Furniture designer and founder of creative agency SuperMaker Jason Rens sits down with Saager Dilawri to talk about his many processes, his beliefs on how things should naturally takes its course, and how Portland became the perfect home base for him to set up shop.
All photos by Ken Tisuthiwongse
Edited by Justin Lintag
Saager Dilawri: I thought SuperMaker was simply the the name that you go by but it’s interesting to hear that it is a kind of collective. Can you explain what SuperMaker is and the idea why you wanted to put it together?
Jason Rens: That’s a good question. It’s a question in a lot of ways that I am still answering. The initial idea that I am still experimenting and unfolding is predominantly a SuperMaker campus which refers to building. The campus has a wood shop, metal shop, a recording studio, and 12 other studios within it. There is also a shop window project that showcases work in the front window of the space.
I feel that over time we will see how it unfolds. The ideas will be fairly concrete in that SuperMaker is a shared collective space that is artistically rich in ideas. It will have all kinds of unpredictable collaborations and events happening. As the building shifts with many projects or ideas, there will be marking history that is left which is really interesting architecturally. Whether you leave or stay, the relationships and conversations within it will remain. There are also ideas about us offering classes or talks to the public, but these ideas have not come quite into fruition.
Within the campus, there is also ‘SuperMaker Projects’ which refers more to the work we have done with client like Ace Atelier. Typically the clients approach me by often seeing work that we have done. We will do larger scale projects under the SuperMaker name and that is where a lot of things are yet to be discovered. Obviously people that are renting space here do their own thing and they have autonomy in that. Anna has AK Vintage going on which is her own brand that she has built completely outside of SuperMaker. Or Andy with his APO Studio who has an architecture design build firm. It’s something again that he sustains that is totally separate from the collective. There might be an occasion where a client comes in and wants to hire SuperMaker Projects for a retail example. This might be something that I will collaborate with Anna or Andy on. Thus, they bring a lot what they know in their own practices into the project.
Yesterday we touched upon what types of tenants you seek out for the studio spaces. Does their trade influence your selection of possible tenants or is it strictly financial decision? Do you feed off these types of talents being in the studio?
Yes it’s interesting. It is a little bit of all that really. I definitely keep my eye on who’s here, and what type of skill set they can offer within our establishment. In the wood working department there is really no other room for more people. We already have a great set of woodworkers and furniture makers. It would be nice to find someone working in 2d aspects that include painting, drawing and illustrations, music and sound components. I also feel it would be nice to also see SuperMaker head towards becoming a design agency where we can do print, retail objects and interiors. That is what I am hoping that will happen to the new studios opening downstairs. It would be nice to give people a way to document and present their work. I think these two things are very important in this environment. There is something about honouring what is happening naturally here and realizing at different times that it might be a different thing then what you started with. I’m definitely interested in keeping SuperMaker diverse. I am not trying to be too particular.
As I get busier with my own practice, I am noticing that I don’t have as much time to run the agency. That has been part of my learning curve to understanding what works for me. I feel what really works well is having a group of people that are established in their own practices working in the studio, as I want to focus on projects with people that have the capability to join bigger collaborative forms and take them on.
You did a year and a half of architecture school and then moved on to Portland where you started to focus on furniture design and woodworking. How has architecture influenced your practices in woodworking and making objects? Do you see similarities in both of these trades?
I do agree in a lot of ways that they are two sides of the same coin. There are plenty of architects that are doing space but also making furniture. I think that kind of design thinking doesn’t see limits and boundaries. For me it started by having a grandfather who was an architect and my influences in ‘making’ were kind of influenced by my father. My father would buy houses and renovate them and then flip them. In an architectural sense I learned how structures worked; particularly home structures. I went to school in architecture for about a year and a half and I did really enjoy it, but I started to understand that my interests were more experimental and had a broader scope than just wanting to make buildings. So when I went to Portland I inevitably returned to school at Oregon College of Arts And Craft. The way it works there, you get to pick your emphasis based on material, so I chose wood. There was a strong furniture aspect to the program, and it was a great way to learn woodworking. It was a very natural thing for me as it felt familiar.
