Gigi Barker’s “skin stool” is bulbous, bouncy
and comes with a leather casing. Lift that casing up to reveal a
paler layer of flesh underneath, and you might expect to see a
belly button on the rotund furnishing. It’s intriguing and
unnerving. Intriguing because it looks so much like the real thing,
the leather stretched over a mould, in all the patchy, uneven
shades of real, human flesh. Unnerving because the soft and
visceral silicone that makes the base could start to feel a little
like the real thing. The stool screams, “take a seat on this rather
portly stomach” — and you don’t know why, but you definitely want
“Children have been one of the most interesting demographics in
relation to the work,” Barker, creator of the skin series and
founder of design studio
9191, told Wired.co.uk. “Without any of the hang ups we later
develop, they are free to truly explore and interact with the work.
Work regarding the human body is very personal and we all have a
very immediate reaction to it so the reactions have reflected
The skin stool and skin chair sell for £440 and £1,500
respectively. And in case there was any doubt as to whether
furniture that looks, feels and smells like skin (it’s impregnated
with human pheromones and aftershave) is on the consumer agenda,
Barker’s MA show at Central Saint Martin’s was a sell-out last
month and she’s already in talks with retailers.
Now if you’re wondering how one goes from a furniture design
course to human flesh, without having just a little Buffalo Bill in
them (you know, the guy who murders overweight women to make skin
suits, in Silence of the Lambs), 9191 was setup as a
platform to design and sell practical sculptural pieces. Past
products have included a flexible, writhing Octopus piece dotted
with LEDs, and the Castle Table is an upside-down castle crafted in
Rosewood. So fleshy furniture fits right in.
After finding a muse in the form of an anonymous gentleman,
Barker set about studying his figure and developing sketches of her
imagined home furnishings.
“I abstract the shapes of his form so as to remove some of the
immediacy of such a literal representation and allow the viewer to
form their own conclusions,” she tells us. Those forms are first
made up in clay, and once a final style was decided upon, she blew
this up to full scale and used them to cast a model in silicone.
Barker explains the material had the right sensory impact, and on
top of that it “reacts to our bodies, matching our body temperature
as well — perfect for soothing a crying baby”.
It might help that the material is also impregnated with the
aforementioned pheromones and aftershave. Barker wanted to create
“a fully sensorial experience, which really immersed the viewer”.
We wear perfume to attract other people, she speculates, and so why
not do the same with her skin furniture?
Moulding leather is finally laid over the model to complete the
illusion. “It is subtler in its visual impact due to our
familiarity with the material. Despite this, it is literally a
piece of skin removed from a body and not a representation of the
Although that description might immediately draw a viewer to
conclude this is all a commentary about why we use animal flesh to
cover our furnishings and clothes, when seeing what looks like
human shapes and flesh in a home store causes a few double-takes,
this was not what Barker was aiming for. Rather, she wants the
viewer, who is compelled to sit on the chair and make that physical
connection with the piece, to think about their own relationship
and comfort level with their own skin, and other people’s.
“I have my own personal relationship with it which is based on
my own personal history. Just as someone else will,” she tells us.
“I think this project is more about the people and the bodies
rather than the skin itself. That being said as a project it’s
interesting how reactionary it is given it’s essentially silicone
and leather shapes, which shouldn’t inherently be. This speaks a
lot therefore to the emotional associations attached to the
If you want to see more fleshy designs, but can’t quite grapple
with the social awkwardness of sitting on a rather oversized man’s
stomach, do not fear. Barker has plenty more skin-stylings up her
sleeve to come. She’s been toying with using other body shapes, and
is collaborating with fashion designers and architects to see what
else the material could be modified for. At the opening night of
her MA show, the designer wore a dress made from the material, so
this might be a sign of things to come.
That finished dress design was incredibly elegant. But lacks one
key feature that the furniture series brings to the table. Barker
says she believes there are “many obvious key factors” the piece
evokes in dialogue, that are pertinent to society. So that’s what
she hopes people will take away at the end of the day from the
pieces. “That and I want people to have fun bouncing on them of
course!” A flesh dress can never be quite so whimsical.
Particularly in a world where Buffalo Bill donning his own fleshy
ensemble is burned in the public consciousness for all time.