Studio Visit
David Wiseman, designer

For a designer whose most high-profile interiors client is Christian Dior, David Wiseman has none of the flamboyance you might expect — neither the stylized degeneracy of John Galliano nor the leather chaps–wearing showmanship of Peter Marino, the architect who in the past year-and-a-half has hired Wiseman to create massive, site-specific installations in his newly renovated Dior flagships from Shanghai to New York. Rather, Wiseman is a 29-year-old RISD grad whose studio is located in a former sweatshop in the industrial Glassell Park area of Los Angeles, just behind an unmarked door in the shadow of a taco truck. For a commission like the Shanghai Dior installation — a ceiling full of more than 500 porcelain lily-of-the-valley blossoms cascading down the walls — Wiseman tends to hunker down just inside the doorway of his warehouse-like space, chalk in hand, sketching out tentative blueprints on the concrete floor before prefabricating the work in parts on tiles that can be reassembled on-site.

Truth be told, it’s awfully refreshing. Wiseman remains remarkably humble for someone who, just shy of 30, has been represented for two years by the ultra-respected downtown design gallery R20th Century, was included in a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Triennial, and is regularly called upon to jet off to one city or another to create custom installations for a growing roster of private clients. He seems honored when he gets to work with one of those clients to create a family narrative throughout their home, and genuinely excited each time he pops open a plaster mold to reveal a fresh casting.

Wiseman studied furniture design at RISD, but by the time he graduated in 2003, he’d already gotten hooked on the materials and themes that would define his postgraduate career: porcelain for the former, and nature for the latter. For his degree project, he found a series of fallen trees and dragged them through the snow to the basement workshop at RISD, where he cast them in water-based resin. The piece, he said, was about celebrating and highlighting the different textures of trees and turning them into abstracted patterns. Though Wiseman has since branched out — no pun intended — to materials like glass (for which he works with a Czech company called Artel) and bronze, his themes and inspirations have remained relatively constant. For his most recent commission, a huge wall visible from the street at the new West Hollywood library, he’ll play off the city of Los Angeles’s official tree. “In the median of San Vicente, from Brentwood all the way to the beach, there are these fantastic, muscular coral trees,” he explains. “They look like they’ve been growing for decades. This installation will honor those by way of massive limbs that grow towards the light, and at the top, become fully three-dimensional. It’s kind of amazing.”

Wiseman is serious about his craftsmanship, but when I arrived for a studio visit early last month, he was in goof-off mode, watching as his dog Cora bonded with a stray pup named Marta who’d shown up at the door just an hour before I got there. He took a quick break to show me around the space and to explain the process behind his exacting methods.


Wiseman is obsessed with abstracting the language of nature, and much of his work springs from a series of drawings he began developing six or seven years ago in which he would obsessively sketch idealized natural environments. “In the background would be these crystallized mountains, which eventually became the basis for my faceted vases, and in the foreground would be strange little animals interacting with objects,” he says. The moss drawings decorating the above vase stemmed from that series. “I drew a whole page of them, scanned them, and printed them onto ceramic decal paper. I individually compose patterns on each vase based on how I think the moss might grow. The ink has glass silica in it, which means it can be fired into the clay itself. It’s a really common industrial process for applying things like flowers and text to cups, but I like to twist those processes to make something that feels in a way more handmade.”


On the wall hang casts of two tree branches from the Wall Forest series that began as Wiseman’s RISD degree project. “If you limit the color palette and the material, you can really focus on different textures, which are so beautiful and varied in tree trunks,” says Wiseman of the project, which has grown to include more than 30 species ranging from sassafrass to hickory to yellow birch. Wiseman is constantly scavenging for fallen trees; he even carries a saw in his car on the off chance he might discover a new species along the side of the road.


To make the casts, Wiseman creates these floppy rubber molds. He refrains from creating the kind of hardened shell that’s typically used to stabilize such molds because he prefers for each cast to turn out a bit different. The Wall Forest is what initially led him into the world of ceiling and wall reliefs; a collector saw his work in New York and recommended him for the ceiling commission that would prompt his move back to Los Angeles.


“Each time I do a project, I add to my stockpile of shapes and sizes,” Wiseman says. “At this point, I can make a tree however big or small I want. I’ll draw on the floor with chalk the kind of gesture that I want, based on a drawing I’ve already submitted to the client, and then we’ll go in and see which molds most closely approximate the curve I’m trying to achieve.”


