|THE OPENING is all about delving into the fascinating, quirky and wonderful visual arts in Vancouver. Each week we’ll feature an artist, cover an exhibition, discuss a lecture and everything else in-between to delve deep into who and what makes art happen!|
Local duo Knauf & Brown have been making waves in the design world even before they received their BDes from Emily Carr this spring. Their precise investigations into industrial design, characterized by a faithfulness to materials and an enviable cleanliness of line and form, are augmented by crazy crowd-driven events and big-time jobs with clients such as Adidas, Quiksilver, and Stüssy. With an Honourable Mention for the Core 77 Design Award and features in well-respected rags such as IDN, Western Living and It’s Nice That already racked up, they are certainly a pair to keep an eye on.
Knauf & Brown met me at a local coffee shop to discuss design, the industry, and why they recently decided to lock themselves up in a hotel room to build lamps for thirteen hours without so much as a bathroom break. The weather was a touch blustery and, in an inadvertent testament to their closeness, they both showed up in long pants and white t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Our conversation was a lively one as the pair finished each other’s sentences and peppered their answers with anecdotes, vibing on the building energy of their successes.
VIA: You are both very recent graduates from Emily Carr’s Industrial Design program. What was your education at Emily Carr like? Is there anything positive you took away?
Conrad Brown: Oh yeah. That space is amazing. Any school space is amazing because if you want to do something and you’re determined to learn it, there is the equipment there for you. That particular school has a photo studio, darkrooms, a motion-capture lab, three woodshops, metal shops, a foundry —
Calen Knauf: — you could make anything you wanted, if you were determined to do it.
VIA: And how are you guys making the transition from having that kind of access?
CB: From having everything we wanted, ever, to having basically nothing?
CK: We’re going from CNC machines to basically foam and Bondo. The prototypes we were doing in school were basically finished, whereas now, we have to hand-make a lot of it —
CB: — which is actually how a lot of the world already works. Classically, from what I’ve read, designers who have design studios will never really touch real materials. They’ll have an understanding of how they work because of their education, but generally, they will have an idea that they will communicate via foam core models or 3D print outs. The actual prototype building gets done by a prototype builder.
Where we went to school, you sort of concentrate so much on the craft of it that you lose out on turning out quick prototypes.
VIA: You won Honourable Mention in the C77 Design Awards for your sleek, sturdy Profile Chair. I liked how the judges described it as ‘gentle, cheerful, and creamy’.
CB: It’s really funny, because our initial prototype was matte black steel and charred wood.
CK: That was because we had wanted to accentuate the fact that it’s a wood product. With wood products that need to have movement, it’s hard to have to entire product be wood. We wanted our chair to live open more than it does closed — to be used as an everyday chair that can be put away when you needed more space. We wanted our [folding] chair to be really solid, weighty, and feel like a full-on, proper chair. To do that, we needed to combine metal with wood, but we didn’t want a very two-part situation. In the end, though, we went for a more cheerful look.
VIA: Last week, you put on Unlimited Edition, a print-on-demand poster show at Fortune Sound Club. How did that go?
CB: It was way busier than we expected!
CK: We did it two years ago as part of the Olio Festival. It was really last minute, not much promotion or anything, and it was fun — lots of people came, and we broke even. We actually made some money this time, which was cool, and it was packed — there was a constant flow of people buying posters, sometimes buying five posters at a time. It was nice.
VIA: Between Unlimited Edition and your micro-studio at the Burrard Hotel Takeover, these projects seem almost like performance art because they involve so much personal endurance and public engagement.
CK: Definitely personal endurance at the hotel one! Literally, we started at 1pm in the afternoon, and we didn’t see any of that party because we were in the room — we didn’t leave for food, drink, nothing — working on stuff until 2:30am, when they kicked us out as we were finishing a lamp! Even the next day, when we came back to pack up, we put the last coat of paint on the last lamp that we did. We worked the whole time. It was definitely an endurance performance piece.
VIA: What’s your motivation behind embarking on these projects?
CB: It’s a combination between publicity — I’ve never actually said that word out loud before — and raising awareness about what we do. I would say that we’re involved with not only our own studio, but the design community in general, and we like being involved in those types of things. The [Hotel Takeover project] in particular allowed us to do our own thing while meeting and showing other people what we do.
CK: It was cool, having people come in and actually see what’s going on. Seeing the process was sort of misleading, because that’s not what we normally go through when we’re creating something — we ended up making five things at the end of the day, and we don’t normally make [that many] things in one day.
The intention we had with that project was to make spontaneous objects that had a spontaneous look to them in the end as well. But we wanted them to have a finished quality to them, too — for them to be objects that you’d be happy to own.
CB: It’s a tough situation when you don’t want to make something that looks cobbled together when it is, essentially, cobbled together. You have to take advantage of the finished qualities that are in the materials already — like the polished surface of marble, bent steel, or repetitious patterns in machine-braided rope — even though the way it’s all assembled is haphazardly glued together with the edges broken off. We wanted to balance the fact that it was actually made in one night with making it look like it least had some thought put into it.
CK: We wanted to do our thinking right then-and-there, and our making right-then-and-there. It was definitely performance.
VIA: How did people receive it?
