Up and Coming
Brendan Ravenhill, Furniture and Product Designer

Believe it or not, Los Angeles–based designer Brendan Ravenhill owes the success of his Cord Lamp, at least in part, to Etsy. It’s not that the designer spends his days hawking the spare, Prouvé-inspired insta-classic on the online crafters’ marketplace. But a few years ago, Ravenhill was coerced by his wife to participate in something she’d created on the site called Mail Order Pals. “It was basically a penpal for purchase,” Ravenhill told me when I visited his Echo Park home and studio earlier this summer. “People could buy you in order to receive a letter or a surprise package in the mail.” After someone “bought” Ravenhill, he went to the hardware store and whipped up an elegantly simple wooden swing-arm lamp in one night. Upon seeing his creation, the designer’s wife convinced him it was just too nice to send. The penpal ended up getting a wire sculpture of a penguin, and the couple began living with the lamp. In the months that followed, Ravenhill became obsessed with the design, refining and tweaking it in his head to the point that by the time he was approached to create a piece to show with the American Design Club at a trade fair in New York, he was able to fashion a prototype in just one week. The final lamp — composed primarily of porcelain, cast aluminum, a cloth cord, and a bare bulb — packs and ships flat and sells for less than $200 at places like The Future Perfect, cementing the young designer’s status as a rising talent to watch.

For Ravenhill, the Cord Lamp was a crash course in how to get something built and into production in his newly adopted Southern California home. “I made the first ones myself in cast plastic with this ridiculous two-part mold that had an incredibly high failure rate,” Ravenhill recalls. “I would wire the whole lamp and pour hot plastic over it. Sometimes the lamps would have air bubbles; sometimes plastic would go into the sockets and you’d have to dig it out with an X-Acto knife.” But the lamp began receiving so many orders that eventually Ravenhill bit the bullet and began sourcing manufacturers who would require more of a financial outlay up front but would ultimately save the designer hours and hours of wiring. Within a couple of days, Ravenhill had a caster in downtown Los Angeles, a porcelain guy in South Central, an electrician, and a powder-coater across town.

The ability to work closely with so many fabricators has been one of the unexpected joys of Los Angeles for Ravenhill, who moved out West after graduating from RISD with a plan to stay for three months. (It’s now been over a year.) Ravenhill has always been fascinated by the origin of things — a trait that could be attributed to the fact that both of his parents were anthropologists — and these days, he says, “I rarely go into a project without three or four factory tours. Like right now, I’m working on a cast-aluminum piece and I’m constantly bringing things in to the guy going, ‘How was this built?’” It’s that kind of natural curiosity that informed Ravenhill’s training as well, which began with a sculpture degree as an undergrad at Oberlin and ended with a furniture design course at RISD. In between, he undertook a self-guided education working as a lobsterman, a timber framer, and a wood-worker in Maine, and a boat builder and metalsmith in New York.

Back in L.A., Ravenhill calls upon that craft-based education every time he mocks up a prototype in his home studio. And in the year or so since he graduated, it’s led to a series of completely disparate but well-received projects, from a walnut bottle opener for Areaware to a restaurant renovation in Hollywood to his latest project during June’s Dwell on Design conference, a mobile furniture gallery of high-design seating and lights that popped up at fashionable food truck sites around Los Angeles. We recently caught up with Ravenhill to find out what keeps that curiosity afloat.

First thing you ever made:
“A raft. I grew up always spending time by the water in Maine and in Cote D’Ivoire, and as far back as I remember I was always working on a craft of some sort.”

Last thing you bought on eBay:
“A half-inch pipe bender.”

Moment that inspired you to be a designer:
“It was soon after I built my first boat from a set of plans. Recreating a complex and curved hull from a couple of sheets of paper made me realize the power of construction drawings. I knew then that I wanted the ability to convey three-dimensional forms to others.”

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What inspires your work? “Utilitarian objects and buildings, particularly tools, wooden boats, and barns," says the designer, who was born on the Ivory Coast but grew up in Washington D.C. and spent summers at a family house in Maine. "In my designs, I seek to find that beautiful balancing point where manufacturing methods, material properties, and economy are all equally considered.”

Cord2

Ravenhill also cites the work of midcentury designers like Jean Prouvé, Charles and Ray Eames, and Friso Kramer: "They had such an amazing sensitivity about how things are made," he says. Ravenhill's Cord Lamp, shown above, improved upon the original wooden iteration while also reinterpreting Prouve’s classic Swing Jib design for a modern, cost-conscious consumer. "It has a simple construction, where the cloth-covered cord acts as both the power source and the tension element that holds the arm straight and prevents it from swinging too freely," Ravenhill says.

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What do you collect? “I come from a family of collectors; I think my father ended up being a museum curator for the Smithsonian in part because the job paid him to collect. I collect old tools, Eames chairs, and any furniture with multiple drawers, but my favorite collection is an assortment of pattern molds (pictured) — wooden patterns that are used in foundries to sand-cast iron and other metals. I love them for their colors and sculptural shapes.”

