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Roy McMakin asks, 'When is a chair not a chair?'

April 2, 2010 |  8:11 am

In the title of his forthcoming monograph, artist Roy McMakin poses a question: “When Is a Chair Not a Chair?” Over a 25-plus-year career (including a stint operating Domestic Furniture on Beverly Boulevard from 1987 to 1994), McMakin has proved that furniture can be more than furniture. It can be art.

L.A. at Home writer David A. Keeps caught up with him in the days leading up to the Tuesday release of the book. McMakin, true to his title, managed to raise as many questions as he has answered.

McMakin_Portrait People who see your work, which is often furniture in a gallery setting, probably wonder what makes it art. How would you describe what you do?
I am essentially an artist who has crossed over into the applied arts in a serious way, from the position of being an artist. When you call something functional a piece of art, it changes the perception and meaning of that object. I said I want to do a chair and I am an artist. Maybe it is just a chair, but it is still a product of an artist, so is it a sculpture or is it a chair? It’s kind of a riddle. There really isn’t an answer. The point is to ask the question.

How did this all begin?
The first furniture I did was pieces that I needed for installations and performance art pieces. I couldn’t find what I wanted, so I thought, why don’t I make it?

Were you a handy kid?
I was interested in making things, a building-a-magazine-table kind of kid. It was pretty early on when I figured out that making it was not as interesting as thinking about it.

Doesn’t that make you a furniture designer?
There is, at times, a component of design in that endeavor. But designers tend see things as problems to get solved, and I am clearly not that interested in problem-solving. The whole thrust isn’t how to make a better chair. When I had the store, I was on the precipice of being a furniture designer and I worked hard to be a person who is about a series of ideas, and that matters more to me. It’s partly about the intention to make the chair like a sculptor has an intention to make a sculpture. What people may like and see in my work is that it isn’t just a chair. It is something I am obsessing over.

Why obsess over a chair?
I find a chair a ponderous object. All I am doing is trying to show my fascination and curiosity about a chair. I got focused on the most minimal way you can put a chair together and still make it feel charming. I learned that chairs could be charming from years of going to flea markets. I was never looking for the pedigreed object. I was always looking for the anonymous piece, the one that rose above all the other objects — the thing that had heart and soul because someone had tried to make it a beloved object.

Keep reading for more questions, answers and photos from McMakin's new book ...


Why did you choose household objects as your artistic subject?
They chose me. I don’t know why really. They evoke memories and emotions. I did one installation piece called “Lequita Faye Melvin” about my distant memory of what was in my maternal grandmother’s house. People say that when you go back to your childhood home it’s always so much smaller; everyone remembers things as being bigger than they were. I think things increase in your memory, and part of the reason I increase the size of my pieces is to make them almost be a memory of a chair.

McMakin_EntryChest Some of your pieces are huge, and there are cabinets that have knobs that are bigger than the drawers. Why is size so important?
We all see things differently, and we are all really sensitive to scale, which I like to control and manipulate. If you think about what makes someone beautiful, it has to do with a tiny bit more flesh. Scale means a lot to us in a biological way.

Does your furniture reflect your own physical stature?
I’m 5-8 1/2, and I like my men slightly smaller and chunky.

Thank you for sharing. Is your furniture as chunky as it looks?
That’s the most annoying thing I hear about my work. The painted chairs I do out of eastern maple -- they are shockingly heavy. They weigh a lot. I don’t really get upset over the weight. A designer would feel that’s something to be fixed, and I think they are what they are, and if you don’t like it, it’s not the chair for you.

Are your chairs comfortable?
When they are meant to be comfortable, yes, but not everything is. We do a lot of work and prototyping to get a dining chair to where the angles are right and the pitch is right, so that it is comfortable. I am pretty adept at that.

McMakin_GreenStaircase You have also created entire homes in the Los Angeles area. Are you a licensed architect?
I have no training, but I have designed entire houses, and I own a corporation called Domestic Architecture with professionals .… I need to do it not with a wink. When I do a piece of architecture, it is a house.

You lived in Los Angeles for two decades. How did it shape your work?
Arts and Crafts design was very influential, and Los Angeles was deeply significant as a place. I became entranced by the architecture of Irving Gill and had an Irving Gill house. I became a little too obsessed with the history of Los Angeles and the pervasive sense that the optimism and American Utopia that it represented had passed. So I moved to Seattle, which was always more of a working city, because I wanted to live in a place that had a stronger craft ethos.


What does your Seattle home look like?
I live in a loft in an old storage space, semi-built by me and my partner, and I also live in a cabin on an island. It’s decorated in a combination of my stuff and found stuff that I love -- chests of drawers and paintings and art by friends. It’s minimal -- and not -- both at the same time.

Have you become a tree hugger?
I got very involved in environmental stuff with my furniture and started doing sustainable manufacturing in 1988. Trying to source woods I like to work with was difficult, and what I ultimately came up with was to not make a lot of stuff. If I can sell things for a more expensive price and pay my crafts people well to make something that people love and cherish and will last a long time -- that’s my effort to save the world.

Your pieces are so costly that your gallery wouldn’t disclose prices to me. Are there collectors who buy your chairs and don’t let anyone sit on them?
As the artist, it is my intent for them to get used and to get scratched up and show the patina of life. They should do it and let it be, but it drives some people crazy. There have been some people who have had plastic covers made for chairs, and I had to spend a long time counseling them that a scratch would be OK.

-- David Keeps

Photos, from top: Club chairs on swivel base. Credit: Mark Woods / Rizzoli. McMakin portrait in gallery. Credit: Jason Schmidt / Rizzoli. Pool pavilion in Beverly Hills with McMakin's bold and colorful chairs. Credit: Jason Schmidt / Rizzoli. A McMakin piece from 2001, the 38-inch-tall  "Untitled (Traditional Entry Chest)." Credit: Mark Woods / Rizzoli. The dining area of a 2005 house that McMakin designed with a Shaker-style staircase in vivid green. Credit: Mark Woods / Rizzoli. A keyhole-shaped opening in Seattle home designed by McMakin; when the door seen through the keyhole closes, the wall on the other side reads "I Love You." Credit: Mark Woods / Rizzoli.

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