say hi to_ Avoirdupois
If you have followed us for any length of time, you know we spend a lot of time uncovering the experimental and bizarre corners of the furniture design and collectible art sphere. As much as we love a good chair which looks like it may have been made out of a radioactive goo (or equally strange material experiments) - we’re equitably deeply fascinated by reinterpretations of architectural classics and details in craftsmanship.
We recently came across the work of new-on-the-scene designer, New York based James Stumpf, working under the studio name of ‘Avoirdupois’ who is about to release his debut collection ‘Tripartite’. The name for me, living in France, automatically indicated a French connection, where in fact it translates in English engineering terms - to a system of weights for measuring. James, originally an engineer by profession, was drawn to the familiar term which felt like the perfect fit to be the name for his new design studio. He wanted to make a statement and create something of significance and weight on the scene.
After half an hour of speaking with James, I was completely captivated and intrigued hearing about how an engineer approached the design process and how engineer/designer was a very powerful combination. From the interior mechanics of functionality to how to combine a myriad of different materials and engineering details, which local artisans and fabricators just weren’t open to or able to tackle, and how that made this first collection so different to anything we are seeing out there at the moment.
When asked what inspired him and where he wanted to bring his new studio in the future, with a methodical mind, he talked about reinventing a new generation of iconic and classic pieces with beauty in luxurious and unexpected material combinations, good proportions and details in the engineering functionality of their inner workings.
Join us while we pick the brain of Engineer gone Designer, James Strumpf.
Q + A
| Kristen | James, I read that you started as an Engineer, is that correct? How did you end up doing this collection? What is your background and how did you get started?
| James | Yes I am. I started out engineering. I’m more of a trained engineer and then I started going deeper. I was engineering things that were unique and it kind of started out inventing random things. What started as training as an engineer kind of led to wanting to learn how to design things well and so I guess I am a little bit unique in that I am one half engineer and one half designer. I have this ability to jump back and forth between both disciplines, which allows me to engineer the mechanical functioning of things but then to make them look pleasing, as well. So thats kind of why I think, what I am doing is mildly significant.
| Kristen | In the UK, in the Royal College they have a Masters program which takes engineers and teaches them design called ‘Innovation Design Engineering’, mixing the two. There are not many people who specialise and do that and I just feel like there is a level and depth to what you can do and having both knowledge lifts a lot of the limits that ordinary designers might face. So I am really interested to hear more from one of the few people working like that.
| James | In the past I’ve worked with outside vendors and manufacturers and people who can make things for you, not on this line, but in the past, and I always found that there was always this thing where they would say ‘No’ to anything that you wanted to do. Just based on a pure engineering standpoint. So I’m trying to have something made and everyone would just tell me ‘no, no, no - you can’t do it’. I was really frustrated ...
| Kristen | And thats because they didn’t have the engineering knowledge?
| James | Yeah… Well I think when you approach a vendor with something that you want to design, they kind of write you off as not understanding the technical aspects… So that made me want to go deeper on both halves because I wanted to make unique things. People kept telling me ‘No, you can’t make this’, and a lot of the things I was asking for were simple but when you try to pull somebody out of the environment that they work in and do something creative, they typically just shy away from those types of projects.
So, being able to do everything myself, I kind of was just able to expand on any topic I wanted to. If I wanted to go deep on porcelain and ceramics I could, if I wanted to go deep on figuring out ways to bending aluminium in ways I’ve never seen before I could do that too. It opened my horizon to this whole collection, so everything was figured out in an engineering way and then applied in a design way to make something significant.
| Kristen | So how does the work? Do you do everything yourself or do you have craftsmen who help you on certain things? How do you approach the project?
| James | Thus far, this is my debut collection so it has kind of just been a private project I’ve done myself. Everything that you see if the first version of what I hope to produce. Everything you see is made by me and figuring out those processes and developing ways to make things.
I am basically the only person who has been working on this for the past three and a half years, designing, going into the shop, building it, it not working, going back and building another on. Some of the things I have in the line are really mechanical, like custom pull chains.
