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How do you find your ideal balance between designing a utilitarian object and formal exploration or discovery?
Most objects I design have an internal logic based on a material consideration, a process consideration or a self-imposed conceptual brief. I test and prototype a lot, and creative projects in my studio take years to gestate. I design for three contexts: production, the gallery and commissions for individual clients, and each has different demands. When working with galleries or for clients, I have a lot more freedom to explore and walk the line between art, design and craft. Craft takes much longer to master than thinking up an idea. Craft to me is physical knowledge, and about material curiosity, command and respect, and less about final form. I started out as a carpenter and cabinetmaker, so architecture and tectonics have always factored into my work. Furniture does a lot of work in an interior, and is the primary material connection one has with space. By the time I’m done with a piece of furniture, the final form feels inevitable.
How do you concern yourself with commercial issues related to market research and retail placement?
I’m fortunate to have great clients who allow me room to explore. I’ve designed coffee and side tables for the Chicago furniture manufacturer 57st. design, and I have a chair coming out with them in the near future. Designing in this context—producing things at volume in a factory—is a totally different process from designing intuitively in my studio. Small details change because of manufacturing parameters and the logistics of shipping is a huge concern. 57st. design has a progressive vision for local American manufacturing, and I’m very excited to be on board with them. I also work with Matthew Rachman Gallery here in Chicago. In this case, I create objects based on my own explorations in studio and Matt selects pieces that are most appropriate for his specific market. It’s a rewarding process. I’ve been lucky to work with the same clients over many years, so we’ve been able to establish a creative trust. A client may ask me, “What is interesting to you right now?” and I’ll create a piece based on a concept, material or process research I’m doing in my studio.
Is there something else about your practice?
I have a number of promising tests in my studio right now. One that embodies the tensile capabilities of wood veneer, a second that challenges assumptions of traditional woodworking practices in terms of material processing which yields interesting texture and massing, and yet another about the passage of time which I was able to show in the “Infinite Games” exhibition with artist John Preus last year. Like many other artists and designers, I believe we have a responsibility to minimize the impact of our work that ends up in the world. Who makes it, how is it made, what happens to it at the end of its life cycle? I have a great respect for labor and the environment. I try to work primarily with salvaged or renewable materials. Wood and wood processes fascinate me and are the core of my practice, not because wood is inherently beautiful but because it has technical properties and capabilities that are underexplored.
Designed Objects feature page design by Anna Mort at Thirst
Designed Objects editor Rick Valicenti at Thirst
Rick Valicenti has led the Thirst design studio since its founding in 1989 and has established himself as one of the most visionary designers in the country, winning the 2011 National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.