I think there are definite similarities when you design a chair compared to designing a building, especially in the engineering aspect. You’re taking on similar problems while making a chair but on a more condensed scale. However, you can do it yourself in a shop that does not involve having plumbers or electricians. My interest in doing interior design is also kind of a move back towards architecture where everything scales back up. For me, I just can’t help think about a chair without thinking about the room where the chair will be sitting in. I think of what it looks like, and it kind of just unfolds from there. All these things that I am intrigued about has all these parts that connect to architecture.
You have been using plywood to make things. What is your reason for using this type of material?
Even in school and being a poor student, plywood was always a great solution. When you are working with hard wood especially early on, there is this preciousness to the material that can really be intimidating. You buy this big piece of walnut and you don’t want to waste it, however, with plywood it doesn’t feel so precious so it’s easier for you to get loose with. For me, I do enjoy working with hard wood but there is something interesting about working with different variations of plywood. Lately, I have been more interested in patterns and textures so these types of materials I love.
It seems that it allows you not to be so restricted and you can experiment more using plywood?
I think so. Typically I start my prototype using plywood – there is something about those objects that are really great. There is this sort of humility to the design or a prototype language that I really enjoy. I don’t quite understand it, but I am definitely attracted to the ideas of using such a material. Same as the 2 x 4 chairs for example – it’s kind of the same thing. It’s the most common low-grade type of wood out there. Everyone knows what a 2 x 4 is. They’re not expensive. All of a sudden it kind of becomes this interesting puzzle that results into a chair. Enzo Mari comes to mind – a lot of that simple furniture he was building with pine or simple woods. He talked about how people’s personal touches are left on their design during the process. I think that part intrigues people, which allow them to have a personal connection with the object.
Where did the idea of the 2 x 4 chair series come from?
It came from school. It was actually an assignment in a chairs class that I was in where we had to make a chair with an 8 foot 2 x 4. The original plan was to make one a day for a month but my instructor decided to talk me down on this idea. (Laughs)
Was there someone that did something similar – making 30 chairs in 30 days?
I feel like at ‘Table of Contents’ I saw a book there and I think it was 100 chairs in 100 days. There is also Allan Wexler who made a series making one chair a day. I am not sure how long he did it for but he did not limit it to just using 2 by 4’s. I think he gave himself a timeline and within that time he had to make a chair. He painted them all grey and black which is interesting as well because it didn’t become just about the material but almost the formal sort of decisions too.
Yah, there has definitely folks that have worked with these types of ideas. Matthew Barney, the sculptor and artist, did these drawing restraint series’ where there is a physical limitation set, strapping himself into a harness and having to climb across this sort of obstacle course just to make a mark on a paper. Seeing his work influenced this concept a little bit regarding restraint. Restraint can seem limiting but it can be really freeing in a lot of ways too because it becomes like a game. For a game to exist you have to have parameters.
When we chatted previously you had mentioned that if you ever decide to go back to school you would want to focus on Anthropology. How does this type of subject play into your influences in design – does it affect your current work?
If I decide to go back to school somehow, I have a strong desire to go to an institution that is outside of the fine art and design department just so I could do something different. There is something about trying something new that provides inspiration. Maybe it has something to do with wanting to try to be a dynamic human being by feeding different aspects of yourself. It’s a more holistic way of thinking or approaching or experiencing. I have returned to my meditative practices recently. It has helped me understand how my mind works and has helped me with my personal process. I can certainly see how it affects my studio practices. It has also has affected my art objects that I have been creating. I have been making ambient objects inspired by listening to Brian Eno’s music. He called his music ambient, which made it more accessible to people. However, his idea of music was that you listened to it comfortably in your surroundings but you were almost completely unaware of it.
There is this sort of menu that come up about furniture and the functionality that is required from it to be furniture. If you present something to someone and say” this is a chair’, they are expecting to be able to sit in it. I am interested in expanding function and language of design. And so these ambient objects I have been working on are about that, where their function expands rather then just something that you sit in or hold. These thoughts go back to my meditative practices – maybe objects can be something that encourages contemplation or maybe an object can be somewhat of an antenna to different experiences. I’m kind of interested in expanding function and utility into a metaphysical realm, not just a material realm but beyond that, like the totems that I make now. This is not hard science but a creative notion or a myth that I am interested in. I’m really into home environments and how we can make them more vivid. Instead of furniture being designed with a clear function locked in, maybe we leave space and ambiguity around the design. Kind of an open ended modular concept.
