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Elements of Surprise

Elements of Surprise

Elements of Surprise

June/July 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Staff
Mediums Furniture
Vivian Chiu Inception chairs

Inception chair, 2011, ash, 32 x 16 x 16 in. Photo: Vivian Chiu

Fifteen fresh pieces by furniture innovators from coast to coast.

Furniture is inescapably central in our lives. It’s where we rest our heads, gather with friends, and recline after long days. But when infused with ingenuity, vision, and craftsmanship, furniture can be more than strictly functional; it can make our living spaces creative as well as comfortable. What the designer-makers on the following pages share is an understanding that, even with objects as ubiquitous as tables and chairs, there is room for the unexpected. We can still be surprised. With that in mind, we gathered 15 striking pieces suited to the most public parts of the home – such as the living and dining rooms – and talked to their talented makers. Read on for their motivations and stories – and, of course, samples of their innovative work. ~The Editors

Vivian Chiu
Brooklyn, New York
Vivian Chiu’s witty Inception chair began as a quip – a chair within a chair within a chair –  but quickly became a compelling challenge for the 24-year-old designer-maker, an alum of Rhode Island School of Design. “It took an extreme amount of math and calculation,” she says. “Measurements were made to 1/32nd of an inch.” She’s not one to shy away from hard work. Chiu cites repetition, discipline, and labor as the guiding principles of her practice – physical and mental perseverance is what keeps her engaged in a project. “My work encourages the viewer to see and almost experience the labor involved,” she says, “as well as question the process in which it was created.”

Michele Marti
Michele Marti Maker
Oakland, California
Many furniture designer-makers talk about the human scale of their work, the way furniture interfaces with the body. Michele Marti’s work takes that exploration to a new level. “I am really interested in how people interact with one another while seated in furniture – conversations and flirtations, especially,” says the 28-year-old graduate of California College of the Arts. Marti sets the stage for such intimate, even provocative, interaction through the composition of her chairs, emphasizing and intensifying the experience of sitting. “Body language is a very important part of my work; what your hands, elbows, knees, and feet are doing – and how they are facing. Touch becomes the main focus.”

Riley McFerrin
Hinterland Design
San Francisco, California; Vancouver, British Columbia
Materials have always been at the core of Riley McFerrin’s work, as the 38-year-old has evolved from visual artist to builder to furniture designer, founding Hinterland in 2010. “I think there is no better knowledge of an object or a process than when you labor over the nuances of the material and allow solutions to design problems to become self-evident,” he says. His Little Gem tables developed out of his desire to make something special – “something unexpected and supernatural” – out of the abundance of waste wood to be had in the Pacific Northwest. Each Gem functions as a table, he notes, “but ultimately it is a sculpture of a crystal made of solid wood.” Chain-saw-carved, planed, sanded, oiled, and waxed, with tops of marble, Cor-ten, granite, and mirror; no two are alike.

Vincent Edwards
Vincent Edwards Design
Bloomington, Indiana
Vincent Edwards earned a BFA in printmaking at Indiana University – “mostly woodcuts,” he says – and, as the story often goes, toward the end of his undergraduate career, took a woodworking class. “Within a year, I had a band saw, chisels, hand planes, and a workbench in my basement,” he recalls. His passion for furniture brought him to the Herron School of Art and Design, where the artist, 33, earned an MFA in 2012. His bench is a “true hybrid of traditional and digital fabrication,” he notes. He made the bulkheads and horizontal curved slats with a CNC router, while he laminated the backrests and other curved components in a vacuum bag and cut them into strips on a band saw. It took 500 hours to fabricate – and that was with the helping hands of coworkers and professors.

Jason Phillips
Jason Phillips Design
High Point, North Carolina
In Jason Phillips’ work, less is more: “My work has always been about pushing the boundaries on form and function, always distilling design down to the essentials,” he says. “I focus on the silhouette, the emotional connection, and the materials.” Most of his pieces, in fact, are limited to just one or two materials. For his Quantum table, inspired by the movement of atomic particles, Phillips, a graduate of the University of Michigan’s industrial design program, hand-formed heavy-gauge steel wire, creating a stunning pedestal base for the lacquered orange Corian top. “Something most people don’t know about me is that I am slightly color-blind,” says the 30-year-old. “It is one less variable in my design process, which I find helps me focus on my craft.”

Annie Evelyn
New Colony Furniture
Brooklyn, New York
“Joy, laughter, and the unexpected have always been at the heart of my work,” says Annie Evelyn. To wit: her delightful Squishy Sticks chair, which grew out of her work upholstering with cement. She has also made coin-operated vibrating tables and whoopee-cushion-equipped chairs. “I want to make things that make people happy,” she says. Evelyn, 37, courts grins with a powerhouse résumé, having earned both a BFA and MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. “The RISD furniture department has been like a family to me,” Evelyn says. Furniture runs in her biological family, too: Her grandparents owned a company, Old Colony Furniture, before she was born.

Tim Karoleff
Cincinnati, Ohio
Tim Karoleff’s studio name says it all: Ampersand. The 27-year-old isn’t interested in either/or; he wants it all – to see function and form come together in a memorable experience, and to execute it responsibly, too. Ampersand’s Bundle table exemplifies this philosophy. Both elegant and friendly, the table takes its inspiration from a familiar Midwestern scene – a sheaf of wheat – while its handcrafted legs of white oak or walnut are entirely friction-fit, free of adhesives and hardware. As Karoleff, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati, explains: “Bundle is a statement of practical pleasure.”

