The end result “is visually seductive,” says David McFadden, chief curator of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, where Donovan’s Bluffs—a coral reef made of glued-together plastic buttons—will be featured in a new show, “Second Lives,” opening in September. “From a distance her work gives the impression of being made of something extraordinarily precious. But as you get closer, you realize that the preciousness is the effect that she achieves, not the preciousness of anything that she’s used.”
Donovan forages in surplus and grocery stores but doesn’t look too hard for materials. “It’s a matter of deciding, Okay, I’m going to buy those cups. I don’t need plastic cups, but I’m going to get ’em and then mess around with them until I get an answer,” she says. “It’s a very organic, intuitive and observant process. I see where I wind up.” She doesn’t care that they’re cups—what interests her is “exploiting the physical characteristics of the thing that have nothing to do with what it’s used for.”
By way of example, she shows me her second-floor office, her “clean studio,” she calls it, which is reserved for experiments such as the one now in progress: Holding a contraption that unspools thread, an assistant stands over a four-sided area, shooting silver thread into it until the thread begins to suggest a windswept haystack.
“Right now it looks like a bad fiber-arts project,” Donovan explains. “I’m still working it out. The idea is to make it not thread on a spool anymore, and not thread as a string, but thread as this massive, tangled thing. Sometimes the answers come quickly; sometimes they’re a real struggle.”
Fortunately, building her house was far from a struggle—though it was still a construction site when she moved in last fall. Then again, Donovan had lived for years literally on top of her work in a loft-studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where she couldn’t get out of bed without knocking her head on the ceiling. “I always wanted to design a house,” she says, and as she points out the materials she chose for the third-floor living space—the gray stone for the fireplace (“I told the architect, ‘Think Brady Bunch!’”), the penny tiles in the bathroom, the Garolite (what circuit boards are made of) fronting the cabinets—she radiates enthusiasm. “I love not having to move hot-glue guns to eat dinner!” she says, erupting into peals of laughter.
The house has other happy associations: During its design, Donovan met her husband, Robbie Crawford, who works for her architect and made the final model. They married last September in a community garden on New York’s Lower East Side and were serenaded up the street by an old-time string band. Their wedding present from the groom’s parents (his father had worked for Jim Henson) was a puppet show about how they met, performed during the ceremony. “We had a killer wedding,” recalls Donovan, who wore a Chloé minidress and created the cake’s topper—a bride and groom with wooden faces painted to resemble the real ones.