How has Wabi-Sabi influenced you?
There is this book by Leonard Koren that I really like. He did this book on arranging objects. I became aware of Wabi-Sabi thru his work and he said, ‘Wabi-Sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is the beauty of things modest and humble. It is the beauty of things unconventional.’ It definitely has influenced me regarding incomplete, impermanent and unconventional. It is a Japanese idea. It’s like a perfect notion of seeing a leaf decaying with light catching it. Letting things be in their natural state and understanding that nothing lasts forever. Time has an effect that nothing is perfect and that there is beauty in everything. Wabi-Sabi looks mostly to nature and its natural forms. I think that touches on what we talked about previously regarding design with a little bit of incompleteness. Woodworking is great for that. Using a live edge and not cutting it perfectly square; incorporating the imperfections into the design rather then getting rid of them is a perfect example. Make sure that the integrity works but allowing some of the natural details to exist. I think it’s always interesting to find those moments in design. I don’t know if you can expect to design with imperfection. It’s a more visual intuitiveness and knowing when you see something that feels right.
The 9 different objects that you have created also tie into the ideas of incompleteness. Is this sort of figuring out prototyping ideas and seeing how angles work?
Usually there are a couple things going on for me in the wings of my mind. With the 9 different block objects it was about a geometric technical interest that I have in making 45-degree cuts and repeating those on the same objects to see how the cuts multiplied and affected the form. It was also related to something that I heard from a lecture. In the lecture they had stated that all situations are stages of change. I thought that was quite an interesting idea that every situation is always in a stage of change. I started with a perfect square when making those objects. I was interested in each stage of the object as it transformed and all together it represented a sort of formal metaphor about every object relating to one another.
You moved from Arizona to Colorado to Portland. Do you feel the Pacific Northwest is part of your design ethos?
I have always loved the West Coast. It is so fantastic here in Portland. Geographically it is such a beautiful place and Oregon is incredible. It has every kind of ecosystem. You can go off in the desert, and you can also find a glacier. I find that really inspiring and enriching. In Portland people are so positive. When I was in Boulder, another incredible place to be, you had to have some sort of money to be able to rent a space just to get started. In Portland it seems more accessible, there are so many different resources to work with here as far as materials and the community here is closeknit. There is this real genuine support. People are psyched for others to do things whether it’s making a food cart, or doing a jewelry line or working on some sort of event. It’s a conducive environment to try new things, and it’s an open forum for sourcing and doing collaborations. It doesn’t feel so intimidating to take risks.
Most people that I meet have moved here from somewhere else. I think there is an interesting aspect to why people choose to be in Portland. Rain gets annoying, and it gets dark in the winter. I think those factors are just enough to weed out anyone from moving here. You have to be really into it. It definitely attracts a certain person.
That’s how I felt about New York too and that is what I miss about it whether you go to a restaurant or look at a big tall building. I missed this kind of energy that feeds you to keep on doing what you are doing. I do think each city attracts a certain person and that is what makes the city what it is opposed to anything else.
Absolutely. Cities are people as much as they are infrastructures. It is really the people that make it regardless of how it looks. I think that social component is so important to a city.
Are there furniture designers that you are more influenced by?
Right now I am really into 1970s Italian designers, or even designers living now that are influenced by that era in design. Designers like Ettore Sottsas, Enzo Mari. Their work I have been really looking at lately. But again there are so many that I am inspired by like architects Frank Loyd Wright, Alvar Alto, Peter Zimko, Louis Khan. Also there was a show that I was intrigued with for a while and it was with Jasper Morrison, Naoto Fukasawa and Dieters Ram.
What is it about the 70’s in Italian design that attracts you?
It was a really exciting time in design. You had the families and furniture designers that had been there for generations doing more mainstream types of design. But then all these other designers started to emerge that were pushing the envelope. Designers that started to look at the social and political aspects of design started to investigate it in from non-object basis. They were not interested in making things anymore and it became more about political and social activity. Then within those classes, you had a group that was parked in the middle of that as far as design. They had political notions but maybe had a bit more rebelliousness compared to the status quo. There was this sort of post-modern angst that happened and they really wanted to do something more exciting, expressive, and challenging. Furniture design became really interesting because the home became the battlefield in a way. It’s really interesting because these object that were made then you now see in museums and they are being worshiped, but they were intended to be designed for the home. I am intrigued by the very practical, real experiences where, ‘this is the environment I live in and these are the objects that shape it’. I feel that in the 70’s in Italy that was really being considered in a new way. It spread globally and affected the last wave of designers.
