One Piece at a Time : Design at Human Scale — An Interview with Jack Craig, Brian DuBois & Chris Schanck

January 15, 2014 · Print This Article

Just as divisions in artistic mediums and practices are blurring, so too are the distinctions between artists and designers. The farther we move away from the entrenchments of Modernism, the more this trend is likely to continue. This month, I spoke with three designers of diverse backgrounds working in and around Detroit as a place of inspiration, community and revival. From the elegant reworkings of Modernist forms emphasizing beauty in the handmade of Brian DuBois, to the decidedly analog textural surfaces adorning Chris Schanck’s startling furniture, to the unexpected combination of industrial and natural materials to create incredibly organic and mesmerizing surfaces in the work of Jack Craig, designing on a small scale provides opportunities for spontaneity, chance, and individuality. During our recent conversation, we discussed how small production can return design to richer, more powerful connections with the user.

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From left: Brian DuBois, Jack Craig and Chris Schanck in Brian’s shop, Hazel Park, MI

 

We become disconnected to design through all the filters a product goes through, all the separate hands and intentions that shape the product. Not only does this remove the designer from their work, but it is somewhat antithetical to what design sets out to do: empowering our tangible and lived experience in the world. As the three of you largely manufacture your own designs, how does this inform your work, as well as the conversation around contemporary design?

 

Brian: The beauty of having a shop space and making your own work is that you’re able to make decisions right there. You understand the materials and the fabrication, unlike if you were in a traditional firm where all you’re doing are pretty renderings all day. Anyone can draw the fancy picture; but its not until you get your hands dirty that you say “oh man, I can’t bend steel this way. I have to go to aluminum.” And that changes up the whole game for your idea.

 

Chris: There’s a difference in the way Brian works and the way you describe off the shelf mass produced industrial design, and it’s that there’s an unknown or distrust in the perfection of product design. They have no visual history. The way Brian works, there is room for imperfection. If you look at his “Detroit on a Platter”: he walked through the streets of Detroit measuring, taking photographs, doing his citywide site analysis with eyes on the street, rather than fly by on Google Maps. So I trust in that process, although it may be full of errors. There is an authenticity there that you don’t find in an off the shelf product.

 

B: When people know that you did it by hand, then there is the aura of the artist. When you look at Jack and Schanck’s work, they can’t be mass produced. We’re not at that market of selling through Herman Miller or Knoll.

 

Jack: I have worked a little in industry. I would agree – the pure intentions of positively engaging the “lived experience” is undeniably diluted by the demands of market and the economics of production. And yes, to some degree, operating outside of industry allows you to preserve a more human agenda. It still has its limitations. I wouldn’t say one is better – they are just different. Our lifestyles are completely dependent on the innovations of industry. Sure there is an over-saturation of product – mostly misplaced propositions for happiness. It is capitalistic and flawed.  But to an extent it is also largely self-policing and fundamentally optimistic. Good design has a way of surviving. The bigger issue is the colossal waste generated.

 

Would you find yourself in line with the designer, the craftsman and the fine artist equally, does it balance differently, or does this matter at all?

 

B: My background was in Architecture, so mostly (I made) rectilinear forms and hardly any organic stuff. I had to break out of that shell. The furniture I’m doing is more rectilinear, but other stuff I’m working on is a merging of both. But its also about trying to do everything in my shop by myself.

 

C: It’s the blending of those disciplines and more that is defining the contemporary zeitgeist. Our world is too complex to work with it through only one discipline now. If art contextualizes ideas and design simplifies them it makes sense to find the common ground between our disciplines. If my limits are that it has to be reproducible and has to meet a standard of perfection, than how far can it go the other way if I don’t have those same constraints? We’re on the fringe of a traditional design practice. If it was designed for mass production it would have to meet certain criteria, but if we accept the idea that it doesn’t have to be reproducible and doesn’t have to mimic a commercial form, or process, then what are the limits of that?

 

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Studio assistants Neppa and Nirma applying gold tinted foil to Chris’s furniture. Detroit, MI

B: There’s still a lot of decent furniture makers that make their solid wood stuff by hand, but thats all high price point, so I guess its a matter of finding out where you want to be.

 

J: There is opportunity to operate outside of industry while not existing wholly independent of it. Industry is fine tuned for maximum efficiencies – the quickest and most economical means of production on a massive level. This is a kind of extreme. We’re operating somewhere on the other end – possibly the least efficient means of production. But it is not traditional handmade – its craft imposed on hyper-engineered materials and processes.