CK: Good! Our goal was to make fifteen things, but then we realized that wasn’t going to happen —
CB: — because while we were in the middle of exacto-knifing some leather, someone came in as I was putting the ruler next to the knife saying, “What are you doing? What’s going on here?” We talked a bit and I met some new people before I went back to doing it. The second time someone walked in, we realized that we’re weren’t going to make fifteen pieces. And then we realized that that was more important [than meeting our goal] — it wouldn’t have been the same at all if we had just decided to that in our studio by ourselves. It was integral that there were people there that we could interact with.
CK: People were really happy! I’m sure lots of people heard this in their own room, but we had lots of people coming in saying, this is the best room, this is the coolest room. We had lots of people come in who just stayed there for hours, just watching. There was a point when it seemed very performance-like. We weren’t performing, we were just designing, doing our thing, but we had the last lamp we were working on on the table, it was probably one o’clock in the morning, and we were wrapping rope around this big stone, tying it to a pipe, and Conrad’s turning it around and I’m wrapping the rope around. The room was filled with drunk strangers that were literally chanting, “Knauf and Brown!” as we were doing this! It was really crazy!
CB: It was definitely a little sarcastic, but still — it was definitely weird to hear!
CK: I’ve been really perplexed by people who become really famous and successful and get to do it is what they want to do while looking like they don’t give a f*ck at all. Like G.G. Allen — I mean, he died young, but everybody knows his name, everyone knows his work, everyone knows what he did. From the outside, looking in, it seemed like he didn’t give a shit — he just did whatever he wanted and made it happen. If we could do whatever we wanted in the design world and still make it happen: that’s a little bit of what was going on in that hotel room. Still being crazy, making a bunch of stuff, but in the end, still having finished, beautiful, clean objects that appeal to a luxury market. We’re into combining those two experiences, I suppose.
VIA: I think part of the reason why people responded so well to your hotel room is the fact that there’s such an interest in seeing how things work behind the scenes — people both inside and outside of the industry are really interested in how beautiful, mysterious objects come to life.
CK: I can’t remember if it was before or after we decided to do the micro-studio thing, but as a joke. amongst the people we were inviting to participate in Unlimited Edition, we decided to send an invite to Damien Hirst. We thought it would be really funny if he actually responded. I mean, if I was this huge, crazy, multi-million dollar art maker and I had this weird but respectable show ask me to participate, I would be like, f*ck it, why not? Fly a helicopter in, actually show up to the show, deliver the poster — how fun would that be?
But anyways, as we were on his website, we realized that he has a live webcam in his studio. At any given moment, you could see him, you know, just putting a shark into a fish tank —
CB: — maybe some flies on a cow’s head.
CK: That was kind of the same sort of thing [we were going for]. We were the live “live webcam” — you could actually come into our studio and see what was happening in the moment, which was neat. Everything, too, was up for silent auction, which was extra cool because due to the nature of the studio and the fact that we were using adhesives mostly to connect anything together, people were bidding on clamped-off objects. Stuff that was painted couldn’t even be clamped, so you had cardboard and duct-tape holding this stuff together, but people still put bids down on the objects!
VIA: On the flipside, you guys have worked with some big corporate clients such as Nike, Stüssy, Adidas, and Target as well, which is a big change from the crowd-spirited nature of Unlimited Edition and the micro-studio. What other client-based projects are you working on at the moment?
CK: We’re working with Umbra right now, which is really exciting. And just today, we got an email back from Taiwanese designer Kenyon Yeh. He started this company, Cooima, which is launching its first collection at Maison d’Objet in Paris this spring. Our Heavy Stock Shelf is being produced by them, and will be shown at Maison d’Object this spring! It’s very very cool, and we’re hoping we’re going to get a lot more stuff after that launches.
CB: It’s funny because a lot of stuff doesn’t get made like that anymore. A lot of stuff is made by companies that manufacture and assemble it in-house. It’s interesting to see — when you grow up, you’re vaguely aware of the classic production chain, where something is designed by someone, made by someone else, and then shipped to a wholesaler, then shipped to various retailers, then gets to the consumer. We always thought that when we did things, we would be doing it in a newer, direct-to-consumer sort of model at a smaller scale, but it’s a very interesting experience to have something done in this classical way. It’s hard to imagine that you’d ever be a part of that.
CK: Usually, when we make something, our hands touch every object and shape every shape, so it’s really cool to see [one of our] objects in Taiwan that we didn’t even touch.
VIA: Do you guys think you’ll stay in Vancouver forever?
CK: As far as I’m concerned, I want to! I love it here, this is my home, I was born & raised here. This is, as far as I’m concerned, the best possible place that you can live. You can do anything in B.C. — it has every kind of climate you want. Cold ocean water, warm ocean water, tropical-looking zones, desert-looking zones, crazy-ass mountains with snow on them, a huge restaurant scene, you can get all sorts of authentic everything. It’s great. I want to have our studio here, in the end. It’s hard to establish yourself because you’re not surrounded by international industry.
CB: I want to live a few other places — I know this place so well, and I definitely like it here. The summers here are better than anywhere else, but it would definitely be nice to get some experience somewhere else and bring it back.
CK: Vancouver is growing a lot. In its past, people didn’t really know what it was exactly, or where to put it. I feel like we’re getting closer to a place where we’re going to start feeling more comfortable with the names of our neighbourhoods and the colours of our teams. Vancouver’s in an interesting position and it would be really exciting to look back 80 years from now, on my death bed, and think that we were part of that growing stage that helped contribute to this idea of what Vancouver art and design looks like — the quality to it that is specifically ‘here’.
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