When Jonathan Nesci was 23 — with a one-year-old at home, and working as a forklift operator at FedEx in Chicago while attending night school for 3-D drafting at a community college — one of his coworkers gave him a fateful nudge: “He knew I wanted to design furniture, and he was like, ‘You can do it!!’,” recalls Nesci, now 31. And so he cold-emailed Richard Wright, founder of the eponymous Chicago auction house, and promoted the heck out of himself until he landed a job managing Wright’s restoration department, where he stayed for five years before founding his own studio in early 2012. As he tells it, his cheerleader at FedEx deserves substantial credit for inspiring him to take the leap that changed his life. But to know Nesci is to realize that no matter what happened, the results would have been the same — he was destined to be a designer. Having started dealing mid-century as a hobby at age 18, by the time he landed at Wright he was already “living and breathing furniture,” he says.
Wright turned out to be where he learned how to actually make it, too. In the restoration department, he not only got face time with iconic 20th-century works, he also got a front-row look at the intricacies of how they were constructed. At the same time, he was growing increasingly interested in minimalist art and sculpture, and the degree to which those pieces rely on materiality and process. “The forms are very simple, but the awe factor lies in how well they’re made,” he notes. Those became important driving factors behind his own first collection of monolithic metal tables, shelves, and stools, which he risked $20,000 to bring to ICFF in 2007, and which landed him his ongoing collaboration with Ugo Alfano of Chicago’s Casati Gallery. He’s since shown with Casati at Milan fairs and in Design Miami booths, and is currently working with the gallery on a new pair of bronze chairs and a three-fin copper lamp. (The rest of his pieces he gets produced by local workshops in and around Chicago, though he’s currently based a few hours away in tiny Scottsburg, Indiana.)
Nesci’s newer pieces still lean towards minimal, geometric forms and process-based concepts — one of his new projects revolves around endlessly variable profiles generated by the Golden Ratio — but lately he’s been looking much, much further back than the ’60s for inspiration: He’s been meticulously Googling and studying images of ancient and prehistorical objects, from primitive tools and female fertility statues to seemingly unbuildable Incan stone walls. “There’s a constant curiosity that drives everything I do,” he explains. We asked Nesci to tell us what else drives him and his work — check out the slideshow at right for the result.
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.
As the youngest child of a Parisian architect — with three older brothers working in the same field — Victoria Wilmotte had one thing going for her when she started studying furniture design at London's RCA four years ago. But she also had a few handicaps: she was only 20 years old, she had just been rejected from Paris's ENSCI school, and her professor at RCA, Jurgen Bey, couldn't comprehend her strange working methods. Obsessed with materials and surfaces, she wanted to spend all her time in the workshop, skipping the thinking and brainstorming part and going directly to prototyping. "Jurgen Bey was really into concepts," says Wilmotte, now 24. "He was more about a table telling stories, but I only wanted to talk technically. He basically said, 'I don’t understand you. But continue.'"
It’s possible you’ve spent hours foraging flea markets, wondering how a Russel Wright pitcher or an Eames shell chair or a Jens Risom credenza might fit into your home décor. But did you ever stop to wonder how those pieces may have figured into the homes of their own makers? Leslie Williamson, a San Francisco–based photographer, did — and the result is Handcrafted Modern, a new book that offers an intimate glimpse inside the houses of 14 of America’s most beloved mid-century designers.