve been an artist since I was a kid, but at the time I didn’t know that’s what you called it. When I think back, I realize I had a fascination for seeing how things were made. I was always taking something apart and trying to put it back together, not always successfully. I also did a lot of drawing and assembling. After I left high school, I was faced with the big question of what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t know, but it didn’t take me very long to decide that I wanted to be an artist. When I looked at a sculpture or a painting, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. When I met artists I felt they had a certain way about them that really spoke to me. It seemed like a life where you could create your own life, not defined by anyone else’s rules but yours.
Why are you attracted to found objects as material for your work? Well, first of all, they’re really inexpensive. Almost no objects I use are precious or have much value. But I give them value by assembling them together in uncommon ways. My pieces come from objects someone else made, and use them in a context they were not necessarily intended for. So it’s a kind of continuum. One time some students from Camden, New Jersey visited me, and they were so curious about my work. They were used to seeing a lot of the materials I used as garbage lying around in the streets. It made them reconsider how they could reuse what people called “trash” and give it value. They were very inspired by that possibility.
What is one of the most unusual items you’ve ever used in a piece? I have no limitations when it comes to material. I’ve used taxidermy a lot. Some of my pieces have pheasants or moose horns in them. There’s one project I made that started with a steer’s head. It was sent to me by someone from the Fort Worth Museum who owned a ranch in Texas. One of her steers got hit by lightning, and the head was sitting on a pole in the pasture. After seeing my work, she thought I might like to use it and sent it to me. When I got it in the mail, I opened the box and all these flies came out. It was still a bit fresh. Then I decided to make a piece with it, which I called Lightning Strikes Twice. It was hit by lightning once already, but what if lightning hit it again? By me?
Why is light a prominent feature in your work? Part of that comes from my years of being in theatre and dance. Light defines the space you’re in, and creates intimacy. When you shine a light on something, you look at it in a different way. When you meet a person who “has a light in their eyes”, it makes them more engaging. I feel like my art is the same way. The light catches you, intrigues you, and invites you in. Light is so fundamental to sight that we forget its power sometimes. We wake up everyday and see, but seeing is kind of amazing. Vision itself is amazing.
What is the process behind your work? I’ll usually start by making a pile of different objects. My assistant and I will add to it, and I’ll take one of them and hang it from a pulley. Then I start adding more with giant spring clips, so I can juxtapose objects without permanently attaching them. The piece will tilt this way or that, and I’ll add something to make it go the other way. It’s a balancing act, and takes a lot of trial and error. It’s kind of a dance too. Sometimes I’ll work on a piece for a while and feel like I have to ignore it. If I don’t know how to proceed, I’ll walk away so I can detach myself from the process. This helps me avoid being formulaic and preserves my curiosity. After a while, I’ll have an impulse about what I need to do, and I’ll return with instant resolve. I call this “stalking the muse”. It’s sort of like how cats stalk one another. They want you to pet them, but sometimes they slip away when you reach out. They’re elusive. My relationship to my art is that way. I’m involved but aloof, committed but detached.
How would you describe the look and feel of your pieces? A lot of my work looks like I threw it up in the air, where it just froze and landed. It’s sort of suspended in space. There’s a feeling of chaos, or ordered chaos, where they seem like they’re transitioning. It’s like they’re in motion, coming somewhere and going somewhere, but they’ve stopped for a moment in time. There’s a certain tension in that, but it also creates a sense of playfulness and improvisation. There’s a lot of fun in my work, which is just part of my personality. I don’t take art that seriously. I’ve made up my own way and my own rules about art. That’s why I like art as a subject; it’s wide open. People typically think art is in the museums, but that doesn’t mean they like it. You can claim anything as art, and you can claim yourself as an artist.
Bahdeebahdu is located at 1522 North American Street. For more information visit the Bahdeebahdu website. ___________________________________________________________________
© Steven Sparber and Fishtown Spotlights, 2013. All rights reserved.