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Studio Visit: Brendan Ravenhill

Reductionist objects with maximum impact from this LA-based designer

LA-based designer Brendan Ravenhill is known for creating sparsely designed, stripped-down yet stunning objects. From chandeliers with multiple thin arms to understated layered chairs to the now-iconic nail-and-wood bottle opener, Ravenhill’s style is one that pushes contemporary form out from the cold and into the light. In an industry which oftentimes values opulence and an aesthetic of excess, Ravenhill pays a huge amount of attention to detail, yet the result is a reduction of its parts—clean, sleek and sophisticated.

At the Côte d’Ivoire-born, DC-raised designer’s new Glassell Park studio, Ravenhill and his team work in a space that was once a school for diesel mechanics, then a Capitol Records printing plant, and afterwards it became the artist studios that Ravenhill fashioned into a versatile creative space. With room to house a workshop, offices, inventory and a forthcoming showroom the studio is a bright and airy place—reflective of his designs—in which to create reductionist, beautiful pieces.

How long have you been in this space?

We’ve been here 14 months or so and the process of settling in was basically listening to the space at first and trying to get a sense of what made sense from a very macro level of how to increase the flow and make sure we’re really opening up all the spaces to interact with each other. We were very fortunate to have the space pre-programmed with these posts at regular intervals and everything ended up carved out of a particular bay, as we called it, strategically to make sense sequentially but also allowed for a beauty and openness.

Everything had to be built by us or designed by us. That led to a lot of innovation and the customization of making the space. We’re trying to celebrate making the built-ins part of the wider context of the work that we do. If someone comes and visits us in the studio, they walk through production before getting to the showroom. That whole experience is important to us. It tells a story; that we’re local makers.

Your creations are minimal, but that doesn’t make the design process easier. Can you tell us a little about your approach?

It’s definitely a work in progress: the design process is a process in itself. The thing that carries through our work is this study of material physics and craft, exploring narrative through a research-based approach that looks to listening and dialogue and conversation with our vendors and manufacturers (and even our materials).

These objects really embody that narrative, embody a part of their materiality or their manufacturing process in their final form. When you’re designing, you’re putting so much effort and so many resources into bringing something new into the world that you want to make sure that what you bring into the world isn’t a copy or derivative, another same note. A lot of my process comes from studying designers that came before to understand their deep intellectual curiosity.

Listening and researching and trying to get the biggest possible lens and then creating a prompt that asks the questions, “What is the history of this typology? What are we trying to say new with this thing? What is the thing that is the reason for being?” Until we find that moment, that “This is a language of physics!” or “This is a celebration of material process, all about metal spinning!” you kind of get stuck. It’s hard to find that spark but we found some success in putting ourselves in the open, really trying to nurture that special moment to allow the pieces you put together to be greater than the sum of their parts by everything coming together in this poetic balance.

How does this design philosophy change or bend with different types of objects?

Some of its basic tenants don’t. I’d rather create fewer pieces and make sure they all embody that character of something new. Looking back on the designs we’ve retired or that have never gone out, I’ve always seen the fault in them after the fact, seeing that they weren’t pushing something or that there wasn’t enough interest for me to really push it and feel excited about it. If I don’t have that moment of spark, of wanting to bring something new to the table, it’s not enough to do the long journey that it is to bring an object into the world and then really support and nurture it.

How do you negotiate personality with form?

A lot of it is listening to the material and then rejecting some of the tenets of modernism, the 90º angle being supreme… I try to tend away from 90º angles and forms, that rigid minimalism, to embrace a language of form that celebrates materiality and process.

When designing the final form, we try to make something that looks like the process that made it, but also looks like it was made in this moment

When designing the final form, we try to make something that looks like the process that made it but also looks like it was made in this moment. This moment is one that’s exciting but we have this whole history of modernism: it’s important that it not look like just another square box.

How does LA inform your process, both in terms of creating and executing an idea?

I moved to LA seven years ago and thought I’d stay a few months. I was living in Providence, Rhode Island and thought I’d skip winter. Soon after I moved here, I got this opportunity to design this restaurant and that restaurant design allowed to me design all new furniture pieces and it was through that commission that I really discovered the magic of LA as a designer: it’s the biggest manufacturing city in the country.

I look at it like we’re cooking with the best ingredients. If you’re a chef in Napa Valley, you have all this raw input. If you’re a designer in LA, you have this huge amount of potential at your fingertips… The people who make our folded metal sconces also make first aid kits: they’re, on the one hand, on the very bottom of the folded metal product business, but also do high end lighting for us. I love that range of skill and products that they create. And the tolerance that they have is so high because they’re these high-volume manufacturers.

Being able to tap into that was a big part of how the studio grew: we were really able to lean on our vendors, to allow us to scale and grow. That has been integral to how we’ve design since we’ve been here… We’re always finding new vendors who are exposing us to a new methodology and then there’s all this ability to react toward it. You combine that with the 300 days of sunshine and the natural optimism that LA has and it makes it a pretty fertile place to do design.

What’s next for the studio?

We’ve been working incredibly hard these past seven years to not only release new products every year but to build the studio out and grow with that. It’s been very organic and we’re finally at a point now with this space where we’re pretty excited to dial in our processes and try to create a bigger range of products and a bigger range of outputs. Hopefully 2018 is the year that you start seeing us release things that aren’t lights and other design projects into the world, architecture on one scale to more objects on another scale.

Images by Cool Hunting


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