The 21st Century Totem: Tall & Sexy Sculpture

Whether abstract or aboriginal, the totem is a striking form of sculpture that has a tremendous presence without taking up a lot of floor space.

What exactly is a totem pole? A large vertical carved “sculpture”, totem poles are typically figurative and originated in the Northwest (of both the United States and Canada) and were made by several different native American tribes. Their meanings range from a visual representation of a legend to anthropomorphic documentation of a family’s lineage or accomplishments. The grandest and most-impressive examples (which are no longer in the forests where originally erected) were made after the 1900s and were typically made of cedar. Aggressive trade and proselytization by European and North American settlers eradicated much of the aboriginal culture and practices in the Northwest (but that is a subject for another post in another blog) One of the most spectacular examples of a Haida totem pole can be found at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum.

Down south we can find an amazing example of an abstract totem. The Standard Hotel in Miami is one of the most effortlessly chic places in Florida thanks to its sensational bayside pool and intimate garden. The centerpiece of their outdoor space is a nearly ten foot tall ceramic sculpture, or totem, by Elaine Katzer. The artist produced a very limited body of ceramic work, preferring large scale public commissions (such as fountains or architectural elements) while working in southern California during the 1960s and 70s. Her series of totems, are revered by 20th century design aficionados, for their ambition, scale and uniqueness. Todd Merrill Antiques in New York has one of her totems, a striking paradigm from the series, and is perhaps the only example of Katzer’s work available on the market today.

A search on 1stdibs produces a wide range of examples of totems, from aboriginal to colorful abstractions, including pieces by designers such as Guy de Rougemont and Ettore Sottsass. “Odalisca” the example by Sottsass, made in 1996 by Bitossi, measures at over 16 feet tall! The price tag is similarly very high. repurposed a 5′ tall copper tube contraction (from a silver factory in upstate New York) into a tall, sexy sculpture. At $750 it is an awesome and affordable alternative to a Tony Cragg piece.

Toronto-based interior designer/retailer Michael Angus has placed domestically proportioned authentic totems in some of his projects. If you are a savvy antique hunter keep your eyes open for early 20th century totems in antique markets in Ontario and British Columbia as the aboriginal art and artifact market continues to be quite soft.

f you are looking for something affordable, eBay is littered with dozens of ethnic examples. While many can be dismissed as contemporary ethnic cheesy, there are a few treasures if you have the patience is look. A seven foot tall, supposedly Cherokee, totem made of unvarnished cedar, is naive and rough, but striking nonetheless.

Regardless of which style you respond to consider the 21st century totem as tall, sexy sculpture for your space.

Images: as linked above