Talking with Natalie Shook, you get the feeling that she’s actually many people trying to be one person. Born and bred in the midwest, the Cuban-American artist moved to New York to study painting at the famed Cooper Union but quickly discovered an affinity for carpentry and fabrication. A taste of the polymathic led her to launch Piscina, a design studio and collective in Red Hook, Brooklyn showcasing the talents of woodworkers, ceramicists, and metalsmiths.
All, appropriately, feature in her debut collection. Headlined by a showstopping oak shelving unit and rounded out by ceramic and cast-iron pieces, it launched to considerable acclaim at 2022’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair. She won Best New Designer and, for good measure, Best in Show.
“Moving from painting into the applied arts was a big shift,” Shook says. “I needed to build a space where I could explore new media. To have the collection percolating and seeing it so well-received was so affirming.”
With that shift came a realization: despite committing herself to the practice every day since she was fourteen, she was no longer just a painter. Years of surrounding herself with diverse creatives had broadened her palette. Equipment, resources, and know-how would be key to her making the most of it.
Cooper Union’s Foundation building taught her that having space, literal or figurative, in which to solve a problem can be as important as the solution itself. The five-story Italianate brownstone the University calls home was New York’s first skyscraper and, at its opening, the tallest in Manhattan. It was also the first in the world constructed with an elevator shaft even though Elisha Otis’s passenger elevator was still years away. Nevertheless, for visionary architect-founder Peter Cooper it was inevitable that cities would grow vertically. Years of Shook riding up and down those elevators left an impression: confidence in one idea is enough, even when others can’t see it.
“That’s kind of how I approach my work,” she says. “I start by establishing something that I don’t intend to change and then build on that. And the question then becomes, ‘How do I make this given work?'”
So Shook decided to build her own maker space inside a Williamsburg loft where a fledgling creative community could share equipment and explore new media. When they outgrew it, she and her co-founder sister, Cal, went searching for a long-term home. A Hurricane Sandy-ravaged warehouse in Red Hook ticked all the boxes, including proximity to the water, which was important to the partners–even before the idea of a rising tide lifting all boats became central to the studio’s ethos. “That was the basis of Piscina—a place where we can pool our knowledge and expand our practices,” Shook says.
On any given day, Piscina’s 7,000-square-foot workshop teems with artists and designers plying their trade. Saws buzz on the communal woodworking floor. Pottery wheels whir in the light-filled ceramic studio. Collaboration abounds. Solutions are workshopped. The results don’t have to travel far. Just around the corner, on Red Hook’s burgeoning Van Brunt Street, an assortment of furniture pieces, decor objects, and fine jewelry are displayed in the Piscina storefront. There, Shook herself can often be found. She chats with visitors known and new, all the while curating the brand’s offerings and iterating on her own contributions.
The foundation of Shook’s first, award-winning collection is the notched spine of the Ledoux shelving unit. Named after French Neoclassical architect Claud-Nicolas Ledoux’s columns at the Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans and developed with architect and husband Wes Rozen, Shook’s Ledoux offers near-infinite modularity with a line of shelves that she plans to offer in seasonal forms and materials. It also gives Shook, who describes her approach as “painterly” and most dreads calling a piece done, ultimate freedom. “Designing a piece of furniture that I never have to finish because I’m always reworking it is kind of the dream: I never have to get to that point of saying, ‘Ok, now it’s done.'”
While the rest of the collection doesn’t wow with its scale, its objects invite handling and use. From slabs of clay and solid wood, Shook brings her Reader side tables to life. Each she finishes with two playfully carved faces that ooh and aah, at the books they hold, perhaps, or the rest of the Piscina line. Including the modular, brutalist-inspired, cast iron candle holders. Or the U-shaped media knife block that could just as easily pass as a sculpted flower pot, sprouting cutlery from its walnut-shell soil. Novel approaches without a hint of novelty. It’s a sensibility that followers of her work will see applied to her 2023 collection, which debuts at ICFF this week and includes new Ledoux shelves and Piscina’s first lighting solution, the latest in an ongoing dialogue between designer and creation.
“For better or worse, I think I’m always going to be that way,” Shook says. “As long as each piece is solving a different problem, it requires a different answer.”
Or a different her altogether. She’s got a few to choose from.
ICFF 2023 runs May 21-23 at the Javits Center, NYC.