For industrial designer Brendan Ravenhill, the manufacturing process is a welcome counterpoint in his practice. "I loved the idea of designing for mass production," says the designer. "Rather than one-off objects where complex construction or subtle details result in greater cost, making multiples allows you to obsess over the little moments and once these are resolved take those decision to scale."
Rather than eschew the sometimes maligned mass manufacturing process, Ravenhill uses it to his advantage. He designs thoughtful lighting and furniture, by first taking prototypes as far as he can as an artisan, and then finally producing multiples with the help of informed local manufacturers.
"Our designs strive to be devoid of excess or ornament. Designs which are stripped down to their simplest parts, but designs that are somehow more than the sum of those parts," says Ravenhill, whose background in boat building, shows in the warmth of his industrial-looking furniture and lighting composed of cloth-covered electrical cords, sheets of polyethylene and unadorned light bulbs.
Ravenhill's designs aren't birthed in lavish design laboratories, filled with specialized tools. They are born out of rough-and-tumble Los Angeles. Since September of last year, his minimalist pieces are first taking seed in his eponymous studio in Elysian Valley, along the Los Angeles River.
"We used to work in my home in Echo Park, but there was no way we could expand our operations there," says Ravenhill. Before moving riverside, the designer worked out of his midcentury modern home, running power tools outside and prototyping in the basement. They eventually converted a wing to house Ravenhill's studio, which came out to only a few hundred square feet of space. It was tight quarters, he says.
Eventually, given the growth of Ravenhill's design business -- from a bottle opener that got the New York Times' attention, he eventually moved on to designing a whole restaurant -- the designer knew they had to find more space. His light fixtures also can be found in architect Barbara Bestor's new housing concept, Blackbirds, as well a recently refurbished South L.A. church, designed by Rudolph Schindler.
His answer came in the form of a Craigslist ad from a landlord in search of a tenant who would be willing to rent a space beside his car restoration operation. Now, Ravenhill's team has some 2,500-square feet on which to prototype, fabricate made-to-order pieces, and get work done.
Beneath an industrial Quonset hut, Ravenhill's crew is busy building up the designer's signature works that straddle sophistication and simplicity. A quick look around reveals a Hood Chandelier still in progress. At this point, only white polyethylene shades are attached to the vertical oak spines. The brass wiring hub has yet to be attached onto the piece.
Throughout the studio, Ravenhill's pieces can be found. "We've basically transformed the space by adding our pieces here," says Ravenhill. Bare bulbs jut out, held in place by steel arms that go this way and that, like little solar systems overhead. Wood Angle Stools with powder coated green steel legs that curl at the end share floor space with geometrically backed high stools.
A few prototypes of his newly launched 25-inch Grain Drum light are also set out, ready to be shipped to New York in time for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF), a yearly gathering that draws designers from all over the country. The 25-inch Grain Drum consists of three LED bulbs, which illuminate a spun metal shade that surprisingly bears a wood grain. Instead of becoming cold and aloof, the wood grain imparts a softer touch and warmth. The 25-inch light is the latest addition to the designer's Grain Family of lighting, which was introduced a year and a half ago.
The Grain Family's history is one that shows just how Ravenhill collaborates with local manufacturers to produce something with soul. After a factory tour, a fabricator tried to talk him out of using a tool that would leave a wood grain impression on his shade. The conventional thinking around metal is that you would like it to have this otherworldly perfect surface. Rather than take his advice, Ravenhill went the opposite direction. He wanted to enhance this wood grain impression even more. Through research and testing. Ravenhill's studio was able to invent a process that managed to capture in surprising detail all the soul and texture of the wood grain of the mold onto the spun part. "Instead of trying to hide the tooling marks of metal spinning we decided to celebrate it," recalls Ravenhill.
Ravenhill's studio borrows much from the California design movement, made with the masses in mind. After all, the works of Rudolph Schindler and Charles and Ray Eames weren't meant to be priced out-of-reach of the working man. Not only did these designers create unique pieces, but products that took into consideration material, form, and means of production. For Ravenhill, simplicity is a beautiful thing.