 

C: There are new materials that don’t have form yet, outside of their industrial form. In Jack’s case, he takes industrial materials and makes them beautiful and mysterious. I mean they’re waste pipes that carry our shit! And he turns them into show stopping work.

 

B: Its application too, like rethinking the functionality of a piece. So having the craft, the design… being able to bounce in all kinds of realms. A lot of it is: “If this is what I want the end product to be, how do I get there?”

 

Our relationship to materials is always changing, so thinking of certain types of wood or stone can seem like materials with a limited availability, while plastics, and other petroleum products appear to be limitless, even though they there are unsustainable and rely on our oil supply. Yet, the highly processed nature of them, requiring a lot of human intervention, makes them seem like they have no end, like there is an internet effect on them.

 

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“CORK1 Series” by Brian DuBois. Coffee Table, side table, end table and LED light (not shown). Photo credit: PD Rearick

 

C: With new opportunities in material there is less precedent to draw from. It’s exciting; I tightrope walk of sorts, long way to fall down but worth the risk. But like the Internet we pull from, sample and re-mix historical references in new contexts. My work is full of disparate historical art, design and film references, but I try and avoid any one dominant reference, leaving more room for interpretation.

 

B: Its important to take the materials and find out what their breaking points are. If you look at Jack’s work, he heated up a (PVC) tube and started bending it and breaking it. In his “Broken Board” Series, he started breaking (the boards) with his bare hands [laughs]. So its also about what can we get from these forms without overly analyzing the fabrication process.

 

C: Maybe the pink foam is something easy that anyone can shape, so it takes less craft and skill at first. We’ve become babes in the woods when it comes to traditional materials and processes. We approach pink foam with the same naivety as we would primitive materials like stone or wood. I don’t think this is necessarily good or bad, it just means our ways of understanding our world are shifting.

 

Is furniture design losing its relationship to the concerns of the middle and working classes? With all of the mass produced furniture available at giant retailers like IKEA, does the designer have to choose the market he or she wants to be a part of, or is there still room for all price brackets?

 

B: When you look at Mid Century Modern furniture, it really holds its value. Many people would hesitate to spend $2500 on a handcrafted coffee table, even though it could last your whole lifetime and be passed down to your children. At IKEA, the designs are OK, but their connections and workmanship are really poor. Its unsustainable and just gets thrown out in a year, goes to landfills and the cycle continues. If people are willing to spend $30 – 40K on a car which depreciates half its value as soon as they take it off the lot, why not spend a fraction of that on some really nice furniture that will last?

 

C: You must choose your market, and you can operate on a scale of price points. My work exists for two markets, the Art market and the Community market. One trades in the dollar the other in social currency.

As far as IKEA: My grandparents have had the same bedroom furniture suite for over 40 years.

I asked Grandma Schanck about it recently, she told me they bought it when they wed. She’s like “I hate it. Your grandfather picked it out.” So I say, “If you hate it, why did you have it for 40 years?” To me she says, “Because there’s nothing wrong with it.” What do you say to that?! Stubborn, love her to death.

So how important is taste in terms of function? Conceptually, I think IKEA is cool; it could do with more range in attitude but I like that you can change furnishings quickly and inexpensively as you change your identity. I don’t operate in that market, but I love lingonberries, so it’s all good. I would never deliberately try and make anything timeless. I expect my work could be outdated before we get through this interview.

 

J: I don’t have anything against IKEA. In some ways, they offer an education. I don’t think we tend to get the same design exposure in this country as you would elsewhere in the world. I grew up thinking that turned table legs would be something I wanted in my own home, until a couple of years ago when I started studying (design). I don’t think anyone is at fault for the lack of exposure or education. These mass outlets where different types of furniture are being offered at a cheap level only does good, because its a gateway.

 

So its a starting point.  As Brian said, most people would balk at the price of a handmade piece of furniture because we live in a disposable culture. But its a push and pull, right? Because some of it is a negative.

 

C: Sure, there is a relationship, but we all don’t still dress in the dress of the 50’s right? Everything changes and it’s a good thing. I think we hold onto that modern look and ideal because of a time it symbolized, but really that time was shit if you weren’t a white male. I’m bias but I prefer the time we live in now, so what does now look like? I mean It’s all about variety isn’t it? You can rock a Forever 21 top with Prada shoes, just as you can mix your interior with hi and low. The world’s big enough for historical and contemporary worlds to co-exist, in fact it helps us locate ourselves in time.

 

J: None of us can afford our own furniture, so this conversation is a little funny. [laughs] We are on an extreme pole where we make things for a gallery, so its in the vein of an artist, and our endgame isn’t to bring cheap, affordable furniture to the masses.