The ball pull chain on the lighting collection is a take on the the simple ball chain which has been ubiquitous for 100 years. I took that ball chain and scaled it up significantly, so what was maybe a millimetre ball originally is now a 20mm ball.
They’re usually very small and so I took that and scaled it up to a grand scale. Obviously though, the brass balls are really heavy so you have to engineer an entire mechanism inside the lamp to make that function properly. So I had to design a totally original mechanical component. Something like that had to be fine tuned and I needed to try different versions to make it feel right so when the ball chain is not too hard to pull, that it had a nice click. It’s a nod back to the original version.
| Kristen | Ah that’s really interesting because if you hadn’t have done that, it would have been too heavy and basically the light would have just been stuck in ‘ON’ mode all the time.
| James | You couldn’t simple attach those grand scale brass balls to a standard chain, it would simple just switch down and keep the light on permenantly.
| Kristen | Tell me more about the engineering details of other pieces! Now I want to know all the little secrets.
| James | The other significant engineering project was the ‘Profession Chair’, which was my version of an office chair. So that is entirely engineered and designed by me, so I might be the only independent designer (laughs) who was foolish enough to take on the challenge to engineering an office chair. It’s something we kind of take for granted in society. You can go to China and you can make an office chair for 50 dollars and I re-did all of that functionality from the wheel, to the swivelling and I went back to a four leg design, which is more of a traditional thing.
There was some restriction which came in during the 1970’s which made it so that all office chairs had to be made with 5 legs, so that they don’t tip over… but it’s the four leg chairs that people want. They just have this look to them. It was kind of the defining changing moment in office chairs, not to get too nerdy but it was the main moment where office chairs went from well designed and beautiful to purely functional. You know, you had Eames and Knoll competing to make the most beautiful office chairs and then suddenly it had to become this ergonomic thing that had safety guidelines and regulations. So I wanted to make one as if it was from the 1950’s or 1960’s, where I am a small brand and I can kind of avoid the ergonomic guidelines. So that’s kind of my version of if I was designing an office chair in the 1950’s - how cool could I make it.
| Kristen | Yeah and I notice that throughout your series there is a little bit of an Art Deco influence or something a bit vintage, with a contemporary twist to it. I was wondering what informed your aesthetic or what your references were?
| James | Really early on when I was fleshing out what I wanted to do, I kind of stumbled across this shape of this ‘triplicating motif’, so when I machined it into metal or brass or what have you - it was really beautiful and it caught the light. It was this really beautiful shape so I kind of set a goal that I was going to implement this shape into every single piece in some way… Whether that be in a significant way or more discerning way. So you’ll find that triplicating pattern on every single piece. Whether it's directly in the side frame or in the leg of the sofa. It’s actually the lamp shade; the lamp shade features that shape on a larger scale.
My inspiration was really just trying to create… There are certain pieces in history which kind of define the odds and they are still selling and they are still significant. You have the Mies van der Rohe ‘Barcelona Chair’ and the Eames ‘Aluminium office chair’ and you have all of these pieces which were designed in the 1930’s or 1950’s which are still selling. You’ll find the Eames ‘Aluminium chair’ in banks and in design offices… its pretty much ‘The Chair’ for any professional who wants to have a decent looking office which is presentable to clients. So what makes that chair so great and how can it transcend all of these industries? How can designers have that chair in their office and then banks can put it in their lobby and then tech offices, which are a little more modern, have the chair in their spaces. Or at least a knock-off version of it (laughs).
So I want to make a chair which competed with that chair, which had the possibility to last 100 years. I wanted to make a lounge chair which competed with the ‘Barcelona Chair’ and have it last potentially 100 years. I really tried to just focus on what make those pieces great…. Obviously my pieces aren’t copies or anything but I wanted to benchmark those aspects.
