It’s funny that you design lighting, but your studio doesn’t really need it.
I suppose it’s ironic. But what better light is there than soft diffused daylight? The space really proves how careful placement of clerestory windows can create illumination devoid of the hotspots of skylights, while still lending ambience.
It makes the studio feel both indoors and outdoors simultaneously.
Southern California has a proud history of an indoor-outdoor lifestyle, perhaps best captured in the Kings Road House by Rudolph Schindler. When we were designing this space, we tried to think about how we can puncture the front doors to create a light-filled transition outdoors and provide a seamless flow of air and space. The glass creates a barrier for acoustics and dust while celebrating the natural beauty of Los Angeles.
This space almost reminds me of a cathedral.
Our studio used to be in my spare bedroom. We were bootstrapping it, as small companies do. We grew until we hit limits. Three years ago, we stumbled upon this space in Glassell Park, which felt like home from the minute we walked in. We loved the light-filled cathedral effect — the windows let light pour in, as opposed to having a harsh direct glare like that of a sunroof. We were immediately struck by how different it felt from other industrial spaces.
It’s interesting that you say it feels like home. How so?
I have roots working with boats in barns on the East Coast, and this building’s long double-height central aisle reminded me of an enormous barn. It also has these distinct side zones that are offshoots of the central aisle that we programmed into creative spaces.
You cut your teeth on the East Coast, but what’s the best part of being in California?
California gets 300 days of sunshine a year, so working outdoors is a wonderful asset of being here. We love the natural light here — it makes the studio so much more inspiring. I feel like we’re more in harmony with the seasons.
What have you been working on lately?
We just launched our newest fixture, called the Beam Pendant. It’s our take on the classic fluorescent shop lamp — they’re long linear fixtures that you might see in more institutional settings or hanging above pool tables. You often see linear lamps with long, boxy forms. We wanted to create a fixture that was a distinct line in space.
How did you accomplish that?
It has gently rounded ends that lend the fixture directionality and points in transition. We wanted to create a lamp that uses balanced and doubly refracted light to increase the quality of modern, high-efficiency LEDs. Most of the light is actually being pushed outwards, not up and down. Much of the light ends up bouncing off the oak shade to create a much warmer ambience.
I want to hear more about how you started building boats.
My father was a curator at the National Museum of African Art but his other passion was carpentry, so I was always exposed to art and craft growing up. I spent weekends either at the museum or the shop, banging hammers and nails. I always felt a great affinity for sculpture. Most sculptural objects reminded me of wooden boats — beautiful forms, but dictated by a singular purpose.
Boats do seem like utilitarian sculptures in that way.
There’s a certain beauty in barns and wooden boats as utilitarian sculptures that follow very modern principles — no excess and totally devoid of ornamentation, yet always rooted in craft and materiality. Boats, for example, need to be built strong but not overbuilt, because more material makes them slower.
Art within constraints?
Exactly! Design isn’t an “anything goes” field. It must respond to the object’s physical or material limits. I find great comfort in not needing “guiding lights” that help drive the design process.
As Neri Oxman once told us, “limits are new possibilities.” How do these limits drive your design process?
One of the first things we do when starting a new project is to ask: “What are we trying to solve? What are the limits that we’re designing within?” While those limits can be moved and adjusted, they help focus our process. A huge part of how we approach a problem is establishing that question — the limits we’re trying to solve within. That ends up being where the richest discoveries come from.
Did you pick up this approach while studying sculpture?
I got a great education into art theory and history at Oberlin College. It wasn’t a very hands-on program, though — it was more theoretical. I had heroes like Martin Puryear who were so heavily based in this practice approach. Even with my carpentry background, I felt as though I wasn’t even close to mastering my craft. I had ideas, but the execution fell short because I didn’t have the sensitivity of how to make things at this high level that I admired in my mentors and heroes.
So what created that sensitivity?
When I graduated from Oberlin, I embarked on a journeyman’s education of working for various builders to increase my proficiency at making things. I moved to Maine to become a lobster man and spent four years fishing. During that time, I started a self-guided education into timber framing and carpentry, which ended up with my family building an 800-square-foot timber-frame barn from the ground up on a property out there. We all learned firsthand the art of timber framing, wiring, installing windows, shingling a building… construction basics.
You soon relocated to Brooklyn to pursue boat building.
I got a job at a wooden boat building program in the South Bronx with teenagers. I’d spend my 45-minute commute reading books about how to build wooden boats, teaching the kids, and reading the same book on my commute back to figure out what I’d done wrong. I left that program in 2006 after a year to start my own wooden boat building program, Islesford Boatworks, in Maine, which has now been running for 13 years. Every year, we build and launch a boat from scratch.
What are some similarities between building a boat and designing a lighting fixture?
Boats, much like our lighting fixtures, are often devoid of rectilinear forms. It takes more planning and design, but you can create much more dynamic forms that break from the rectilinear grid and are much more sculptural by embracing curves and off angles.
How have you grown since moving in here?
We’ve been steadily launching new products, including our latest Beam Pendant, and telling our story. Our market has expanded — now we have repeat clients who know our narrative approach to design and find ways to use our products repeatedly within their projects. We like to think of our work as accents that help animate and define space, almost like jewelry or sculpture.
What’s something you absolutely must have in your studio?
I’m not keen on the waste that comes from La Croix cans, so we bought a commercial-grade seltzer water maker that lets us refill giant welding tanks. We actually spent more money on it than our table saw, and we have a really nice table saw that stops when your finger hits it.
How does this creative space foster community?
I’ve tried to build a culture where everyone is a master of their particular responsibilities — while integrating and becoming a bigger, more dynamic organism. We do that through shared lunches. Three days a week, we all break bread and take turns cooking and cleaning so that we can sit down outside the normal course of business and simply be people together.
What about in the Los Angeles design sphere at large?
We do studio visits and field trips to famous architectural places around town. I want to foster curiosity about the design industry, especially the legacy of Southern California modernism. We try to act as a resource for others by hosting events and actively participating in L.A.’s growing design sphere.
What are you currently working on?
We’re launching a new line of fixtures in the spring and doing more custom commissions, like restaurants. We recently did one in Sacramento, which put our skills as a studio to the test. These sorts of projects let us flex our design chops. We’re also building out this space slowly but surely. Maybe slowly is the operative word. We do everything ourselves.
My personal sanity depends on spending as much time as possible in the woodshop and getting my hands dirty so I’m not always on the computer. It reminds me why I got into design in the first place.