Grain, furniture and product designers

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.

“We have a studio here on Bainbridge Island where we make some products from start to finish, but we also put a high value on the community of artists, fabricators, and craftspeople that we work with,” says James. “We’re inspired by their skill, and we try and work with people who are more experienced than us at that given craft. We want their expertise, and it’s more about working together to realize the initial concept than strictly enforcing our preconceived notions. In the end, this also reinforces our social sustainability goals as well. We’re able to help support a larger community of artists and craftspeople that is so much bigger and more important than our one little company.”

Luckily, it’s a little company that’s growing bigger every day. The two moved back to Bainbridge Island after graduating, and the company began in 2008 with a simple, ethically produced shower curtain. It’s their “least glamorous product” as Chelsea puts it, but its popularity has helped support the growth of the business, which now includes a collection of furniture and housewares that explores the inherent beauty of natural materials through a mix of traditional craftsmanship and cutting-edge technologies. They’ve been on our radar for a few years now — they were instrumental, with Iacoli & McAllister and Ladies & Gentlemen, in forming JOIN, a loose Seattle-based collective that puts on exhibitions and shows at trade fairs together — but we thought it was high time we sat down and said a proper hello.

What style movement do you most identify with?
James: “My favorite movement is what is happening now. I think there is a lot of really beautiful and inspired work happening, and it’s all around us. Just take a look at your site! Independent designers are able to work with tools and in ways that just wasn’t possible several years ago, all while reaching a larger audience.  One of the most exciting aspects of design in general is its nowness, and all the creative people pushing the boundaries of what can be made in the present… before it becomes art history. What could be more relevant than work produced by still-living people for still-existing problems by those with the most current sets of skills and knowledge?”

First thing a stranger would say when they saw your work:
Chelsea: “I feel like I should have something weird and funny to say after all the trade shows, pop-ups, and meet-the-maker events that we have worked, but I am coming up blank. Strangers often like to give advice, like: ‘This would be great in animal print.'”

Dream place to install your work?
Chelsea: “How about the Cooper-Hewitt? That show Design ≠ Art from several years back left a big impression on me. The rooms were laid out with Donald Judd and Richard Tuttle furniture as if the mansion was still a home. It would have to be in spring or early summer so that the opening party could be in the garden!”

If you had an unlimited budget for a single piece, what would you make?
Chelsea: “A home for ourselves. One with an ocean view, radiant heat floors, detached studio, and plenty of room for guests. Maybe here in the Northwest or maybe Northern California somewhere. We like the idea of what we call ‘rugged coastal’ and spend plenty of time daydreaming about architecture.”

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
Chelsea: “I know James’s answer to this. His first answer is probably ski bum. Second: surf bum. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to do something less personal and emotional — to save that part of my life for myself — like finance or accounting. Probably sounds super boring, but I really like spreadsheets and organizing. I always complain about being our bookkeeper, but it is actually pretty satisfying to balance out our accounts.”

James: “I have a lot of interests ranging from writing to theoretical physics… but Chelsea’s right, I’d probably just be some form of outdoorsy lout. My true skill set!”