In the studio’s porcelain casting area, Wiseman keeps dozens of plaster molds and buckets of watered-down slip (which Marta narrowly avoided slurping down at several points during my visit). His primary process for porcelain is slipcasting, which involves pouring a cake batter–like clay into plaster molds and allowing it to sit for a period of time that will eventually determine the piece’s thickness. “Plaster is super dry and porous, almost like a sponge, so when you pour liquid clay in, whatever touches the plaster will form a dry layer. If you want a superthin casting, you leave it in for about three or four minutes; if you want something a bit thicker, maybe 20 minutes.”


When I arrived, several molds were ready to be cracked open, including this one, which held a new tabletop piece Wiseman’s been working on depicting pomegranate seeds. “Even though I’ve done this 5,000 times before, every time it comes out right, it’s kind of amazing,” he says.


Wax molds for casting metal also pop up here and there around the studio. “When I originally created the molds for my faceted vases in porcelain,” says Wiseman, “I took a hunk of plaster and started carving it by hand. But eventually I became interested in actually making a mold in bronze. Plaster is a great mold-making tool, and you can get really clean lines, but when you use a grinder on metal you get a completely different texture than you can get using sandpaper on plaster. The bronze, though, ended up being so compelling to me that I created a small edition of bronze faceted vases.”


Wiseman keeps half-completed works and spare parts on hand in part because he loves to continue futzing with a design even once its purportedly finished. “When you interact with a piece day in and day out, on a subconscious level, you tend to want to start to play with it. With the bronze vases, I wanted to see what might happen if I cut out the negative space of the facets, which led to my Lattice Vases.”

bronze vase

The Lattice Vases, like Wiseman's Faceted Vases, are cast and then cut and polished by hand in the studio. Zalman Aronow, the skilled metalsmith who assists Wiseman, is "a whiz at polishing,” he says.


Nearly every spare drawer or shelf in the studio is filled with leftover castings. “I never know exactly how many castings I’ll need, so I usually over-cast,” says Wiseman. “It’s great because I can use them for odds and ends.” He’s currently using these metal leaves and petals to approximate the foliage of manzanitas and sumac plants for a new commission.

twig drawer

A drawer full of cast-bronze, unpolished twigs. “Bronze actually starts out with this sort of dull, sand-blasted texture,” he says. “It’s kind of nice, it looks almost like a real twig and sometimes I wish it could stay this way but it always get patinated and eventually turns dark.”


Extra pomegranates, lilies, magnolias, cherry blossoms, and more. Because Wiseman’s work is so rooted in the natural world, one piece usually relates to another, and having extra doodads around pushes him to explore combinations of forms and materials he would never have otherwise considered. It’s how his Collage chandeliers — which intertwine chains and ropes with porcelain blossoms, cut-glass pendants, bronze pieces, and whatever else is lying around the studio — were born.


The Collage chandeliers, which R20th first showed at Design Miami in 2008, are now one of Wiseman’s most requested works in terms of private commissions.


The chains hanging along the wall are also bound for Collage chandeliers. Wiseman sourced them from estate sales or hauled them out from Rhode Island, but he’s recently begun making his own chains in the metal shop out back.


Wiseman is currently working on what he calls his dream commission: a couple in New York who asked him to create a site-specific installation that stretches over four floors of their downtown loft and depicts a sort of stylized family tree. “Her last name means wisteria and the husband’s mother’s maiden name is Lindenbaum, so I’m mixing abstracted wisteria blossoms and linden leaves. The two sort dance and weave and emerge and re-emerge over four floors. These are press molds for the leaves.”


This porcelain owl is also bound for the New York installation, where it will act as a sort of guardian of the house.


Out back are the metal shop, kiln, and polishing area; the yellow UV screen protects eyes from the light when Wiseman’s metalworker is welding.


Polishing wheels for cleaning metal, which, lately, Wiseman’s been moving more and more into as a primary source. True to ever-evolving form, he’s now contemplating making pieces of jewelry from spare chandelier parts.


The newest addition to the studio is this vacuum caster, which acts as the studio’s makeshift silver foundry. “Right now I’m making a set of silver Judaica for my New York client. Basically you put your mold in this vacuum chamber and you heat up the silver granules. When the silver’s molten, you pour it into the mold and turn on the vacuum casting, which ensures that all of the metal will penetrate the tiniest intricate details of your mold. It’s a really handy way to make really complicated shapes and forms,” says Wiseman.


Glasswork is the only process that Wiseman outsources, working with the Czech company Artel. "It took a long time before I was comfortable with any company using some of the designs for wider distribution because I really wanted to control, like, how the lip is hand cut. It’s so important to the design. But we built up this relationship, and I really trust how they manufacture it now."


Wiseman, Cora, and Marta — who we’re happy to report found a new home after our January visit.