Eliot Eakin Furniture is based in Chicago where its eponymous founder draws inspiration from the iconic buildings surrounding him, which count Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe amongst their architects, working with local craftspeople using metal casting, fabricating, upholstery and woodworking, to bring his ideas to life. We caught up with him to find out more about what makes this young American furniture designer tick…
What’s the most important thing to know about you?
Professionally speaking, I would say it’s that I design the furniture I want to live with. I make sure every piece is something I would want to take with me wherever I go and would always fit my new surroundings. It’s a simple concept but it’s hard to live up to. For the ultimate test I show my designs to my wife and if she says she wouldn’t buy it, it’s back to the drawing board.
Personally, it’s that I’m the son of a residential architect and a Dutch-style oil painter. I remember getting critiques on every one of my dioramas, concerning everything from space planning to the coordination of my crayon colours. Growing up with creative parents who had that critical eye really helped me strive to improve my work.
What inspires your work?
The two things that most inspire me go hand in hand: manufacturing and materials. I get inspired by the manufacturing processes because once I learn about a new process I imagine how I can best showcase it. For example with the Ages table I was inspired by the casting process. With casting you can create a seemingly very delicate structure that still has a lot of strength, and I wanted to design something that exemplified that fact. That led me to create the cantilevering top on the Ages. In the same vein, each material has unique properties that create unique opportunities: metals have a lot of strength, woods have beautiful natural grains. I want to showcase and utilise the natural elements of the materials I work with, whether that’s through a challenging structure, interesting material properties, or a transition detail. I want the way I reconcile the challenges created by the design process to be the unique takeaway from my work.
Talk us through your design and making process.
Once I’ve found my inspiration, I do a quick sketch by hand. It’s a fast way to get the ideas down and it helps me think about broad concepts without getting bogged down in the details too early in the process. Then I create a 3D rendering. This gives me a sense of what the final piece will look like and what needs to be tweaked. My furniture is about exploring a design detail while keeping the piece minimal enough to showcase that detail, so there’s a lot of time put into these initial stages. This is also where I begin to figure out how the piece will be made, practically speaking. The reality of what can and can’t be done begins to exert itself at this stage and I have to adapt to that; the hard thing about furniture design is that it needs to be both beautiful and functional. This process isn’t linear: often I will go back to sketching after I see the renderings because something isn’t working. Then I work in my studio to create a mockup. I always make the mockup myself because it helps me get a better sense of the proportions. When I’m finally happy with the mockup, I work with a local artisan to create the final piece. This still isn’t the end of my process though, because seeing the work finished always leads me to think of ways to make it better. After I make my final changes based on the physical piece, then it’s done!
What’s your favourite part of the process?
Probably figuring out how a piece will be made. My wife makes fun of me for watching the show How It’s Made, but for me the creation of something unique always comes from exploring the making process. I love the process of creation, and furniture has a hands-on element that I find really exciting; I can have an idea one night and build it the next day. Not many professions even within the design world have that kind of immediate reward, which is why I love what I do so much.
What’s your favourite tool and why?
Not to freak anyone out, but I would say a saw — a table saw. For me that tool is where the physical reality of every project starts, cutting the timber down into what you need, the size you need. It makes a block of wood into a more defined expression of the wood’s natural beauty, like chiseling marble into a sculpture. But the important thing to realise is that when you do that, you aren’t taking something ugly or unfinished and improving it. You’re just transforming the material, so that it expresses itself in a different way than it was in its untouched state.
Tell me about a really good day and a really bad day in the life of Elliot Eakin.
The best days are the ones in which I get a spark of inspiration. It could come at any time and it’s very elusive; it’s almost like a drug. The hope and anticipation of that next inspiring moment is what keeps me moving even when work gets difficult, because it’s one of those things that once you’ve experienced it you want very badly to have it again. I imagine any creative person can relate to that.
A bad day is when I work so late that I don’t get to see my baby daughter before she goes to bed. She’s only five months old and I don’t want to miss any more of her life than I absolutely have to. It’s one of the biggest ironies in life: to be working so hard for the sake of the family that you care so much about, and yet have the work itself be what keeps you away from them a lot of the time. It helps that I love both, but I definitely love my family more!
What defines good design?
Taking the time to seriously consider a given material’s natural character, and then figuring out the best way to amplify it. If you can gain a really sound, multidimensional idea of how a design will be used and appreciated it goes a long way towards shaping your vision. Any good design is grounded in painstaking attention to detail, transitions in materials, and how the piece accommodates its user. If you don’t want to live with it, chances are not many other people will want to either. Furniture is designed at a human scale — like fashion — and all details should be throughly considered, just like a perfectly tailored suit.
What are you most proud of?
Manufacturing and producing my pieces in the good ol’ USA, and specifically in my hometown of Chicago. As an industrial society, we are deep into a period where most production gets outsourced to whoever will do it at the lowest cost. Quality and detail are often seen as secondary considerations in the process, and I think that’s a shame because it discounts the biggest advantage of manufacturing on the local level. I am really proud that I work with craftsmen here at home and I’m always impressed by the result; that’s why I stick with it. I love being able to visit a manufacturer in my city and work through design details in person, being able to inspect every piece of furniture with my name on it. It not only guarantees quality work for my clients, but also gives me the opportunity to learn from the many artisans I work with.
What advice would you give to an aspiring designer?
Design something you would want to live with… for at least the next 20 years. If you can’t say that about your own design, it’s not enduring enough or not functional enough, and you can do better. If you’re strict with yourself in that way, it’s hard to go wrong with the work you choose to move forward with.
Also, I feel strongly that responsible designers should strive to create pieces that last. If a designer creates something with sustainable materials and promotes their work as sustainable and green, but the piece doesn’t last, then the energy to harvest the materials and create the piece was ultimately a waste. That’s not sustainable design; the mass market model isn’t economical if you end up having to replace the pieces every few years. If we use quality materials and manufacturing processes that last a lifetime, the upfront costs will be higher, but the energy and cost of creating the piece will easily be outweighed by its longevity.
And finally, what’s your favourite colour?!
Midnight Blue. I like how deep and nuanced it is, how you have to look at it for more than just a moment in order to let your eyes gauge exactly where it lies on the spectrum between dark blue and black.
Further reading for the especially geeky:
Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.
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