BROOKLINE, Vt. -- American coins, concrete molds and metal joists don't generally conjure up an image of fine art with a functional component. But that is exactly what makes up the signature coin furniture of Vermont-based sculptor Johnny Swing. His work can be seen everywhere from the Four Seasons in New York City to the Garden Restaurant in Londonderry, Vt.
Swing was first attracted to art as a young child, drawing and painting, but he was also fascinated by the construction of objects.
"It started by taking things apart and not putting them properly back together," he said.
Swing, whose work consists of shaping and molding welded coins into furniture, said he first learned how to weld from a next-door neighbor at 13 and eventually became a certified structural steel welder in New York City.
"I break things a lot, and metal is pretty much the only thing that you can break and bring it back," he said. "Welding takes two objects and attaches them, and they become one."
Swing started in the art world like many others -- pouring all his energy and creativity into his work, while also working on the side in nightclubs and construction to pay the bills. He started building sculptures and attaching them to "no parking" sign posts. The idea of welding coins together to create a piece of art was born out of these early pieces of work.
"During [the time] of making the street sign sculptures, we were welding aluminum to steel ... welded coins to a piece," he said. "That always stayed in the back of my memory."
With the idea of coins as a medium for art, Swing said the move from large sculpture to furniture was a logical progression. Before he started creating his sculpted chairs and sofas, he and two other sculptors were hired to build an installation in a commercial building in New York City. They filled up about 1,800 square feet of space with sculptures on the walls and ceilings, he said.
This installation -- and the building's new owners' desire to change it -- found Swing testifying in front of Congress. He and his partners successfully protected their artwork under the Visual Artists Rights Act in the case Carter v. Helmsley Spear Inc. Swing summed up the act as a way to protect artists' work from change during their lives.
This experience helped lead him to his furniture.
"The more you get to know me, I'm sort of like a wild animal. I don't like to be inside," he said. "So I took what I learned [from the installation piece], which was that I loved surrounding people with my work. [The furniture] was a more intimate gesture, the physical contact and the one-on-one."
Coins came into the equation for a variety of reasons. First, working with found objects comes with the challenge of finding enough to finish a piece. Second, there's the cost of the objects. And that's when Swing thought of pennies.
"It was this sort of magical solution -- there's always more of them. ... They're reasonably priced, and the detail in them is fantastic," he said.
Swing said the patterns of the coins -- which he describes as mimicking the patterns in screens found in Islamic Mosques -- blends with the statement of using coins, which many (Swing included) believe are basically pointless forms of currency.
"Mix the proletarian statement that [this denomination of money] doesn't have much of a purpose [with] the political statement of sitting on money, being surrounded by money ... there's many layers to the work," he said.
Swing said his work is popular, and people have levels of attraction and fascination with the furniture.
Tom Platt, owner of The Garden Restaurant and Gallery, has one of Swing's pieces on display and agrees.
"People love it, and people get their picture taken on it when they walk in," he said. "They're just mesmerized by it."
The piece on display at The Garden is a fortune cookie design made of state quarters, tails up. Platt said restaurant guests are fascinated by the curved shape of the design and try to find their home states on the piece.
"Engineering men really marvel at it and how it's made," he said.