 

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“PVC Series: Pressed” by Jack Craig. PVC water mains heated and pressured on stone.

 

Chris, you mentioned you had a project for a class you teach at Lawrence Tech (University), where you were trying to get your class to address “the failings of Modernism”. Can the three of you elaborate on that idea?

 

C: Modernism doesn’t address the tastes of individuals. We designers and artists alike are often guilty of making work with a perfect resting or display place in mind for our work. Whether an untarnished white cube, a compliant scenario or an empty level lot. But the world and our aging built environment is a messy and wonderfully imperfect place.

So as a class we locate our work in a very real context. I take my Furniture Design students into the home of a participating family in Banglatown, Detroit. The family welcomes the students and provides them with a specific cultural context for their designs. In addition to pragmatic needs, the students’ work takes shape through a lens of feminine modernity. Where taste and decoration play as important a role as dimensional relationships. The student’s work lives on in the interior of the family’s home.

 

B: As designers, it’s important to have that client contact, as they may have a whole new perspective. Sometimes you have to ask people what they want from a coffee table or a kitchen table. There has to be something else involved besides making it look cool. There has to be a functionality specific to the person… sometimes the function has more importance than the form, and sometimes meeting in the middle is really hard.

 

C: What I’ve learned from working with other people that Modernism doesn’t address is that taste matters, no matter how much money you have. I went sofa shopping with the same clients for them to purchase a set of sofas at a second hand furniture shop and it came down to two sets. One was more comfortable but had the wrong aesthetic, and the other was less comfortable but looked the way they wanted. The decision was still made favoring aesthetics opposed to comfort. Theres a trade off made on one side of the spectrum. So when we design work for the couture market, there’s a tradeoff there too, maybe with performance again over look. What’s missing in IKEA furniture is the personality: the chips on the surfaces and being customizable, reflecting you and not just every other person that has the same thing. And thats what our work starts to do. The range of human experience and emotion is far too great for only one type of aspirational design. We want Mozart and Miley, at least I do.

 

What sort of trends are you seeing right now in design and working in Detroit that you hope continue this year?

 

C: I think the trends are really exciting right now. We live in a city where the roles of artist, citizen, designer and architect are all blurred into a maker culture. That culture is innovating with social entrepreneurship and practice. The community of makers here is my biggest inspiration, they’re my creative heroes. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be practicing.

 

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“Gold Studio Desk” by Chris Schanck

 

B: Being here my whole life, you see it in waves. I’m just afraid that this movement doesn’t die down in two years and then its back to totally talking shit about Detroit. The city was always set up for fabrication because of the auto industry, so I think its one of the only cities that has everything you need to make, from materials to labor. To be able to come to my shop and know I only have to drive up to a half hour to get anything I want is a good thing. Rent is cheap here, which is causing a lot of people from other cities to move here. You can get a lot of space for pennies on the dollar compared to NY or Chicago.

 

J: We are in the middle of a Memphis revival. It’s all faux finishes, large geometric shapes, high saturated disparate colors, and squiggle lines. What does it mean now that we’re seeing it again 30 years later? I’m not sure. The movement originally was characterized by a sort of exuberance, satire, and anti-good taste. I think these things are still present but now that it’s being recycled it means something a little different. It is like because it’s pulled from the ‘80s, it is somehow even more anti-taste. Maybe it’s the design equivalent of the horror genre. It’s pain crossed with pleasure.

 

What do you have in store for the coming year?

 

B: I’m downscaling things this year and focusing on smaller projects. I’ve got some lights I’m working on, some tableware, glasses, jewelry, coaster set — just little stuff this year. Its easier to ship that stuff out. I’m still working on my furniture, but I gotta keep scratchin at doors to get my products out there. Maybe this will lead to some larger manufacturing. I always have to be busy, otherwise I go crazy.

 

C: Jack and I are doing a show this May at Johnson Trading Gallery in NYC.

http://www.johnsontradinggallery.com/

Then I’m preparing for a show at Almine Rech this September in Paris.

http://www.alminerech.com/

 

 

Brian DuBois and Chris Schanck earned an MFA in 3D from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI in 2011. Jack Craig earned an MFA in 3D from Cranbrook in 2012. Thanks to the three of them for taking the time to meet with me and discuss their work and ideas. Thanks also to Brian for hosting us in his shop. For more of their work, check out the following sites:

http://www.jackpcraig.com/

http://www.christopherschanck.com/

http://www.duboiscollection.com/ 

http://www.237amstudios.com/

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