Marc Englander Challenges the Functionality of Furniture

Marc Englander Challenges the Functionality of Furniture

The designer discusses with VMAN his distinct design jocularity and creating furniture with a unique perspective on small space living.

The designer discusses with VMAN his distinct design jocularity and creating furniture with a unique perspective on small space living.

Text: Devin Barrett

Furniture designer, and born-and-raised New Yorker, Marc Englander challenges functionality with humor. Sparked by a childhood trip to Japan, his influences include the likes of George Nakashima and Isamu Noguchi. Englander’s furniture—ranging from an abnormally tall chair to a console floating in glass—marries warm, natural wooden elements with the levity of glass, offering a unique perspective on small space living. Here, Englander shares his distinct design jocularity.

 Let’s start from the top. How did you get started in furniture design?

I was around 18, and needed a new piece of furniture for my room. We were re-decorating the apartment. My mom put me in touch with the carpenter. My parents were kind enough to give me the chance to sketch something on a piece of legal paper. My sketching ability was stick-figure level, which was pretty funny at the time. The [product] came out pretty well and I really enjoyed it. It grew organically after that. When I was in college I took an extra course in furniture design and learned some more of the basic skills, so then I could communicate with carpenters properly [laughs].

There’s a certain language there, perhaps?

For sure, and I think with any industry in general, there’s a language, and furniture has a very specific one.

Do you feel fluent now?

No, I’m still learning. I think you always have to be learning a little bit.

How does growing up in New York inform the way you work in design? What was the first item you created?

That first item was a console—a 9-foot long console made out of a tree trunk in three separate segments, including a cable box, individual books, and then glass laid on top. The exposure in New York to so many different styles and periods made me feel the weight to be a little bit more patient with my pieces, to make them a bit more refined, to make sure they look and feel as professional and as conceptually and aesthetically interesting as possible before just making them. Then, there’s also the geometry of the city. Even though New York is loud and crazy, it’s a grid and very geometric at the end of the day.

When living in the city, space is extremely limited and living in such a small space, you have to make sure all of the furniture is meaningful; otherwise it’s just in the way.

Exactly. I’d like to think that I’m trying to make art furniture that’s as conceptually interesting as it is functional. You really want to feel good and comfortable around your pieces, you don’t want to live around something you don’t like.

There’s obviously a delicate balance between something that’s functional and beautiful, but again in such a small space you want every object to look it’s best because there isn’t much room for anything else. How do you balance something being meaningful on an aesthetic level and meaningful on a functional level?

At the highest level, I think something functional is beautiful, and something beautiful is functional. They almost kind of form an identity at some point. I think if you look at some of the greatest industrial designers, like Philippe Starck or John Ive, they’re making the most functional things, and some of the coolest looking things. I think it’s definitely hard making something functional look beautiful, and something beautiful look functional, but that’s where the magic happens.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

I make things where the beauty is tied up with the form in an almost ironic or funny degree. I think weight and art have its place, but I also think levity is very important. I think pieces should be a little comical, for example, another console I created is a large glass box with a wood box in the middle—open for a cable box. It functions as a console, but it really only functions as a console. If you don’t use it as a console it doesn’t make sense. I think that’s the way I try to approach most of my work—the aesthetic is so intentionally purposeful, it’s like a beautiful joke at the end of the day.

Do you have a favorite material?

Glass and wood would be my two favorite materials, I’m starting to get more involved with stones and metals, but I find metals to be a little hard to live around. It’s a little harsh. It’s hard to have around. Even though glass is transparent, it adds depth to the field. With metal, it’s hard to feel that depth. I think ‘Tall Chair’ is my favorite piece that I’ve done so far.

What makes that your favorite?

It’s simple. Aside from how big it is, I feel like it’s not imposing in anyway. It’s only made of four pieces of wood and the two legs just lean against the wall. It’s almost built for the outdoors, as it has a rough texture to it.

Being a born-and-raised New Yorker, what do you think is the biggest mistake people make with small spaces?

Choosing trendy objects rather than objects that speak to them, so you end up cluttering. I think choosing glass objects frees up a lot of space while making it useful. There’s this really amazing book In Praise of Shadows by Junichi Tanizaki. It talks about all the nuisances of letting space be by itself, using shadow and light, and tucking things away. It turns furniture into poetry in a way. When I was was a kid, I was lucky enough to go on this big trip to Japan. We stayed two nights in a Dojo in Yukon. I became obsessed with the design. When I say I was obsessed, I think my parents were considering sending me to a shrink [laughs]. As soon as I got back to New York I tried to change my whole room to tatami mats. When we moved, I slept on a futon with silver pillows. My favorite designers were Nakashima and Noguchi, and then I started taking Japanese. I was into the whole aesthetic of Japan. It really resonated with me.

Is there a favorite place in the city of yours that stands out?

I think in terms of design and spaces, New York is filled with so many that it’s hard to choose. I like Central Park as it was designed to meander. In some respect I really like the nooks and crannies in bars and cafes. They’re cabinets in the cave sense of the word. The Met Breuer, or the old Whitney, that’s one of my favorite spaces architecturally in the city. That space raises the question about light vs weight. The shape of that building makes you feel like it’s going to topple over, especially the front. It’s almost floating.

How would define a successful design?

Not to sound ‘fake humble’, but I don’t consider most of my designs successful. I think a successful design [occurs] when the proportions, materials, form and shape co-exist and complement, without one over-bearing on the other. Almost like a Gordian knot of things. There are so many amazing designers (and so many amazing pieces out there), but the ones that are really amazing stick out because how does that all sit together so perfectly? It’s like magic when all those elements fit together. The whole is greater than some of the parts, and that’s what I think defines successful pieces.

Is comfort a starting point of consideration when designing an object, or does that come next for you?

Comfort is the most important thing for me. However, I don’t think that’s been the goal for some of the pieces I’ve designed. I’ve been working with really tough materials, so I think comfort unfortunately hasn’t been the main goal. It’d be a good project to start working on. There’s one chair that I did that’s like a little edamame bean. It’s a white chair that’s very comfortable. It sits really low. Even if the back of a chair is really tall, to have the feet quite low is really comfortable. I’m not the tallest guy, so I tend to feel like those chairs.

What’s next? What are you working on?

I’m doing more research on how to work with metal and stone, and I’d like to see if I can warm up 3D printing in some way. A lot of the pieces that are 3D printed seem a little aerodynamic and a little plastic-y. I’m hoping to do some research and start playing around with different materials, hopefully focusing on these pieces that are more joke-fulfilled.

What would be the goal of an object like that—an object that’s joke-fulfilled?

I think the goal of an object like that would be to take furniture—a functional piece of furniture—and have it be approached the way culture, photography, and fine arts are treated, more regularly at least. There are definitely many designers whose art furniture is treated like sculpture, but for people to think more aesthetically about furniture from a conceptual standpoint—how you use the piece, how the designer intended you to use the piece, all of those nice post-modern questions that penetrate a painting, that would be the goal.

Credits: IMAGES COURTESY OF MARC ENGLANDER

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