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How did you get into furniture design, and why custom pieces in particular?
I started building furniture a couple of years after finishing my MFA, after a trip to Paris. At the time, I was doing highly conceptual art works that had almost no physical form or presence. When I was in Paris, I was struck by the way art and design were integrated into everyday life in a way that I had never seen before, and this made a big impression on me. It left me feeling that there was a pragmatic element missing in my work, and so I began thinking about incorporating ideas into things I could use on a daily basis, such as furniture.
I bought a table saw and began making book storage furniture, as I had a large library of books on art, philosophy and literary criticism. It was the early ’90s and that stuff was all the rage in the art world. I had made friends with Andrew Liang, who was the owner of FORM ZERO Architectural Books, and when he saw what I was working on, he commissioned me to build a desk and work surface for behind the cash register at his new store in Santa Monica. Form Zero was a locus for young and critically aware architects in LA, and my work was seen by several of them, and I was asked to do several more small commissions.
My design skills were developed by working with these architects, who gave me an enlarged perspective on how, Modern, minimal forms can be utilized in architectural spaces. Building their furniture was an excellent education in design. Although I had always appreciated Modern design, it was through the hands on fabrication of these projects that I developed the design skills I still use today. And, as it turned out, my first design client was from someone I met through one of these young architects.
I do custom work for a couple of reasons. First, it was the way I entered the field, designing and building small-scale projects for clients. But more importantly, custom design offers opportunities to design furniture that is site specific, and often times has more potential for experimentation and play, than production furniture which has to work in (virtually) every site. A lot of my work “opens” in non-standard ways, that simply won’t fit into a lot of spaces, or floats off the floor in a way that would be difficult to install if it were in production.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, custom work allows to me to work with people, interactively in the creation of each new project. I enjoy the collaborative process of presenting, refining and developing my ideas with my clients.
Who or what has influenced your work, and which designers do you admire?
My major influences have always been in Art and Architecture rather than furniture design per se. I have always been drawn to the perceptual qualities of form and space in the work of Donald Judd. I never saw his work as being about repetition, or form itself, but rather I was always interested in how, any single person, standing in any location, looking at his repeating forms, actually sees each one of those forms as slightly different, owing to the fact that each is viewed from a slightly different perspective. I love to subtlety of Judd’s gesture, the way the work is so utterly contingent upon the viewer, rather than the form itself. This is not how Judd speaks of his work, but it is how I see, and why I love that work. I am always interested in how a viewer relates to an object, be it sculpture, a bookcase, or an architectural space.
Bernard Tschumi and his idea of Event Space, of architecture as an event that is perceived by humans, also had a critical role in my development as a designer. I was reading a lot of French philosophy at the time, and his writings used the theoretical premise of these ideas as the basis for architecture as an event to be perceived by the people who use it. In some ways this is completely obvious, because all space is understood through any person’s perception of that space, as they exist there. But what I loved about Tschumi is that his architecture, for example at Parc de La Villette in Paris, makes this relation between the viewer and the architecture, manifest, and offers the people who use that park the opportunity to watch their own visual and spatial perceptions transform they use the park. In other words, the architecture of the park draws attention to itself by engaging the perceptions of the people in the park. In my work, I am always interested in creating dramatic interactions between the furniture and the people who use it. I work to create furniture that engages people.
As for designers I admire, there are many…Marc Newsome for knowing how to create such beautiful forms, Kelly Wearstler, especially at Viceroy in Palm Springs, for being so exuberant and at the same time so perfectly controlled and elegant, The Bouroullec Brothers for their range and ingenuity, Issey Miyake for asking such amazing questions about what clothing could be, and, recently, Tord Bonntje for doing dishware at Target last Christmas, that is as delightful as any of his other work, but affordable for everyone.
Every piece in your collection is made by hand. Take us through the design and build process of a favorite piece.
In 2003, I was asked to build some bookcases for a small addition, off a living room, for one of my clients, the MacLaren’s. The reading nook, as it was called, was a 9-foot long, 6-foot deep projection, extending the living room space out into the side yard. The three walls of the room were floor to ceiling glass, with intense views of the Hollywood Hills. My client did a quick sketch that had the bookcase in front of the far window, because she wanted to block the sight lines from a neighbor’s house, create a more private space, and store most of a growing book collection there.
My initial response was that the reading nook was a great space within the house to sit and read, and look out onto the hills. Blocking the view seemed to detract rather than enhance the quality of being in that space and I had seen how sunlight could fade the covers of books when left in the sun, so a bookcase seemed less and less interesting as I thought about the space. Through conversations with the client, I had also discovered that they were considering the purchase of some sort of entertainment center/CD storage unit, so that they could access their music from the living room.
My proposal was to change the function of the nook from book storage to a book reading area, and to combine this with the stereo cabinet plus CD storage they wanted in the living room, and connect the two functions in a single unit that transformed itself from a couch inside the glass nook to a small book storage area, and then as it turns the corner into the living room becomes the stereo cabinet and CD storage unit.
I wanted the cabinet to cantilever off the wall to give the appearance of hovering off the floor. Furniture that does not have legs plays with our most basic assumptions of the world, because it does not fall to the ground, even though it has nothing apparently there to support it. This playful gesture engages people who look carefully with an apparently magical kind of hovering of the cabinet above the ground.
And if one continues to look carefully, you can see that there are some oddly placed reveals around the cabinet in various places. To add another layer of play to the design, we created CD storage cases that are accessed by sliding the top of the cabinet horizontally, revealing the titles of the CDs as you look down at them. As with most of my work, these sliding doors are meant to engage the user with an unconventional and dramatic impression of the furniture.
As for building of this piece, this was actually the first time I hired a fabricator to build the entire project. Before this project, I would always start building with a general idea of what I wanted, and develop the details as I built. This time, however, I was forced to completely develop the project beforehand. I now have all my work fabricated by the people in my shop, and this makes so much sense because I never loved the fabrication part of the work, but always loved the design part.
What’s the most rewarding product you have designed? Why?
The most rewarding design is usually my most recent project. The reason I so enjoy custom design is that I am always pushing my ideas further and developing new solutions to the problems that interest me. Currently, my most rewarding design is the Zebrawood Entertainment Center/Dresser from the Poster/Neutra apartment.
I did this piece as part of an exhibition to celebrate the opening of the newly remodeled Poster Apartments, by Richard Neutra, in Los Angeles. It was designed to transition between the living room and bedroom by wrapping around a shared wall and operating as separate items, even though it is all one thing. As it turned out I ended up moved into that apartment and now live there, so one of the reasons I find this design so rewarding is that I am able to live with it, and watch it in my daily life (which is unusual because most of my work is installed in a specific location, and is not repeatable). There are two things in particular that I enjoy again and again: 1) the way that the cabinet transforms itself in terms of form, as various compartments are accessed; and 2) the way it floats off the floor and hovers as it moves around the wall.
Is there any advice you’d give to those trying to break into the furniture industry?
I have been very fortunate in how my career has developed. Early on, I did some work for a developer who was really dedicated to modern, minimal design, and gave me a lot of freedom to play and experiment with my design. The tradeoff was that I did not make a great deal of money on those projects, but they did give me the opportunity to explore and develop my work in the real world.
My advice is twofold:
1) Always do what you are passionate about;
2) Surround yourself with people who share your design interests. Community matters, and being around people who are supportive of your work is the best motivation to keep you moving forward.
And let me just say one more thing…which is that it is so important to show your work to a lot of people. Don’t expect anything from any given person, but it is always good to keep your work out in the world. The process keeps me connected to my work, and simultaneously engaged with the outside world.
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