To complement our Studio feature on Baker Furniture in Issue 8, a conversation between Design Anthology and the vastly talented furniture designer Laura Kirar about her latest collection.
Design Anthology: Tell us a bit about your new collection for Baker furniture? Are the pieces designs that you created for yourself, items you designed for clients, or just designs you felt were missing from the market?
Laura Kirar: Well I think it’s a bit of all of those things. It’s usually about three or four years between collections and this is my third collection for Baker. And I think what I’ve been doing for this collection is a bit of an evolution from where I began which was kind of more of a classic or tradition foundation and something a little bit more formal. And over the last nine years, things have evolved and I’ve travelled more and I do a lot of residential work and I’m always designing custom things for my clients. But with this one in particular I was sort of thinking of the ideal client, and the hypothetical client and also thinking a lot about my life and how my life has evolved and I’m not sure that I was ever an incredibly formal person—although I had a great appreciation for that—but with this collection I think we’ve sort of turned it to falling squarely into what we’d call ‘relaxed luxury’. I think that’s sort of really more the way that I would envisage living. Sort of a little bit more casual, still a celebration of great materials and a little more relaxed
I split my time between New York and Mexico and more and more I’ve been in Mexico and it’s way more informal. And yet we like to surround ourselves with things that are meaningful to us and have some value, but I also don’t want to live in an environment that’s too precious. I think that’s really where the drive came from. Still creating something that speaks to the Baker customer but really reflects more this vision of, you know, a real life. You can put your feet up on sofa if you want to and you don’t have to be afraid to put your glass down on the table.
You sped a lot of time in Mexico and increasingly so. Can you talk about what it is about Mexico that appeals to you so much? You’ve mentioned how that influence has infiltrated your design, but are there other ways?
Well it’s been exciting for me to adapt in another country and to begin to learn another language and a lot about another culture. And it’s something that interests me in general. I travel a lot and I’m just always interested in being a part of and learning something new. It’s like going back to school, just spending time there. Particularly I think Mexico is really exciting because the ancient culture in a way is still so much a part of what happens in modern times. It’ s so much a part of their modern culture. It informs their music, it informs their food, it informs their architecture and I think there’s an incredible wave of art coming out of Mexico right now, so it really informs art and design. And I’ve let my discovery of those things really inform my work in terms of the colours and the proportions and the geometry of what I’m working on. So, I think without the backstory, I think it’s still just great furniture and it’s appealing to a lot of people. But if you know the backstory, I think you can actually see the primitive influence of Aztec and Mayan architecture in a lot of the pieces.
Can you give us an example?
Well, like the Lola Chaise- this piece here. The idea behind this piece really came from clearly classical European roots—it’s almost like a French art deco kind of chaise—but the geometry of the piece, for me specifically, comes from looking at the ruins of Uxmal, which are my favourite ruins in the Yucatán. And everywhere you would have had a beautiful, sinuous sort of curve I’ve made it more geometric—I’ve clipped the edges, everything has this sort of faceted edge to it which to me really feels a lot like that ziggurat kind of architecture. And so it really has taken what normally would feel like a really traditional sort of piece and updated it to make it feel more architectural and more modern. You know, even where the cushion meets the base, the cushion even has that sort of faceted kind of quality to it. That’s just one piece.
As a designer, what do you think about the role of travel? Being exposed to new and unfamiliar things —how important is that for a designer with the exploration and curiosity that’s involved?
Yeah, I mean I can’t speak for everyone but for me it’s incredibly important. People say that there is nothing new—that everything is a sort of reinvention of something that already exists. I for one would agree with that to a certain extent. You can’t design in a void. You can sit in a closed room with your imagination and a pen and a piece of paper, but there’s nothing more exciting than discovering new territory. I mean, I travel so much.
Where else do like to travel?
Well, I’m really enjoying Asia very much—this is my fourth visit. Although my first time and before this I was in Indonesia and that was my first visit there. South America—I was Chile a couple of years ago and I found that to be incredibly inspiring. Brazil, you know—where ever you go, it’s really nice to make parallels, similarities and of course the differences are very clear. Yeah, I mean I’m just always sketching and photographing and I can’t really imagine doing what I do without that sort of external impulse.