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What do you do when you’re not designing? “I’m the executive director of Islesford Boatworks, a nonprofit youth program that teaches children the art of wooden boat building on Little Cranberry Island in Maine. I started the program with my brother and sister six years ago, and we’ve built a new boat every summer, including two wooden sailing skiffs, two skin-on-frame boats, and a plywood skiff. This summer we built an ambitious wooden rowboat — a Chummy Spurling skiff — that has historical roots on the island.”

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Style movement you most identify with: “I’ve always been in awe of the buildings, furniture, and design philosophy of the Shakers. If it weren’t for their celibacy rules, I might have joined by now.”

PietHeinEek

Design or art hero: “When I first came across the work of Piet Hein Eek I felt a sense of calm and relief. It was encouraging to see from his career that it’s possible to earn a living using simple materials to make beautiful and functional furniture. The steel-plate cabinet above has to be one of my personal favorites; its asymmetry actually reminds me of one of my favorite Shaker cabinets.”

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What do you keep around your house for inspiration? “I can’t seem to live without an Eames chair nearby.”

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Most inspiring place you’ve ever been to: “I went to Milan this spring and was completely inspired by a visit to Castiglioni’s studio. It’s one of those places that makes me want to find a space, hole up, and just make stuff forever. His daughter runs the tours; I gave her a bottle opener, and she gave me this booklet of beautiful line drawings of his output. It has everything, not just the iconic lamps and chairs: There’s a light switch, a gurney of some sort, and is that a hamburger phone? It made me remember the beauty of curiosity in the design process.”

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Favorite design ritual: “I try to spend the first hour of each day drawing. It’s the best enticement for me to get out of bed and sets a great tone for the rest my day.”

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Favorite material: “Wood will always be my first love.” Shown here is the interior of Osteria La Buca, the Los Angeles restaurant that Ravenhill renovated over 8 days in April, paneled mostly in reclaimed barn wood and furnished with his custom-made steel and walnut La Buca chairs. The restaurant's owner contacted Ravenhill after seeing his bottle opener for Areaware written up in The New York Times; continuing the chain reaction, Ravenhill was recently commissioned to create new versions of both the stools above and the La Buca chairs for a new outpost of an Italian restaurant in New York.

LA Buca ChairWalnut

Most designers start with a concept or a material. Ravenhill often starts with a budget: "Before I could even think about any formal considerations for the La Buca chair, I had to think about a material. It was for a restaurant that was going to order 80 of them, but they wouldn’t order anything if the chair wasn’t competitive with other restaurant seating."

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The opener itself was originally part of Ravenhill's thesis project at RISD, which explored how objects acquire patina and wear, and increase in value with use and over time — "not just things that are used and disposed of but things that define us in a way," says Ravenhill. Jonas Damon, the Frog creative director who does most of his side work with Areaware, happened to be at Ravenhill's portfolio review at RISD. "He was like, 'I know a company who would love this. I can get you a check before you graduate,'" Ravenhill marvels.

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Object you wish you’d made: “The All Edges Brownie Pan. To be in Sky Mall is a dream of mine.”

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Favorite everyday object: “I love my 25ft Tajima tape measure. I often find myself touting its many advantages to others.”

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Favorite design object: “Gio Ponti’s Superleggera Chair. I hope one day to create something as stunning and elegant.”

jack twist

Fictional character who would own your work: “Jack Twist from Brokeback Mountain.”

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Last great exhibition you saw: “The Street Art Show at MOCA. I was surprised by this show; I kind of expected to not like it. There were some great site-specific pieces, but my favorite two things were Battle Station by Rammellzee and the large collection of graffiti black books collected by Martin Wong.” Above, a recreation at MOCA of Battle Station, the Tribeca loft where the reclusive graffiti artist Rammellzee spent the last two decades of his life.

toolbarn

Favorite place to shop for inspiration: “The Tool Barn in Bar Harbor, Maine. I lose hours rummaging through its shelves and many drawers. The owner goes around the Northeast buying up garages and workshops full of old tools, which he then cleans and roughly organizes in his old barn. If you need a framing chisel or an old Starrett caliper, this is the place to go.”

factory

Thing you love most about Los Angeles: “The ability to make stuff here, economically and in quantity, has been by far the biggest surprise. Thing you hate most about it: “It’s a city where you don’t get to know the in-betweens. Every place I frequent comes from recommendations, not because I stumbled across it.” (Above: The Los Angeles factory where Ravenhill's powder-coated steel La Buca chairs are manufactured)

hammer

Right now, Brendan Ravenhill is: “Wishing I owned a 3D printer. I’m working on a series of tables in wood and cast aluminum whose joinery is inspired by the way a hammer handle attaches to its head. But when I began work on the series, I found that my design was limited by what tools I had in my shop. I think a 3D printer would allow me to easily make organic pattern molds. Though honestly, if I had one, I’d probably be using it to make silly stuff like dollhouse versions of my chairs to sell on eBay.”