Thursday, April 6, 2017

"Make Stuff First": Meet John Liston of J. Liston Design

John Liston with one of his custom lamps in his workshop at ShopFloor Design in Dogpatch. His experience with glass and metal come together in this design.
Not long after moving into our new photo studio space in the ShopFloor Design building at Minnesota Street and 26th, I stopped to admire a chair in their showroom that was brightly colored metal and looked like ribbons welded together -- almost in a wide basket weave pattern.  From the other side of the showroom in the actual shop floor came a voice that assured me it was ok to try it out. "It's ok to sit on it -- it is a chair after all and very sturdy." The voice belonged to John Liston of J. Liston design, the designer of what I soon learned was appropriately named, the ribbon chair (see photo below).  I also found out during this interview that one of his ribbon chairs is part of the permanent collection in the Brooklyn Museum.  And don't think he was bragging -- I had to pull that fact out of him.

It is hard to characterize Liston's furniture designs because while one piece can be a brightly powdered coated metal chair, another is a brass and glass floor lamp that to me looks like an architect's compass vector (see photo above) and yet another is a cabinet made out of metal and charred wood. One thing they all seem to have in common is that they are meant to be used -- functional pieces -- and they all have clean lines.

Although a conversation with Liston can cover a wide range of topics -- the man is knowledgeable! -- he isn't one to brag about his accomplishments.  Throughout our conversation I was struck again by how the artists I have had the pleasure to interview for this blog are influenced by where they grew up and how they took inspiration from each job they had along the way to achieving their eventual success.  And also of course how none of the success came overnight but only after years of hard work and long hours.

All of that is true of Liston and then some. He could be one of the hardest workers I have met and certainly one of the most committed artists to his craft.  And to top it all off, he also can bake a mean pie.

Why do you do what you do?

To get an idea in my head of a design and then to be able execute it -- I love the creativity of that experience.  

I grew up a military brat -- my dad was a navigator in the air force.  I was born in England and we lived outside a military base there. We lived in England and Germany until I was ten when my dad retired and we moved to upstate New York.  

My parents loved living overseas so they could take advantage of all the opportunities to explore other countries. By the time I moved to the U.S. I already had 21 different country stamps on my passport.  And my mom was fearless -- even when my dad was gone for six months at a time she would pack up my older two brothers and sister and me and head out to explore.

This experience certainly gave me a bigger worldview of people and places.  We didn't have much money so we did a lot of free stuff -- churches, gardens, castles, etc.  As a result, I have a particular love for architecture and I think that shows in my design. 

When I was a sophomore in high school I failed french class. They gave me the choice of taking it again or I could take a music or art class. I decided to take a jewelry class.  My stuff was very organic -- sea pods and shells -- very different from my current designs!  For some reason my professor took an interest in my work and encouraged me.  

After high school I went to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) -- both of my brothers had gone to RIT -- the school has a great reputation for their photography program as well as their crafts program.  At RIT I focused more on sculpture and less on jewelry. I liked working on larger scale projects.  I graduated with a BFA in metalwork and jewelry design.
John Liston at work in his shop.
After college I worked at Polich Art Works -- a bronze metal foundry located outside of NYC that worked with many major artists including Frank Stella, Maya Lin, Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith. I got to meet them and discuss with them what they needed from us to complete their sculptures. 

It was a pivotal time for me -- in working directly with the artists on their designs I realized that these famous artists are human and that made me more confident in my own art and design.

By this time I was 23 and had never lived away from my family or the East Coast.  My supervisor at the foundry told me about other foundries on the West Coast so in 2001 I moved to Berkeley. I thought at the time that given my nomadic upbringing I would stay a few years, get bored, then move to Seattle or Portland but the Bay Area was all I wanted and more. 

I worked at the Artworks Foundry in Berkeley and worked with many famous local artists.  I learned how to work with many different materials and became well versed in working with molds and wax castings. The owners decided to outsource to Mexico so I left to work at a custom decorative hardware shop called Soko Studio.  The owner, Cari Jaye Sokoloff, had her own line and designs -- I eventually ran the shop for her.  

It was another pivotal time for me -- I was working on a more functional aspect of design than I had done before.  I also realized that she was making her mark without having a ton of experience.  

While I was working at the foundry and then Soko Studio, I was also working at night at the Academy of Art as an instructor. I initially was an assistant instructor but then later became the main instructor of a bronze casting class.  

I eventually joined John Lewis Glass Studio.  I was there for about nine years -- I actually just left there in 2016.  It was a good experience -- they were glad to have my expertise in glass casting and metal fabrication and they left me alone to do my work.  I was a good solo worker and a good problem solver.  

About this time I started getting the itch to design jewelry again.  I did some pieces and the fine art gallery Lireille in Piedmont accepted my pieces to sell.  I made about 15 pieces then stopped.  I proved to myself that I still had the hand skills and that was enough for me.  

I then got the bug to make furniture for my house.  David Whippen, one of the owners of ShopFloor Design, had done an independent study with a professor I  knew at the Academy of Art. This professor said that when I was ready to have a studio space of my own that I should check with David. David and I hit it off right away and the space was a good fit for me.  At this point I was still working full time at John Lewis Glass and teaching at the Academy of Art so I could only get to the studio on some weeknight evenings and the weekends.  Given how frugal minded I am -- I knew that if I rented the space I would commit to being here and working in any spare time that I had on my own designs.
The Ribbon Chair by J Liston Design on the showroom floor at ShopFloor in Dogpatch.

Another pivotal moment for me came when a professor from college, Leonard Urso, saw my designs and insisted I apply for the American Craft Council Show in 2012.  They accepted me into the show and I sold 90% of my designs. I was blown away!

I decided I just might have a real business and J. Liston Design was cast.

I get inspiration from all kinds of architecture -- buildings, bridges -- I love the engineering of structures of how they are put together and I love the industrial feel of them.  But I also love the functionality -- I want my furniture designs to be used.  Another huge inspiration for me is the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher  -- their work documenting industrial structures reflect that form and function in design I admire.

Coup d'etat gallery in San Francisco represents my designs. They sell to designers, architects and direct to the public.  One of my next goals is to get more galleries to carry my designs.

What do you like about having your studio in Dogpatch?
It's great to have David here and the ShopFloor space is also home to other local designers and artists. We don't get in each other's way but if anyone needs help someone is always ready to lend a hand.

I really like that Dogpatch is such a great walking neighborhood and the food in the neighborhood is incredible. One of my favorites is Neighbor Bakehouse.

So we hear you are also a professional pie baker?
Not really! In 2012 a friend sold his glass blowing business and was looking to start another business. He decided on a pie business.  I wanted to be part of it and I agreed to be the baker.  My mom wasn't a good cook and she said if we wanted cookies or other treats when we were growing up that we had to bake them ourselves.  So I learned to bake from cookbooks.  My specialty was a rhubarb pie.  We got a food truck and called our business Fault Line Pie.  We lasted about 8 months -- in the end I was doing most of the work -- I would work all day then bake pies at night.  Not a sustainable schedule!

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
I feel like I'm finally where I should be -- all the jobs and all that I have learned has led me to finally having my own design firm.  It's only been since May 2016 that I left my job at John Lewis Glass so I'm ready to see where this goes.

But sometimes I think that being a long-haul trucker would be a good idea.  I mean given how I grew up that would allow me to finally see more of the U.S.!

(editor's note:  " schools used to put the fear of God into their students by asking them "Can you make a living out of that?" We wanted just the opposite and simply told them to make stuff first and then we'd go from there." quote is from Bernd and Hilla Becher)

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