It's Electric!

Matt Summers designs beautiful household objects that have a strong sense of currency

click to enlarge Matt Summers - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Matt Summers

Electricity pulses through Cincinnati artist Matt Summers’ in-home studio. Shocks of color radiate from fabrics, plastics and other materials featuring symbols that appear to dance and pulsate right off their surfaces.  

Summers is pursuing a passion to take something not typically seen as beautiful — drawn representations of electricity — and turn them into aesthetic pieces motivated by Mid-century Modern design. He established Matt Summers Design this year, launching with just a few products — pillowcases, duvet covers, wallpaper — and is slowly adding to his collection. 

Some of his newest work appears in what he calls the “Ohm Series”: designs inspired by electricity and electrical symbols that appear on everything from phone cases to shower curtains to coffee mugs. 

“The thought was, how can I take something not seen as beautiful and make them beautiful?” Summers says. “So I explored hundreds of symbols and how I can repeat them, merge them, use scale and color to create prints and patterns I would enjoy in my own home.” 

He began brainstorming ideas for the series about six or seven years ago.

“I was wiring an old Honda motorcycle and saw these symbols and thought they were cool,” he says. “I wrote (the idea) down on a scrap piece of paper and never did anything with it for years. But it always stuck in my head as a cool concept.” 

When he launched Matt Summers Design, the concept returned to the forefront. Summers would spend months letting different ideas develop and would make a quick sketch of them; then, he wouldn’t return to the project for weeks at a time. But seeing something in real life would trigger new ideas and instigate a return to old sketches.  

The artist plays with symbols for things like multi-cell batteries, differential pressure and three-pole contactors: images that typically appear on schematic diagrams. 

By mixing and matching these symbols and playing with color, orientation and spacing, Summers gives the otherwise ordinary images entirely new meanings. 

The symbol indicating that a resistor — which is used to reduce the flow of electricity in a circuit — is fixed, for example, is a series of jagged lines similar to those seen on a heartbeat monitor. As part of the Ohm Series, the symbol appears in white on two different pillows, one yellow and one pale blue, interspersed with another symbol representing a current transformer, which includes a series of cloud-like half-circles.

Other finished products include pale-yellow electrical circuits framed by a creamy green background; multi-colored positive and negative charge symbols on top of a pale-yellow backdrop; and charge lines pulsate along a series of towering columns. 

Each design is hand-sketched from an initial concept, and a final design is rendered digitally. The process begins with Summers sketching hundreds of ideas onto paper before he examines each of them more closely.

“This is how I believe the best ideas quickly and organically come to fruition,” he says. “I then take several of those ideas and either scan or render them in a digital format so I can further manipulate or colorize them.” 

“Some ideas at that point just don’t make the cut and get dropped,” he continues. “I hand-select ones I personally like and push those further until I feel they create a unique design or pattern.” 

One of Summers’ favorite designs is the aforementioned “Resistor.” It’s a concept that mashes up a series of different electrical symbols, creating what the artist calls an “airy but linear graphic quality.” 

A graduate of both the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning and Northern Kentucky University — “I haphazardly picked commercial art as a degree to go into and fell in love with it,” he says — Summers first became interested in design as a child. He recalls exhibiting a love of both drawing and building from a young age.

“I have always been someone who likes using my hands to make something new or fix up old, recycled items,” he says. “I decorated my apartments and now my home with lots of finds from thrift stores, antique shows and estate sales. I find it fun to take that vintage item and bring it back to life or create something new from it.” 

As a student, he learned about designers like Charles and Ray Eames, a husband-and-wife team specializing in modern architecture and furniture. They are most well-known for their Eames Lounge Chair, designed for the Herman Miller furniture company in 1956. Summers was also inspired in school by the post-World War I Bauhaus movement, which placed an equal emphasis on art, architecture and design.

More recently, Summers has felt particularly motivated by the graphic and textile designs of Alexander Girard. The late architect, furniture and interior designer collected textiles from all over the world throughout his lifetime and employed an emphasis on color and humor in his own work. 

“I was in awe of these designs and have always been fascinated how the same item can be designed in so many different ways, and how your life can be lived surrounded by better-designed items that also excite and engage you visually,” Summers says. 

And what better way to accomplish that goal than by implementing a shock of electricity? 

The artist has taken steps to make his Ohm Series designs more available. He set up shop at the latest installment of Design Build Cincy, an annual event that showcases artisans, designers, contractors and more, at Music Hall in late October. He plans to continue participating in local events in the future. 

Summers has also been experimenting with a few new projects like woodblock printing. “I just want to keep doing interesting work, and hopefully other people find it interesting as well,” he says.  

For more information about Matt Summers Design and to purchase pieces, visit mattsummersdesign.com. To see additional work from the Ohm Series, follow @mattsummersdesign on Instagram.

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