For a few years now we've been watching skram, Jacob Marks' design brand based in High Point, North Carolina. You may know that High Point was the Detroit of furniture, the center of American furniture design and manufacturing, the "Furniture Capital of the World". That is until the manufacturing was outsourced and, well, fortunes changed.
In our humble opinion this year Jacob has created his best collection yet for skram. The focus of which is a unique American sensibility and a relentless focus on quality. We asked him a few questions.
Piedmont Side Chair
What is American design? Is there such a thing, is it definable? (If there is, we think that skram embodies it.)
Yes. American design has always existed. But the way I see it, it's been a while since American design has yielded anything of substance that wasn't either trying to be European design or trying too hard not to be European design. Now there's something different going on. It's an exciting time.
I view my work with skram as part of an emerging ethos of American design that's distinctive in its merging of traditional craft with a spare, modern aesthetic. This ethic is rooted in the underlying ambitions of American consciousness - certainly innovation, but also authenticity, simplicity, and sustainability.
My designs are informed by a commitment to innovation, but they don't equate innovation with being clever. Honest materials, consummate workmanship, and refined forms are enough. Originality as a goal is overrated. What we're doing at skram is exploring modern forms that are defined by a utilitarian elegance. These forms are expressed in natural materials - like native and/or local timber and vegetable tanned leather. We're questioning the boundaries of these materials, experimenting with new applications, and applying that knowledge to forms that are unique in their negotiation of line, space, and proportion. We are comfortable with understatement, with the subtleties of detail in a refined design. We avoid using fancy materials to compensate for poor workmanship or unresolved design. I think our approach produces designs that are at once familiar and unexpected.
We embrace craft and suggest that there is no good design without craft. Enduring design and fine workmanship are inextricable; one cannot exist apart from the other. What I'm not describing here is something being handmade. While that could be the case, it need not necessarily be so. Rather, I refer to the well-made object - by whatever skillfully employed tools or means - and the rejection of built-in obsolescence. A core aspect of this movement (can I call it that?) can be summed-up with the following simple mantra: buy it once - buy it right.
New American design fosters the broad accessibility of heirloom quality objects. We see (and encourage) growing discontent with a culture of disposable goods and a deepening understanding of the long-term value of well-made objects relative to their initial cost. Many of our customers come to us because they are tired of discarding poorly crafted or suddenly unfashionable objects every few years.
They want something more.
What we aim for is to provide objects that age with grace. They are intended to be fashionable in the way that blue jeans and white t-shirts are fashionable. Our products may be recyclable, but are so finely-crafted, functionally-tuned, and beautiful that they are used for generations.
Fade Arm Chair
So, our definition of sustainability is a little bit different than what is commonly understood. We take as a starting point the responsible use of sustainably-harvested materials, the use of non-toxic adhesives and finishes, the recycling of waste, and a variety of other measures to neutralize the harmful impact impact of our existence.
Beyond this, however, we're interested in a deeper interpretation of sustainability. The fact is that a big part of what makes new American design special is that it's helping to evolve an incomplete definition of what makes something environmentally responsible. To date, much of the discussion of sustainable design has focused on novel materials but has avoided the subject of personal behavior.
Materials that are biodegradable and that regenerate quickly are critical for disposable furniture. We applaud the progress that has been made towards the use of such materials. But there is also an important place for firms that are reshaping (ie: slowing-down) the way we consume. Skram exists for this purpose. It provides an alternative for those who share the feeling that innovative design paired with meticulous workmanship and authentic materials can yield objects of enduring value.
What are the challenges American design faces? Same as for Skram.
Well, on an obvious level, I think that current challenges for American design, and for skram to some extent, have to do with larger economic forces. That said, skram is seeing nice growth in 2010 and we are optimistic about this year.
I would also say that I was describing above - a shift in the way that we consume, in the way that we define good design - is very much a work-in-progress. This is something that with increased exposure will continue to gain momentum. Like anything that asks for a shift in attitude, it takes time to reach a wide audience, especially one unaccustomed to thinking of good design as integral to healthy living.
Beyond that, the challenge for skram is to handle our growth in a way that does not compromise our values and to continue to introduce customers to our brand and our approach to modern design. Many new customers are surprised to discover that our furniture is made entirely in North Carolina. While we don't sell very much product in the southeastern USA, we are very proud to be based here, trying to present a sustainable model for manufacturing in an area that has seen massive manufacturing losses over the last decade with furniture factories moving overseas or going out of business.