How much do you travel?
I’m probably in Mexico about three months of the year and in New York about three months of the year and the rest I’m traveling around. Most of it is really work travel, but I always try to tack on some sort of personal time.
You studied both sculpture and interior architecture. First of all, for those who are unfamiliar- can you clarify what distinguishes interior architecture?
Ah! Well, there’s decoration which I think, at least in U.S. terms, really involves a lot of material selection, finish selection, and selections of objects and furniture. There’s architecture which we all know is building something from the ground-up and often times the interior. In New York City, most architects and interior designers don’t get to build anything from the ground up. So there’s a lot of grey area in the interior design field and my firm really tries to control a project from beginning to end. We tend to do a lot of what an architect would do. We do all of our own technical drawings and millwork details and hardware details, we design a lot of not only the envelope of the space—custom—but we do a lot of custom furniture for our clients. So it’s just more technical than straight decoration or straight interior design, so it’s a little bit different than the European model where everyone seems to be an architect—which I think is great. I think that specifically in New York it’s a little bit different there because we’re confined—we’re an island of course—and nobody’s building anything from the ground up.
Having studied both a fine art and interior architecture, do you see the lines between art and design as blurring?
Absolutely, absolutely. And I’m glad to see it. I’m seeing that more and more. When I went to school to study sculpture and interior architecture there was no furniture design programme and I kind of stumbled upon furniture design, in a way, accidentally because I was creating sculptures and doing conceptual installation art and my pieces sort of evolved into these conceptual, semi-functional kinds of things. And then when I graduated I found that I was required to and requested to design furniture. And I didn’t know you could be a furniture designer before that. And there was this sort of big movement of art furniture in Chicago at the time, which is where I went to school. It seems like now, right now, there’s a real interest in architects and fashion designers and so many people are so sort of involved in the home and involved in creating pieces that bridge the gap between concept and function.
And of course we’re seeing that in all the big art markets right now. You know, there’s art Basel Hong Kong and the art market of Design Miami. And ten years ago those things didn’t exist and maybe because there really wasn’t a market for it and there wasn’t a so much of an interest for it. But I think that there’s a lot of blurring of that. And what I like about it is that the people are starting to think about what they live with, not just in an aesthetic sort of way—they’re starting to think of it in a conceptual sort of way and I think that that’s really important. I hope I design collections that are beautiful, but for me its about the idea first and we get to the aesthetic part of it later.
So would it be about an evolving taste of the end consumer?
I think that the idea behind a collection really comes from communicating a certain feeling, a certain energy about the way to live and then there’s market analysis that goes into the collection. But it’s really more about trying to, trying to bring the public into my world and into my vision about how I want to feel and how I want to live in a space. That’s first and foremost, and then I do have to deal with realities of, ‘Oh we need five pieces of upholstery and three tables’. I get a design brief and a scope like any project and I work in partnership with the companies I’m designing for. So I have 14 different licenses, Baker being one of the biggest one, but we always have a dialogue of what’s needed.
In terms of your relationship with Baker and the collections that you do for them- do they leave it largely open to you with a sort of checklist?
Yes, from a design standpoint, it’s totally open to me. What they come to me with is, ‘We really need a dining table and our Asian market is really strong and this is what those buyers are really requesting’. And ultimately it’s my call whether I want to do that, whether I say I’m not really interested in that. Of course, ultimately, therein lies the difference.
It’s an interesting layer of designing for an international company because I have to create pieces that appeal not only here, but also appeal in the States and appeal in Europe—I mean we are really an international company, we are selling all over the world. So, in terms of the look and what appeals and even the scale of things, it’s a big consideration. How do you create something that works for everyone?
And I never approach a situation where I’m trying to please everyone. That impossible and that is like the death of design when you’re trying to please everyone. You have to have a point of view. But I think I have been successful and this collection has been successful and Baker has been successful because in my collection, in each one of these pieces, there are these sort of touchstones, these sort of reference points that span multiple locations, multiple cultures, so it’s easier for someone from anywhere to kind of walk in and see something that resonates for them and is a little bit familiar.
