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Interview: Stephen Kenn

The LA-based furniture maker on his "bare bones" approach to design

by CH Contributor in Design on 06 December 2013

by Tariq Dixon

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Stephen Kenn’s approach to design is quite simple: “Strip things down to the barest bones.” Throughout the LA-based designer’s career, he has explored this philosophy in various forms—including two denim brands and an accessories line, Temple Bags. While tremendously varied in form and function, all of Kenn’s designs maintain a strong appreciation for the essential.

Kenn’s most recent project, an eponymous label that releases products as series of thematic collections, allows him to further explore this concept across an unrestricted range of mediums. The first series—The Inheritance Collection—is a line of furniture, minimally constructed using a steel frame, leather straps and cushions made from WWII military shelters. His latest series—an assortment of leather goods called The Encounter Collection—reduces the use of materials by dyeing the underside of the leather, in lieu of a fabric lining. The collection also explores the permanence of objects, and the significance of passing heirlooms from one generation to the next—a theme expressed through a short film he created to celebrate the collection.

We stopped by Kenn’s studio in Downtown LA to discuss his latest collection, the story behind its accompanying short film and the weekly cocktail club he hosts at his workspace.

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What inspired you to open your existing design studio?

My background is in denim, which is the reason I moved to LA. I had a denim line with a buddy of mine for about three years, but that ended in 2008 when the economy crashed. Not long after, I started sewing bags out of old military fabric. I collected a bunch of material, and my goal was to sew a new bag everyday. Each bag was a new design, and I would post pictures of them on my blog. Someone would usually buy the bag by the end of the day, as I was sewing the next one. I was able to grow that project into a line called Temple Bags, which I did for about two years. I was thinking hard about what to do next, when I noticed a hole in the market for masculine furniture using military fabrics. [My wife and I] had saved up about $4000 to go on vacation that year, but she said, “Listen, use all of the money,” and I put it into designing the first collection. We sold the first couch and have kind of been in the black since, but our approach is to just grow this thing slowly—one couch at a time.

I want to eventually move toward being an artist. It sounds weird to almost be strategic about your career, but my goal is to be an artist. I don’t want to grow the furniture collection into something that’s too commercial—I kind of want to keep it as it is. Next, I want to do a dining collection, then a lighting collection and then a fine art collection. The idea is to create little vignettes. There’s so many different categories to play in. I’m kind of one of those people that can start to get bored just doing the same thing.

You’ve designed across so many different mediums over the years. What’s your process for developing new products or ideas?

I literally run around the city and poke my head into warehouses and ask, “What are you guys doing in here?” They’re normally like, “Who are you?” and I just say, “Uh, some dude who lives in the neighborhood.” I find out what everybody can do, and start to work from that standpoint. I’m also really fascinated by new processes. If I haven’t seen a technique used before, I’m really interested.

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And what about your most recent "Encounter" collection of leather bags? What can you tell us about the design process or construction?

Design-wise, I try to strip things down to the barest bones. One of the main reasons I wanted to design these bags is because I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could make a bag even simpler. By removing the lining and working with the tannery to stain the backside olive, we reduced the amount of materials, but the bag is still structurally sound. Normally, you have to put paper and plastic in a bag to give it structure, but these bags have enough floppiness to them that they feel natural, but still have shape. My goal is reduction: Let’s strip things down to their barest bones, but then use good materials to tell great stories.

What inspired the short film that accompanies the collection?

The film is about a young boy who finds a letter in an attic of an old barn. It's in a duffel bag. He carries that duffel bag as he gets older, and he keeps reading the letter. The letter was written by his father, who’s in the war, basically saying that he’s gotten orders and it doesn’t look he’s going to return. He wrote the letter to tell his son everything he would have told him in a lifetime—about how to be a man of character. It’s a really emotional piece, but that’s what I wanted to get at with the bags. We’re not only creating something that you’ll carry in your lifetime, but something you’ll pass from one generation to the next. A lot of people have touched on that angle, but I really want to push guys towards this idea that if you’re going to pass something on, also make the moment special. Take your son out and you say, “I’m giving you this duffel bag because I want you to experience the world in new ways. These are experiences from my life and here you go.”

We’ve also heard that you host a weekly cocktail club. How did that come about?

When we first started doing the furniture, everyone was telling us to open a showroom in Beverly Hills or Hollywood. But I was like, "That’s not what we’re doing. We’re making a product that’s inspired by young talent, and we’re making it in east LA. I want to be close to here." But at the same time, I was a little worried that no one would come down here, so we decided to start serving coffee to anyone who walked in. For the first seven months of the business, I opened up the door at 8:00 AM and served coffee until 11:00 AM every single morning. I had so much fun and got to meet so many people, but by the end of the year, we got a little tired. We eventually shut it down, but then everyone kept asking for it. So we recently decided to do coffee on Monday mornings and cocktails on Friday nights. It became a little cocktail club. We call it the BDCC—for the Back Door Coffee Club or the Back Door Cocktail Club.

Kenn's complete collection of furniture and leather goods can be purchased on his webstore.

Photos by Taroq Dixon

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