Raw Talent: At Home with Designer Chris Stuart
Editor’s Note: Fast Company recently named DIY Furniture 2: A Step-by-Step Guide, by Indy designer Chris Stuart, one of the best design books of 2014. The honor capped a breakout year for Stuart, a Herron grad. His firm, Luur Design, made Sight Unseen’s American Design Hot List; he designed the interior of the Pattern Store; and he launched an online shop with furniture and home objects. This feature from our February 2012 issue introduced readers to Stuart (and his cool Noblesville house) just after he published the first edition of DIY Furniture.
Chris Stuart is still not finished with design school at Herron, and his house contains plenty of objects from IKEA, yet the 37-year-old has found himself rather unexpectedly at the vanguard of an emerging design movement. As part of the resurgence of craft everything, a wave of young designers have returned to making furniture and objects with their hands, deliberately leaving evidence of the process untouched. “Design’s new tack,” noted The New York Times a couple of years ago, involves “rough-looking furniture that carries a whiff of shop class, handmade by guys who have their own power saws—and know how to use them.” The article was talking about Europe’s rising design stars, but Stuart recently put himself in their company by authoring DIY Furniture: A Step-by-Step Guide. Published out of Britain, the volume is a stylish collection of original works by an international roster of talents who share the same gritty approach: Refinement is out, raw edges are in.
It is an aesthetic that Stuart and his wife, Rachel Mattney, live with every day in their home near Noblesville’s town square. The tidy abode is filled with pieces that look like nothing you’ve seen before: a bright-blue wooden bench whose seat is faceted like a diamond; a sofa fashioned from copper pipes and orange cargo pads; a desk made from a basic hollow-core door with a set of drawers clamped to one end, like an exoskeleton of organization (see previous spread).
These are not junky, low-budget projects, to be sure. But Stuart favors common forms and hardware-store staples—things that are both familiar and production-friendly. “I want good design and art to be accessible,” he says. “And that means it has to be reproducible.”
Stuart grew up in modest circumstances on the east side with his mother and stepfather. Two paper routes helped him buy candy in bulk, which he sold at school for a profit, and he mowed lawns to save up for Reeboks. Summers, though, brought trips to visit his father, an Air Force master sergeant stationed in Europe. There, Stuart was exposed to art, an interest he pursued after graduating from Arlington High School in 1993. In lieu of college, Stuart worked as a welder and studied under C.W. Mundy, one of Indy’s best-known landscape artists.
He taught himself graphic design and screen printing, which helped him land a job at Thomson Consumer Electronics in Carmel, where he worked on prototypes of General Electric products. Next, he figured out how to use 3-D design software and worked his way up in Thomson’s industrial-design department. One of his creations, a telephone, stayed on the market for five years. GE sold about 10 million of them.
Stuart and Mattney (who worked at Thomson in quality control) married in 2003 and set about renovating a Noblesville cottage. In 2006, Stuart enrolled in Herron School of Art and Design part-time to study furniture design, but the next year, he was laid off from Thomson and got a reality check about his career path. Potential employers, he says, resented that he had forged his way into the field without a degree. One told Stuart that he had taken a “shortcut” to becoming a designer. “If anything, I took the long cut,” Stuart says. “I worked my way up the ladder one step at a time, learning as I went along.” He almost landed a position at Kohler in Wisconsin, but a message that he had expected to contain a formal offer instead said, Mr. Herbert Kohler won’t sign off on this.”
In 2007, Stuart started his own company, Luur Design, and began working for brands such as Motorola and Procter & Gamble as well as taking on freelance jobs for Thomson. One of those commissions involved designing GE’s “The Shop” phone, used by Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. Meanwhile, Stuart was adapting his experience with production design—making objects with the intention of selling them—to Herron’s art-focused furniture-design program, where “production is kind of a no-no,” Stuart says. Nevertheless, his professors have supported his goal of bridging art and production. “If I get flak,” he says, “it is usually because production means farming out work.”
Stuart was hardly slacking off. In the summer of 2009, he pitched a book on DIY lighting to a British publisher, Laurence King, which liked the idea. The concept soon expanded to DIY furniture—pieces with a high-design sensibility made from stuff anyone can buy at Lowe’s. Just then, that gritty-modern aesthetic was emerging from Europe’s big design schools, including the Royal Academy of Art in London and Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and the field’s watchers (including The New York Times) were taking notice. Stuart says he wasn’t aware of that when he began searching for designers who shared his sensibility (and who might contri-bute projects to his book). So when the work of Peter Marigold, a young London-based designer, caught his eye, Stuart simply e-mailed him with an invitation to participate—for credit only. In 2007, Wallpaper magazine had called Marigold
“a rising star”; he had won a Designer of the Future Award at Design Miami/Basel in 2009; and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum would later display one of his tables.
Marigold immediately replied to Stuart’s e-mail, saying, “Great—let me know what you need.” Among the sample chapters in his book pitch, Stuart presented a Marigold shelf—such a coup that the publisher suspected he wasn’t authorized to use it. “They said, ‘By the way, did Marigold agree to be in the book? He’s famous around here in London,’” Stuart says.
With Marigold on board, Stuart inked the deal and easily signed up 26 more designers and design teams; many were European, with several Americans in the mix. Among them were Jorre van Ast, whose work is part of the permanent collection at MoMA, and Rich Brilliant Willing, a trio of New York City–based designers on the verge of an international breakout. (RBW now designs lighting and tables for Ligne Roset, Urban Outfitters, and Artecnica.) “If I had asked them three weeks later, they probably would have said no,” Stuart says.
As submissions rolled in, Stuart noticed some holes in the mix of projects—no sofa, no bedroom furniture. So Stuart made them himself. For the couch, he thought back to folded-paper cups he used to make as a child, and came up with a trapezoidal frame made of copper pipes. For a bedroom armoire, he used building-supply store leftovers to create chevron-patterned doors; traditional-style legs were his wife’s touch.
The resulting book—a sold-out success, with subsequent editions in both French and German—contains instructions for making such items as Marigold’s Split Box Shelves; Gabriela Kowalska’s Kofitable, which attaches furniture legs and wheels to a standard single-pane window; and the Sailor’s Dream, a sisal-like rug of thick, colored cargo rope thought up by Danish designer Jonas Klein. A second printing of the book is scheduled for early this year.
A potential follow-up to DIY Furniture is on Stuart’s mind, but he’s ready to concentrate on self-driven projects. “When I was young, I thought I could do it all,” he says. “Now I’d like to spend my time where I can make a difference. I’m more of an idea person.”
Which might be a good thing for Indianapolis. With a May graduation on the horizon, Stuart is starting to think creatively about his community—about energizing the local design industry and starting pop-up restaurants in shipping containers and doing something about the city’s rash of abandoned buildings. After a career spent making the unlikely happen, nothing seems out of reach. “If all of us got together, we’d be able to solve a few problems,” he says. “Or at least have fun trying to.”