It doesn’t take very long into a conversation with A. Jacob Marks to realize that the Skram founder—a self-taught designer and furniture maker—is full of wisdom. After starting the company at just 25 years old, Marks quickly went on to be named one of the top young designers in the Americas by boutique architecture publisher Daab. Then came an ICFF award, multiple NYCxDesign awards, a membership on the Sustainable Furnishings Council, and, recently, a showroom in the prestigious New York Design Center. But Marks hasn’t let any of it go to his head.
No doubt, it takes a level head, sharp eye, and, frankly, talent to take an independent furniture brand from an idea, to a brand headquartered in a former North Carolina knitting mill all the way to America’s creative epicenter in New York City. Marks, in his wisdom, makes it all sound deceptively simple: “If I do my job, beautiful materials accentuate form, but they are not a substitute for good design.”
In keeping with his straightforward manner, the designer doesn’t waste words. When asked about sustainability milestones he hopes to achieve in the near future, he answers with refreshing frankness. “Running our headquarters and factory with 100 percent solar energy by 2025.” On the subject of where he finds inspiration, he gives an unloquacious reply. “I have absolutely no control over the roots of inspiration—a storm drain grate or a railroad spike is as likely as a butterfly wing to provide it.”
But get into talking about balancing automation with handicraft, or articulating the materiality of Skram furniture through a laptop-sized screen, and he’ll talk you through how he rises to the occasion. He expands upon those topics below.
Skram’s furniture seems to transcend neat divisions of time and style. How would you describe the movements and periods that resonate with you?
That’s nice to hear. I’m more interested in “’universal” elements of design that transcend everything, that bind all good design: classic principles of proportioning derived from nature—the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio. These structures ground my designs in the continuum of history but keep the work original, and free me to explore.
You work exclusively in natural materials. What is it about wood, leather, stone, metal that inspires you?
There’s enough plastic in the world, right? It’s the character of these materials. They tell a story. They’re unpredictable. They impart humility. Nature’s richness reminds us of our smallness.
How does Skram blend the traditional and the innovative?
This is a balance we try to strike every day. It’s at the heart of our experiment: build heirloom quality and original design at scale. For the “at scale” part to work, automation is required. There’s no path for domestic manufacturing without it, nor do I want that, because there are so many amazing possibilities with automation in terms of design, but also unbelievable gains in terms of precision, repeatability, and efficiency.
The experiment also requires that what we build be more than what is simply manufactured; these objects need to have soul. For that, there’s no substitute for people. Experienced furniture makers are critical to making all the decisions that give our work a physical and visual presence that’s impossible with mass-manufactured products. Only a person can really make decisions when we’re hand-matching seams on a precious burl, or aligning grain on a huge walnut tabletop, or preparing the surface of bronze for hand patina work.
There’s a harmony in balancing automation with old-school craft making, and on some level people recognize this in our work when they experience our furniture for the first time.
Which sustainability milestones make you the most proud?
There’s the “checklist” stuff: the factory’s solar array, our regional sourcing of raw materials, everything made in North Carolina, no added formaldehyde in our substrates, non-toxic adhesives. There really is value in improving and measuring those things. I’m proud that most of the energy required to build our designs comes from the sun, and that we’ve rescued and repurposed this old knitting mill as our headquarters and factory.
But it’s even more interesting, and important, to push back on the “checklist” approach when we discuss sustainability. True sustainability can only be achieved when we agree to a much more encompassing definition of that word. In this interpretation, we consider our individual and collective responsibilities as citizens of the natural world.
Can you name-check any designers who have had a lasting impact on you, and why?
Josef Hoffmann. I wasn’t familiar with his work but my friend saw Hoffmann in one of my chair designs. Turns out there’s a good bit of shared philosophy, particularly as it relates to overall distillation and a focus on pure form, line, negative space, and a discomfort with applied ornamentation.
Skram seems to have an inherent appreciation for nuance. For example, the company explains the differences between hardwood and veneer right on the website. What motivated you to be so transparent with your customer base?
Necessity. There’s an aspect of our work that requires that we educate our customers. We’re proud of what we make, but also of how we make it, and of the differences between our work and other designs that may be superficially similar but are a world apart. It relates to that question above about sustainability. If we expect people to get on board with a slightly bigger up-front investment, they deserve to know why and to learn about the benefits that make Skram the best choice.
A culture of disposability is fundamentally at odds with environmental stewardship. We serve an audience that understands this on some level, and part of our mission is to build that audience. People make decisions every day about this subject; they have the power to make choices. The objects surrounding us are a reflection of our priorities. The implication here is that our audience can choose to reject disposability. They can reframe the value proposition. They can remember how fleeting it is to simply “consume,” and how rewarding it is to be surrounded by objects that absorb our lived experiences and share them back as memories.
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