To hear the story of James and Chelsea Minola — the married couple behind Seattle’s Grain design studio — you begin to wonder how it’s possible their paths didn’t cross even earlier in life. Both grew up in Southern California — James in San Diego, and Chelsea in Los Angeles, where her parents were the owners of a punk rock store at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. In the early ’90s, both families relocated to the Pacific Northwest, and James and Chelsea moved east to Providence, Rhode Island, around the same time to attend RISD — James as an undergrad in engineering and Chelsea as a graduate in industrial design. But the two didn’t meet until they both enrolled in a short course called “Bridging Cultures Through Design,” where they worked first in Providence, tinkering with ideas about weaving, and then for a few weeks in Guatemala, where they learned how to work with talented local artisans. The trip would eventually lead the two friends down the path to marriage but it also introduced them to the way in which their future studio would run.
Growing up in Vancouver, Sol Hashemi was wedded to his father’s camera, dreaming since age six of someday becoming a nature photographer. Now 27 and living in Seattle, however, he may be the farthest thing from it — while he does wield a camera for a living, and occasionally points it at the odd plant or rock, his sculptures and still-life compositions go to great lengths to make them appear as un-natural as possible, marrying them with things like glitter, candy wrappers, and cans of baked beans. His work is all about weird — or not so weird, if you’re a Tumblr devotee — juxtapositions: “By overlaying, erasing, and manipulating images, Hashemi explores how objects communicate and shift meaning through arrangements,” wrote his gallery in a recent release. For his sculptures, it added, “the artist continues to consider and expand upon product displays, size references, and kludges (a colloquialism used to describe inelegant temporary fixes and awkward improvisations) with three-dimensional pieces that coalesce like layers in an image file.”
Nicholas Nyland studied to be a painter for years, first as an undergrad at the University of Washington and then as a graduate at the University of Pennsylvania. But it only took one night for him to figure out that his heart belonged to ceramics. “I discovered ceramics through a friend who invited people over just to play around and make things,” says the Seattle-based artist. “It was like a light bulb went off over my head. It was the best combination of my interests in painting and color and surface, with the immediacy of sculptural practice and the ability to then glaze.”
Every creative scene has an unseen hand, the type of person who seems to know everyone, touch everything, and generally act as the glue holding it all together, all while falling just below the radar of the average outside observer. In the Seattle design world, Charlie Schuck fits that profile to a tee. A photographer and the proprietor of the former brick and mortar storefront Object — which he filled with commissions by designers from around the Pacific Northwest — he not only produces stunning product shots for locals like Totokaelo, Iacoli & McAllister, Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, and Filson, he also curates exhibitions, like the recent pop-up Future This Now and an upcoming museum survey of regional talents. He’s so committed to his role, in fact, that when we approached him about doing a story on his own work, he came back with the idea to do a photo essay on everyone else’s: “A still life series of personal items that speak to the influences of Seattle creatives,” he says. “Objects from those who produce objects.”
Amanda Ringstad is a Seattle-based still-life and product photographer, and though there’s remarkably little written about her on the internet, the information that’s there makes perfect sense the instant you look at her work. She has a BFA in photography and studied sculpture and art theory in graduate school; in practice, this translates to the most arresting images you’ve ever seen of staples, garlic shoots, and those weird foam thingys you put between your toes during a pedicure. She specializes in transforming banal objects into something resembling art; it’s no wonder her clients include people like Refinery 29, Iacoli & McAllister, Starbucks, and Amazon.
Here at Sight Unseen, we tend to pride ourselves on the timeless nature of so many of our features. But if you look back at the first time we covered Jamie Iacoli and Brian McAllister, way back in 2010, the article is almost laughably out-of-date. For one, we called Seattle a city that’s “not exactly famous for its flourishing industrial design scene” — which is, of course, the premise behind this entire week. And as for Iacoli & McAllister? Back then, they were better known for powder-coated shop tools and cake pedestals than for the beautifully lightweight and sophisticated furniture that has become their signature (and they hadn’t even begun to make jewelry!). They were so very green back then — only having recently found vendors and retailers to make and sell their work — whereas now they’re like the éminence grise of the Seattle design scene, so entrenched in its visual identity that you can’t remember a time when they weren’t there. What hasn’t changed? When we interviewed them in 2010, the onetime couple had broken up but were still living together. Today, they’re still broken up and living together, though in the intervening years they spent three years living apart.
For most of us, stores are merely the fleeting destinations wherein we acquire our possessions, while homes are the more permanent spaces where we keep and lovingly display them. But for Jill Wenger, it’s the other way around: Ever since she moved to Seattle in 2001 and founded the cult boutique Totokaelo at just 26 years old, her store has been her material and spiritual base, while her living situation has remained mercurial. “I love change and generally don’t stay in any apartment or home longer than a year,” says the Texas native. Even as we interviewed her for this piece — which contains the first-ever published photos of one of her domestic interiors — she already had one foot out the door. Despite initially falling in love last May with her current apartment for its location — in Capitol Hill, three minutes away from Totokaelo — as well as its original hardwood floors and leaded-glass doors, Wenger is in the midst of searching for something new.
People always ask us about the American design scene, and for the longest time, inquiring after American design was just shorthand for trying to figure out what was happening in New York. It’s not that design wasn’t happening in other places; it just wasn’t happening at a scale and with a voice that would make it cohere into something bigger than itself. But oh, how that’s changed in the last five years. Ask us about American design, and we’ll talk your ear off about the amazing ceramics coming out of Los Angeles, or the interesting material experiments happening in Chicago, or Jonah Takagi, who’s singlehandedly making “D.C. design” happen. But the city we’re really, really excited about right now? Seattle.