I’m just thinking that in parts of the Asian market in particular there are a lot of round tables, which is something you wouldn’t commonly find in the U.S. And if you’re inspired by the Yucatán, for example, there’s a lot of combined indoor/outdoor spaces and the furniture tends to be very indoor/outdoor amenable. So do you design for regional variations at all in your collections?
Well, you can hit that a little bit, inasmuch as these products do have flexibility— it is designer’s products. I’m really providing my palette for another designer to come in and make it their own, depending on the location—and those things can really change with finish and textiles. I mean, it’s interesting that you mentioned the round tables. That’s one of those pieces that they asked me to design and what we put together didn’t end up making it in the collection. It may end up making it in the future, but Baker already does have those sorts of tables designed by other guest designers. So, you know, it’s definitely part of our design brief and what we’re trying to do and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
Over the years you’ve created collections for Arteriors, Highland Court, Baker, Ann Sacks, etc.—quite an array of product—along with the interior design projects you work on. How big is your team?
It’s very small. I have seven people that I work. I’ve been in business, independently, for 15 years. We started in 1999. And there was a point where things were growing so quickly and I realised that I was just spending so much of my time just managing people and that I would have to grow exponentially in order to make it both from a time perspective and financially, worthwhile. And it was one of those moments where you see the fork in the road and I just realised, it’s not really what I want to do. I want to keep things small. I want to be involved in everything. I still want to have those personal relationships with my clients. And I still want to be the one that designs these collections—this is the fun stuff! I don’t want to give that up to then just all of the sudden be the figurehead that just gets on a plane and talks about it. Like, I really want to be doing the work. So, it was a really conscious decision to remain small. We’re super busy. But it also puts us in a positon of being very selective. You know, we have a pretty tight set of criteria before we accept a project and we just have to manage our time really well. That’s it.
And you’re based in Brooklyn?
Yes, we’re based in Brooklyn. We do all the drawing, design work and make models there, and then we work with the manufacturer to do the prototyping.
Is the manufacturer in the U.S.?
Yes. Specifically with Baker, all the manufacturing is all in the U.S. which is not to say that, there might be some specialised, crafted pieces that they outsource, but the upholstery, the wood case pieces—everything is made in their factory in North Carolina. And, you know, it’s one of the things that makes Baker pretty unique because most U.S. companies shipped their manufacturing overseas many, many years ago. It does make the Baker product I guess more exclusive, but it’s one of the things that makes the Baker product I think more appealing, specifically to the Asian market because it’s not typical to able to access American-made product.
Last question- What are you working on now that you’re able to talk about?
I am working on my next collection for Kallista which is, really after 10 years, my second collection for Kallista. My first collection did very well but they didn’t actually add another one. So I’m excited about that and I hope to return to Asia to talk about the Kallista collection. Beyond that I am really working a lot on the property in Mexico. I have a 17th century ex-hacienda in the Yucatán—the same part of Mexico where Cancun and Tulum are. So we’re outside of the city of Mérida about 30 minutes and we’re preparing the restoration of that. We have two large buildings. One of them was the factory building of the hacienda where they processed the sisal. And we have started a foundation that will work with international artists and designers to come to Mexico to learn about the local crafts and work with local artisans and then take traditional craft and hopefully create something modern with it.
The vision is really to try to perpetuate traditional art and traditional craft—it’s one of the things I’ve learnt over the years, not only designing for Baker for but other companies, that sort of the world over, craft is kind of dying, just not being passed on from the present generation to the next, just because of modernisation and the present generation is interested in moving to the city and they don’t want to learn about what their grandmother knew, and it’s a real shame. You know, it’s not just Mexico—it’s Italy and China and everywhere. So I’m starting with my adopted country, but as I travel I’m talking about this quite a bit and I’ve already made connections with people in Indonesia and people in China and I hope that someday we’ll actually get to do an exchange—Mexican artisans with Indonesian artisans and just sort of mix it up a bit and I think it’ll be interesting to find out what kind of work can be produced. And I’m excited about it.