So you are really interested in the function of a space?
Absolutely. The living space and how it is organized really creates what your experience is like. It tells a story. It’s like a decoration and it’s the aesthetic practice that we call ‘do’. Everyone to some degree is decorating their house. Even when someone is claiming that they don’t it still is an aesthetic choice. I think I find it quite interesting that everyone participates on some level. There is nothing like going to a friend’s house and their living space is really beautiful and you really feel that. It feels welcoming, interesting and it’s a personal touch of expression.
When you move into a space, even if someone else decorated it your personality will still fill that room…
I have been looking at George Nakashima’s work a lot and also Apartamento magazine. They can both be credited for the way my environment is now. When I found out about Apartamento a couple years ago they contributed in making a really a big shift for me. It totally exposed me to new ideas about interiors and living. I liked the way they shot the photos in the magazine with natural light. Before that I used to see interiors staged or styled. It was really interesting how they really wanted to show the way artist, designers and creative people actually live. Not staged or stylized and not glossy. That was like a revelation.
You have a lot of geometric shapes in your work?
I love math and I was always a really good math student in school, but I don’t know if there is a connection in my work between mathematics and geometry. I actually find math soothing though. Geometrically I could almost experience a beat and rhythm as a form. I play the drums and percussion and with playing that it’s all about time structures and repetition. I think that in my mind I kind of experience that formally. It’s not really a hard and fast sort of logic. Sometimes these shapes just come up and also tie to architectural interests. Sometime I will draw or figure out ideas on a grid paper like a matrix. Anna turned me on to this other type of grid paper that is triangular. Usually when you are drawing on a grid it looks really flat or you think everything is on a Y axis. It has allowed me to think about the depth of an object. A lot of the geometric stuff has come out on working on that paper. That is how the stacking shelves idea came about. I played with the models first and then I started drawing on that and it made me understand how I could make them. The shapes you see on this particular grid remind me of Barry McGee’s work. He makes these interesting patterns and colour out of geometrical shapes that almost look like stacked cubes or diamonds.
What is it about the 70’s in Italian design that attracts you?
It was a really exciting time in design. You had the families and furniture designers that had been there for generations doing more mainstream types of design. But then all these other designers started to emerge that were pushing the envelope. Designers that started to look at the social and political aspects of design started to investigate it in from non-object basis. They were not interested in making things anymore and it became more about political and social activity. Then within those classes, you had a group that was parked in the middle of that as far as design. They had political notions but maybe had a bit more rebelliousness compared to the status quo. There was this sort of post-modern angst that happened and they really wanted to do something more exciting, expressive, and challenging. Furniture design became really interesting because the home became the battlefield in a way. It’s really interesting because these object that were made then you now see in museums and they are being worshipped, but they were intended to be designed for the home. I am intrigued by the very practical, real experiences where, ‘this is the environment I live in and these are the objects that shape it’. I feel that in the 70’s in Italy that was really being considered in a new way. It spread globally and affected the last wave of designers.
So you are really influenced by the function of a space and what not?
Absolutely. The living space and how it is organized really creates what your experience is like. It tells a story. it’s like a decoration and it’s the aesthetic practice that we call ‘do’. Everyone to some degree is decorating their house. Even when someone is claiming that they don’t it still is an aesthetic choice. I think i find it quite interesting that everyone participates in some level. There is nothing like going to a friend’s house and their living space is really beautiful and you really feel that. It feels welcoming, interesting and its a personal touch of personal expression. You’re living area almost gives you free range to just do what you want.
Do you keep a library of references?
I try. When I order a book or transfer they give you a receipt and I just keep the receipt to remind me of all the books that I am looking at. I also worked at a library for the 4 years I was in school as a part time job. That was the best thing I can recommend. If you go to art school, work in a library. It is better than any class you will take because you have so much time to stumble upon stuff and you also see what other people are looking at. It is a nice way to learn at your own pace. I also keep a journal to keep notes and I also do a tumblr as a source of documentation.
http://rasonjens.com/SuperMaker on facebook