Jefrë Manuel on the difference between public art and ‘plop art.’


After undergoing triple-bypass heart surgery at the age of 35, Jefrë Figueras Manuel switched careers. “Having this kind of personal moment in your life makes you think about making an impact on society and what you can do to contribute, in terms of a legacy,” said the former landscape architect turned public artist. 

Prior to his epiphany, Jefrë, now in his mid-40s, already had a CV stacked with heavyweights like Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Santiago Calatrava, Bjarke Ingels Group (better known as BIG), Zaha Hadid, and Philippe Starck. He quit all that and started his own practice, opening StudioJEFRË in Orlando, Florida. He’s made a name for himself, winning public art competitions across the globe with creations that look nothing like each other. The Beacon in Lake Nona’s Medical City in Florida, was inspired by René Laennec’s stethoscope design. Its companion piece, Code Wall, is a 264-stretch of aluminum incised with inspirational words written in binary: strings of 1s and 0s, when translated, yield messages like “inspire” and “connect.” The entire multimedia installation, which cost US$2 million, is worlds away from the colorful zoo of indigenous animals — a yellow Philippine Eagle, a red carabao, a blue rooster, and a green tarsier — he unveiled in SM Aura.

Despite the disparity, these public sculptures resulted from the same design process — one that prioritizes place over Jefrë’s personal style.

Can you walk us through your process?

My design process is pretty simple. It’s about understanding the context and location of the artwork. I’m really into studying where it’s located, in terms of the culture and the people.

I’m not what you call a studio artist where I have a certain style. I try to create works of art for that user and for that city. And that’s what sort of makes me stand out. A lot of my sculptures are about you and the city — and not necessarily about me.

That’s essentially what public sculpture is: it’s a democracy. It’s not a private collection that’s behind closed doors, it’s public. Here in the States, public sculptures are funded by taxpayer money so, obviously, there’s always a lot of interest in me creating public sculptures about that particular city and not repeating something I’ve done in another city in their city on their own tax dollars.

What is your primary objective when designing for a public space?

When you create a public space, it’s sort of a moment in the landscape. When you think of public spaces, it’s everything outside the door. As you’re walking through cities and exploring, I always want to create a moment in the landscape. And I think public art helps do that, sort of creating a monument or a sculpture that becomes a destination. And when you’ve created a destination, that’s where the success of a public sculpture lies: creating a space that people want to go to.

I want to make people think about where they’re at. I don’t do literal interpretations. I do what I call ‘contemporary explorations’ about their own context.  Having them look at a piece makes them think about how they relate to where they are.

Of the many things you’ve done, do you have a favorite?

I’m not sure. I’ve worked on many projects. Sometimes, what gives me the most satisfaction is not necessarily about the end result but the process of getting to the result, especially when it involves the community members, the local kids, to get them into buying in the process of public art and how that can actually revitalize an area.

Can you elaborate on ‘placemaking’ vs. the usual perception of public art?

The perception of public art right now, I think, is that it’s more of an object. You see a lot of what I call ‘plop art’ installations, where it’s just a piece of art in the middle of a roundabout, on a corner, or a plaza that people walk by. A successful public art piece is something that creates a destination or a landmark for people. This means that they stay and enjoy looking at it. It’s not something you walk by, but something but you’re a part of and experience, which then creates a place. Placemaking is about making these moments in the landscape become memorable to visitors as well as to the people who live there.

You’ve cited the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle, and The Bean as personal inspirations. Why so?

I think it’s because those are postcards. You go into any city and there’s a postcard moment. Buildings don’t necessarily define cities. Moments in the landscape or landmarks that represent a cultural moment are things that I’m interested in exploring.

Does the size of the installation matter?

Size does matter, I guess, in this case. It depends on the location and the context. Sometimes you’re dealt a situation where you don’t have a lot of space to create something that’s monumental. I think you have to create something that’s more experiential.

The Bean, for example, is not the size of the Eiffel Tower but Anish Kapoor’s idea of reflecting the city in Cloud Gate — The Bean’s real name — is very successful as the entrance to Chicago’s Millennium Park as it reflects the skyline. And we are in this selfie culture right now. These ideas of reflection of place, reflection of self are very important.

Size does matter, especially when it means that something can be seen from a distance, but you also have to think about creating something that is experiential. The work I did in Orlando, The Beacon, is only 60-feet tall. It’s got buildings around it that block it, but because of the experience of the video mapping and projections, it’s become a destination. People go there just to see it. So you definitely have to go there to see it whereas the Eiffel Tower and the London Eye can be seen from the skyline.

I was in Paris just this summer, looking at the Tower itself as the site of a potential project. The Tower, in my mind, looks like a ghostly yet massive object. It’s the people around it that creates the impact. It’s not just how the Tower fits into the skyline. Once you’re there, you can feel the emotional energy that the Tower creates through the people who are there taking endless photos, who are enjoying a picnic against the Tower as a background. It’s sort of the lack of natural features that you might see —  like mountains or beaches — that makes the Tower a  backdrop or point of interest. That’s why people congregate around it.

Early in this conversation, you chose the human heart as your favorite thing.

The human heart means a lot to me for two reasons. The first is the emotional and metaphorical connection: everything I do within public art has to have meaning and purpose. I really try to pick projects now that make an impact and change people’s lives, that create an experiential moment for them, that create a postcard — something that creates a memory.

The other reason is physical: I wasn’t doing this my whole life. It’s been about eight years ago since I went into public art and trying to make a difference. My aha moment was when I had a heart attack at age 35 and had triple-bypass surgery. It was the best thing and the worst thing that happened to me. It taught me that life is short, which is a cliche, but it made me look forward to contributing my talents in art and design and figuring out how that can change people’s lives.