Checkmate: Architects Remake the Chess Set

Matt Shaw Matt Shaw

Architecture and chess have always been related—the rook is obviously the fortress, a building that moves in 90-degree angles only. But the connections run deeper than pure aesthetics: the standard “Staunton” set that we know and love was designed in 1849 by architect Nathan Cook. Cook took inspiration from the neoclassical buildings of London, and in effect, derivatives of Greek and Roman architecture like the Parthenon ended up on our chessboards.

The CHESS at Jai and Jai Gallery in Los Angeles continues the connection, challenging a dynamic group of eight young architects from all over the world to redesign the chess set. The rules were loose; the sets did not have to be playable.

Jai and Jai originally conceived of the exhibition to complement their hybrid nature as exhibition space and store. When the focus shifted to become less product-based and more about art, the gallery settled on exhibiting the work of architects. They felt that designing chess sets and designing buildings have similar elements, including but not limited to hierarchy, character, and roleplaying. The exhibition even had a special appearance by LA Chess Club Director and Senior Master Mick Bighamian.

Many contemporary versions of chess involve architecture, but the CHESS exhibition takes these interpretations to another level. Check out the sets below.

Skyline of Archetypes, Jimenez Lai

Jimenez Lai chose one of the more straightforward solutions, but went all out with the design of the chessmen. Each piece is different while sharing the same language, and the only way to tell which piece is which is by the size.

A Staunton Chess Set Cut Into Halves and Then Put Back Together, Jonah Rowen

Starting with the standard, classic set, Rowen divided, offset, and reconstructed every piece, including the board. It is the most simple and subtle move, but also one of the most architectural.

in Turn, Maxi Spina

This redesign focused on the chess pieces: each is coded with the image of the original piece, but is extruded and cut to form new, unfamiliar pieces. They have several planes of projection within them, and can be read as anything from snails to Stormtrooper helmets (in this writer’s opinion).

Castle, Andrew Kovacs

Eccentric architect and hoarder Andrew Kovacs took a characteristically different approach. He concentrated on one particular piece, and the result, a large rook, challenges the viewer’s perception of scale. The piece includes miniature people residing on the sculpture, in order to communicate that this is, in fact, architecture.

Why I Don’t Like Chess, Pieterjan Ginckels

This deceptively simple design uses screws in place of chessmen to highlight the difficulty and tediousness of chess; each move must be carefully planned to avoid wasting time.

The World is Flat, Laurel Consuelo Broughton

By projecting the flat chess board onto a globe, Broughton alters our perception of the board, the pieces, and ultimately how the game is played.

Possible Hidden Courtesans, The LADG: Andrew Holder & Claus Benjamin Freyinger

In this poetic but unplayable redesign, LADG’s chessmen are placed randomly on a reflective acrylic piece. The pieces are reminiscent of miniature ancient sculptures, with curvaceous bases and shrouds.

After Chebyshev, Erin Besler & Andrew Nagata

This set, named after a Russian mathematician, was scripted, designed, and meant to be fabricated, but ultimately it was left in the TV screen. Without physicality, the dematerialized pieces are disconnected from any function or relationship to the board.

The CHESS Exhibition is on display at Jai & Jai Gallery, 648 North Spring Street, Los Angeles, California until April 19, 2014.

All images via Brian Rytel, except for “After Chebyshev,” which is via Erin Besler.