Tony Smith’s Gracehopper, 1961/1988: “Two years later I launched a series of aluminum furniture forms at ICFF based on the same set of angles. The initial show included the Tidal Shelf (pictured), Jack Stool, H1 coffee table, Prop Bookends, and the A_Stool. These continue to be my best sellers 6 years later.”

Jonathan Nesci, Furniture Designer

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.