The Barcelona chair for instance, created in 1938 or something, it just always looks good and how is that possible? What made it transcend time and industries and still be a relevant and sellable piece. So I tried to assess what made those pieces great and then make my pieces as great as they could be to compete with those pieces.
| Kristen | What do you think it was which made those pieces great and timeless?
| James | I mean I find that it tends to be things that are really, really simple and which are really focused on proportions and details. They didn’t really have self restraint in 1930 because they were creating things that had never been seen before but pieces that have come afterwards also don’t have a lot of self-restraint… but now its kind of that blending of the art furniture world and trying to make things edgy and getting peoples attention. I try to avoid all of that, and just make things that are really well proportioned, where the proportions are proved to be loved by people and then have the restraints of certain materials.
I don’t want to make anything that is too wild. I try to make things that appear simple but may actually be very complex to make, but they appear to have a simple shape and a simple form and then to integrate my ‘triplicating motif’ into everything as a way to unify the pieces.
| Kristen | I think it’s interesting to say how you want to have discipline and create simple pieces or have a certain simplicity… but you do work with a myriad of different materials and there is such an attention to detail so I think that it is quite an interesting combination. Especially as I am more used to seeing art furniture pieces, which you are saying, are to grab attention, a bit wild and perhaps not all that functional. So I think that this is something that is really refreshing to see simple forms but to see this complexity in the juxtaposition of materials and details.
| James | I mean I think not to discourage what other people are doing doing but I’ve seen so many chairs which are made up of tubing and painted black, for instance, and I’ve seen that chair over the past 10 years hundred and hundreds of times. I can’t see that chair any longer, we’ve explored tubing and those pieces for instance. I don’t think that they are going to last 50 years or 20 years, 10 years even. They may be popular now but what I like to do is look back on the pieces that are still selling, which are unbelievable that they exist after 50 or 100 years. What makes those things special? I think I kind of emulate their success into my pieces.
| Kristen | What I like about this, is it is a bit against the grain of a lot of what I see now, which is also something quite refreshing. I think a lot of designers did stop thinking timelessly and did start thinking more ‘Okay, how can we innovate something as crazy as possible right now’, without thinking about the longevity of the piece or the project. I love both, I’m not saying I prefer one over the other but it is refreshing to see contemporary pieces which are also thinking about this timeless aspect, without being boring.
| James | It's really challenging to try to make something timeless but also something that does catch peoples attention, which is exciting. That’s where I try to play with color, materials that are maybe not even unfamiliar, but just a little bit counterintuitive with the colors.
You know I have the ‘Supper Chair’, which is my version of the dining chair and it is striped veneer running vertically and a little bit more wild but then again when you pair it with the polished aluminium side frame it makes it feel older and not out of touch. That chair looks great in black or red or even just a wood veneer but it wouldn’t be very unique in that case… So there are ways I am trying to also grab attention but not do it in an over the top way.
| Kristen | Are these pieces made in limited edition?
| James | No, no these pieces are unlimited in their quantities to be sold. When I launch exhibition pieces, those will be limited in quantity and made of much more bizarre materials and will be dipping into the art furniture world but they’re still going to respect the piece they are based on, so they won’t be too wild. I love material exploration, so these will be more about that and so that is something I will be doing more of with the exhibition pieces - going deeper and deeper into the materials and pulling materials from different industries and using them in unexpected ways.
| Kristen | That must be so fun. I was just talking to a colleague of mine earlier about material exploration and I’m not a designer obviously, but if I was, that is something that I would find so exciting and fun to play with. Developing new materials, or playing with different materials which are not often used together.
| James | Yeah, a lot of people have figured out a lot of problems along the way so there is a lot of market specific materials that are isolated in their own industries - so how can you bring those materials together into a different industry and make them exciting and fun. So that’s something I’m working on now.
| Kristen | What types of materials? If you have any in mind?
| James | There is one really big material that I am excited about, but I don’t want to say before I launch it … But it’s a really cool material that is ubiquitous in the industry that it serves but nobody does much with it outside of that realm. So I’m really excited about that. It’s been applied to smaller things but never to furniture.