Taylor McKenzie-Veal
Studio McKenzie-Veal
Providence, Rhode Island
“It’s extremely important to me to prototype the designs as I conceive of them,” says Taylor McKenzie-Veal, 26. Flipping from two dimensions (such as drawing or CAD) to three (scale models and prototypes) allows him to “embed integrity” in his designs, he says. “The result is work that is concerned with honesty, in terms of construction and materiality.” His studio’s modular Granoff sofa was born of a group effort: McKenzie-Veal, along with Yumi Yoshida, Scot Bailey, and Ian Stell, designed and prototyped a suite of furniture for the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University. Afterward, McKenzie-Veal, who earned an MFA from RISD in 2012, stepped in as project manager/product developer, bringing the sleek sofa into existence.

François Chambard
UM Project
Brooklyn, New York
“A lot of people have tagged my furniture as ‘playful’ – I take that as a compliment, but that is not deliberate,” François Chambard says. “I just think it is the result of being simple and basic, accessible and well made.” His UM Project, which turned 10 years old in 2014, produces two lines: “ready-to-wear” production pieces and one-of-a-kind works. Eighty percent is made in-house, in what is effectively a “glorified woodshop,” says Chambard, 46, but it suits him: “My work is not so much about material transformation and complex processes, but rather about the combination of simple shapes and materials, the unique connections of colors and forms.” The U.M.O. stool/tables, with their nubby, almost anthropomorphic legs and elegant materials (cork, aluminum, and felt), are a case in point.

Jason Horvath & Bill Hilgendorf
Brooklyn, New York
A keen eye might spot the reclaimed bourbon-barrel staves in Uhuru’s made-to-order Bilge lounge chair, but it would take an exceptional viewer to recognize its other component: leaf springs from decommissioned New York City fire trucks. The chair is “a great representation of … what we try to achieve in designing a piece,” says Bill Hilgendorf, 34, a partner in the Red Hook-based design studio with Jason Horvath, 36. The duo favors reclaimed materials (the more interesting the better), digging into their history and allowing that research to inform their designs – as well as their emphasis on long-term sustainability. “If an object has a story,” Hilgendorf says, “it gives the object an additional layer of value, and there’s a greater chance it will be held onto and passed along.”

Richard Velloso
Olga Guanabara
Brooklyn, New York
When Richard Velloso decided in 2011 to dedicate himself to furniture full time, after a decade of working in the advertising world, he named his company after Olga – his chubby chocolate Lab – and Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, where she swam as a young dog. And in two words, he captured his warm, inviting approach to craft. “Furniture has always appealed to me,” says Velloso, 40, who grew up in São Paulo, moving to Boston in the 1990s to study journalism and design. “It’s at the center of our everyday lives: meals around a dining room table, feet up on the coffee table while relaxing on the couch. I wanted to contribute to people’s surroundings and be part of their future memories.”

David Rasmussen
David Rasmussen Design
Carbondale, Colorado
Describing his approach to furniture, David Rasmussen says he strives for clean lines, prizing functionality and employing hits of bold color to set his designs apart – none, perhaps, more boldly distinguished than his Artichoke table, a collaboration with painter Scott Harris. Rasmussen, 34, designed the handcrafted table and came up with the concept for the surprising painted top; Harris “brought the design to life,” he says, employing a technique that involves building up coats of paint and then sanding the surface flat to reveal the many luscious layers.

Laura Kishimoto
Laura Kishimoto Design
Lexington, Massachusetts
Many artists draw inspiration from the natural world; Laura Kishimoto’s work speaks its language. Much of the 23-year-old’s work is inspired by tessellation, a mathematical form that repeats a module across a surface – think fish scales, pineapples, honeycombs. Her Saji chair was the result of a personal challenge to make a three-dimensional form from a single two-dimensional curve. “I always aim to strike a balance,” says the recent RISD grad. “If my hand is too heavy in the making process, the finished piece can appear contrived and unnatural. … However, if I give too much control over to my materials or techniques, the piece quickly loses all sense of intention.”

Erin & Nate Moren
Tandem Made
Minneapolis, Minnesota
“The Tandem Made motto is ‘Design, build, collaborate’ – we take all aspects of that seriously,” says Erin Moren. “We love good design and work hard to design well; we love to build things and greatly value making high-quality products with attention to detail; and we love to collaborate – with clients, friends, family, and other companies.” She and her husband, Nate, who both turn 30 this year, met while studying furniture design at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The sleek Denmark lounge, in fact, is the fruit of a study-abroad program in Copenhagen. The duo launched their Minneapolis design/build studio in 2011.

Skylar Morgan
Atlanta, Georgia
“Furniture for me is instant gratification,” says Skylar Morgan. “I can think of an idea or a design, and then make it, refine it, start over, or move on to the next piece.” And when he says instant, he means it. The idea for the Chabench woke the designer, 32, at 4 in the morning. “I went to the shop and had to make it that day,” he says. Morgan began woodworking in his teens, eventually apprenticing under Jeffrey Greene before launching Skylar Morgan Furniture + Design in 2004. The firm does high-end commercial and residential work – architectural woodworking and custom furniture – but also produces Doc., a line of playful furniture that brings craftsmanship to the fore.