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.”