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Nicholas Stawinski is a fourth-generation upholsterer with deep family roots in the Detroit area, and his art reflects his experience living among the hulking relics of the auto industry. Tables, ottomans, sofas, and sculpture take their geometry from old water towers, derelict cooling plants, crumbling smokestacks, and aging incinerators.
He makes some pieces with slats from shipping pallets; even the upholstery materials he uses are leftovers from the shuttered design center of a car manufacturer that relocated to southern California. Stawinski transforms these vestiges of decline into furniture and sculpture with fresh, energetic appeal.
Now pursuing an MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Stawinski, 24, credits his aesthetic to his hometown and the family business. “Being around a post-industrial landscape, you see a lot of broken-down, worn-out things. You see people trying to tie things together and make things work,” he explains. “This ties into our family’s work as reupholsterers. We make the old and unwanted into the new and desirable.”
Some 80 years ago, his great-grandfather started the business that his parents continue to this day. “I’ve been around the shop ever since I can remember,” Stawinski says. By the time he was in high school, he had worked his way up from taking out the trash to disassembling furniture for repair.
At the same time, interior designers were calling on his father for custom-designed ottomans. As demand grew, the younger Stawinski was enlisted to cut wood and assemble the pieces. Once familiar with most aspects of furniture making, he branched out into design. A high school art teacher guided him as he assembled his portfolio, which led to admission to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, where he earned his BFA in 2010. He studied at Penland School of Crafts with furniture maker Daniel Michalik and won a scholarship to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. A residency at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado followed.
Both of Stawinski’s parents also have formal art training. His father is a painter who has exhibited at the Detroit Gallery of Contemporary Crafts; his mother, a knitter, weaver, and dyer, studied under master textile artist Warren Seelig at Colorado State University.
A single experience with those artistic parents shapes his work even today. In 2004, when he was 16, his family took a trip to Chicago, where they stopped at the Museum of Contemporary Art to see a retrospective of the work of Lee Bontecou. The image of one piece he saw remains etched in his mind. “It was a huge hole,” he recalls. The untitled piece from 1959 is a welded steel framework using wire and canvas to form a 3D web around a black fabric center. “It was kind of reflective of yourself, what you’re trying to say but not letting out,” he says. In 2010, the idea of the hole reemerged in his Introspective series – enigmatic geometric sculptures made of wood slats. Stawinski also cites Bernd and Hilla Becher’s pioneering typologies – photographic grids of industrial structures – as an influence, particularly in his 2009 Cooling Tower Table. In Stawinski’s hands, a desolate vision becomes new and inviting
Rachel Schalet Crabb is a writer and fiber artist in Minneapolis.