Niek Pulles: Future Tribes + Car Crushed

“Play is the most important. That's where everything happens, where everything starts.”

Artist and designer Niek Pulles has a unique sense of flow. Last month in Future Tribes + Car Crushed he showed a collection work at One Grand Gallery including futuristic, metallic clay masks, and 3D printed cars. He showed giant photos of people wearing his masks, transformed into other-worldly beings. He also piled corrugated rubber around the border of the gallery, creating the illusion that One Grand rose up from a car graveyard. “People sometimes call my work unorthodox,” he says. “I always find different purposes for materials and tools.”

“In my work, I want to create an illusion. The masks are unknown: what are they made of? People have no clue. Using the material as some sort of optical illusion, tricking them, is something I really like. You can transform clay just by using paint. Even by using a different tool, you can trick people into thinking it's an entirely different object.”


This lends explanation to Pulles’ incredibly cute, mystifying toy cars. Initially they resemble the texture of puffy fabric paint, but he designed them on a computer. Each car is a combination of flat 3D-printed doodles. By using new technology in a creative, playful way, Pulles encourages viewers to take more creative risks in their own design work.

“Where's the boundary of art and design?,” he asks. “I have no clue. Of course, design is more on the practical side, but a lot of things shown in a design fair are very impractical. Overall design is way more about functionality, and art is way more about triggering the imagination or just sharing an opinion. Just expressing your fantasies. But... why not make art more functional or interactive? In a time where so much is possible, I don't think you can really put things into boxes anymore. The same is true for jobs. Stuff has been reinvented.”

In his web of interconnected curiosities, toy cars and clay masks have a lot in common: transportation, memories of youth, movement toward the future, and tribes. He thinks about tribes of people-- both literally, researching existing tribes, and metaphorically, for example comparing groups of people based on the cars they drive. The front grills of cars remind him of faces, rich in form and expression. “There's a sort of language that, in my head, makes a lot of sense.”


Pulles’ masks, originally made in 2015, take inspiration from the form of car grills to create futuristic characters. They are made from clay and painted with metallic auto paint, salvaged from a body shop. His hand is revealed in some parts of the clay, with soft, organic shapes; but from a first glance, the masks appear to be made of metal.

“I was sort of trying to relate the masks to car crashes I saw all over Portland, with their richness of shape and material. A car crash is even more expressive than a car itself. The material will come out, the headlights have changed, the grill is a different shape. The whole thing is very inspiring for me.”

One of Pulles’ inspirations is John Chamberlain, an artist who sculpted car crashes with attention to their formal composition. Other favorite artists include Navid Nuur, Wolfgang Tillmans, Yayoi Kusama, and Tom Sachs.

As a designer and generally creative person, Pulles feels responsibility to help transform the existing chaos of our world into a future of improved collaboration and environmental health. From his work as a designer with Nike, to his own more playful personal projects, the future is a major point of focus.


“I always look out into the future, as in ‘What's next?’ And that's my own weird little bubble, where I can do whatever I want.” Pulles hopes to live in a future where people use smartphones to connect and have fun, rather than isolating themselves, and he wants to see more crossover between the worlds of art and design. He sees collaboration and experimentation as means to address global concerns, such as climate change. It all starts with looking at material through an imaginative lens, and fooling around.

“Changing our behavior, getting along a bit better altogether, a bit more understanding and awareness, those are my hopes and expectations for the future. My fears are that we are gonna fuck it up. One big car crash. But there's still a beauty there: all things crumble and you have to build them up again.”

By Jess Mcfadden