Designer Stephen Kenn on his Victorinox collection
Words Kevin Braddock
Photographs Trent McMinn
When LA-based designer Stephen Kenn was invited to work in collaboration with Victorinox, it offered an opportunity for him to explore the multi-functional in his work: finding new meaning and new uses for familiar forms…
Friday is a good day in LA. A social day. And being California, a sunny day too. Friday is the day when the designer Stephen Kenn and his wife Beks Opperman (who does the business side of things while her husband does the design) roll up the metal grill, shunt the motorbikes out onto the empty McGarry Street, and invite sunshine and friends into their single-storey live/work space, rooted somewhere Downtown.
It is a good Friday for us to drink coffee and shoot the breeze, and step out into the street, staring past those motorbikes (a burnished Honda and a grizzled Triumph) into the LA vanishing point under the burning sun.
Kenn is actually Canadian, but this warm angular man, with his plunging black V-neck T-shirt and biker boots, could pass for a gnarly native Los Angelean any day. Mainly, it’s the attitude: the boots, the bike and the black clothes aren’t an act, something performed for the sake of an advert. They’re made of can-do stuff: they’re optimists and frontiersmen (and women) in the best sense of the word. Building things, making stuff, making the most of life in that North American way. Enjoying the sunshine, and drinking the best coffee that God can give.
What Stephen Kenn specialises in is making furniture: robust, muscular furniture which, like those motorbikes, shows its soul on the outside. Chairs, sofas, ottomans and other objects made with welded steel exostructures, heavy-duty webbing straps and upcycled fabric upholstery, which are both completely modern and in thrall to the hidden narratives of history all at the same time. Kenn sees himself as part of ‘a new generation of designer who is inspired by the past and yet working with the technology and connectivity of the present.’ He is also keen to point out that he is very much a designer rather than an artist. ‘Design for me is problem solving,’ says Kenn. ‘Using a form to solve a function. Art is free from that, art gets to be beauty or to be challenging, or whatever it needs to be for whatever its intent is – and I love that about art. But design is incredible because you’re making something that someone gets to use and gets to benefit from. Ultimately I believe design is a language through which you can communicate with other people. If I identify a problem in my life, and through design solve the problem, then it’s free for other people, it’s out there. It’s been addressed. I love that I can address a problem and someone on the other side of the world can address the problem, and go about that in a completely different way.’
Along with the urge to construct, there’s also the urge to deconstruct in Kenn’s work: taking things apart to see how they function – in order to make them function better – and reveal the process along the way. For the past five years or so, Kenn has been designing furniture, but his adventure began rather longer ago: first with denim, at the age of 20, launching a brand named Iron Army with a friend in Edmonton, Alberta, buying thrift-store jeans, unpicking and rebuilding them.
Then, one day in LA, Kenn discovered a warehouse packed to the rafters with army surplus apparel, duffel bags, tents, chandlery, leather goods and so on, and gradually he began producing reconstructed totes, backpacks and more from stuff that was ‘dusty and unappreciated’.
This process of breaking things down to rebuild them also informs his latest project, conceived in conjunction with Victorinox, the marque behind what’s possibly the ultimate user-defined object: the Swiss Army Knife. ‘When you’re younger, there is the frugality of being poor – so something has to do two things,’ he says. Having gone through a stage in his development as a designer where he had been more singular in his approach (‘let that bag be a bag, that sofa be a sofa’), Kenn has now fully embraced the concept of multi-functionality once more, partly inspired by an appreciation of the space pressures of modern living, where ‘a table has to be a desk, a bed has to convert into a sofa,’ as he explains. ‘I’ve always been drawn to that idea. So with this project, I put that restriction on myself. Victorinox made this tiny little thing that does so many functions – but there’s also a simplicity to the single form that it is. So when they said they wanted three different pieces, I wanted to think about three different problems that we could create solutions for.’
It’s a natural pairing for Kenn, whose signature has been furniture that’s cool, contemporary and comfy at the same time: these objects with their utilitarian fabric upholstering and their exposed steel frames: ‘A rugged utilitarian approach to the design,’ as he puts it.
Kenn is also inspired by the idea that ‘pairing old and new should happen constantly.’ He wants his customers to ask themselves – ‘Is this vintage, is this new?’ – when they see his designs. The appeal of his pieces is partly in how they combine such elements of utilitarianism with comfy furnishings – but do so through the undecorated, the rudimentary, the elemental, and the downright honest. (‘It’s about transparency,’ Kenn says. ‘I dislike traditional upholstered furniture because it’s just a mass; it’s nothing interesting.’) Indeed, ‘bones, muscles and skin’ is the scheme Kenn uses to conceptualise the essential parts of any piece of furniture. ‘I don’t want to just take a traditional form, I want to rethink the way furniture is made,’ he says.
Here comes more deconstruction. Taking a sofa as an example, he explains how he will break it down into three elements: so the wooden frame, the metal springs and the upholstery become bones, muscles and skin. ‘I thought, how do I make this more transparent?’
Typically, Kenn takes the literal route. You want transparent design? He’ll ask a welder friend to make him up a frame – the bones – across which he can start to build up the muscles and skin. It’s an approach that has led to a eureka moment for him – and one that he applies to the Victorinox project – an understanding of how ‘we can create environments that tell stories.’
Kenn’s own environment tells plenty of stories too. Strolling around the low-rise, anonymous streets of Los Angeles, you’d never suspect that such a cultivated, maker-ish couple live on the other side of that grill. Were you to visit Kenn’s workshop, deeper into the endless LA sprawl, you might also be surprised at just how restrained the palette he designs with is. We look at some leather swatches and glance over mounds of former army tents, piles of leather and bales of sail material. Along with the fabric and the tough webbing straps (available in muted tones from olive and grey to charcoal and indigo), there are the nickel, copper, and brass finishes he can apply to furniture frames: hues that all signal age, use and warmth – colours that beg to be touched. ‘I’m interested in material that ages well and gets better or tells a story,’ he says. ‘I’m driven by curiosity, always looking for things that grab my attention. When I found the warehouse I wanted to spend as much time there as possible.’
With much of the raw material, it’s the sense of history woven into each piece that most interests him as a designer. ‘It’s a huge asset to take a material used for one purpose and use it towards another,’ he says. ‘The story you’re getting is inherent, there are memories associated with it.’
One thing becomes another, and comes to mean something new to someone else. Things are deconstructed, reimagined and repurposed in a world where meaning has never been less fixed. What’s safe to say is that Stephen Kenn’s robust, functional yet enigmatic designs provide people with somewhere to lounge, think and work –
on which to hang their own dreams and stories. Hence it seems appropriate that he’s been engaged in this new collaboration with Victorinox. It consists of three multi-functional designs: a chair that folds out into a stepladder, a drafting desk that folds down into a coffee table, and a storage column that can variously be used as a set of shelves, a full-length mirror, a wardrobe and messageboard all in one.
‘The chair that becomes a stepladder was originally a thing that a friend came to me with: he has a very short girlfriend and wanted this to be a gift to her, so she can reach whatever is on the top shelf,’ says Kenn. ‘It’s something that’s been designed before, so my challenge was to use materials and make a form that is surprising. We’re doing a sling leather for the back and on the seat – traditionally it would have a hard, rigid seat and back, and the goal is for it to be comfortable.’
The desk that converts into a coffee table explores another strand of the design brief that intrigued Kenn. ‘I wanted there to be an interaction where people have to pull the legs out, put the table down, put the legs back in the other way and then tip it up,’ he says. ‘You don’t move from wanting a desk to a table in a few minutes, and then want to go back and change it. It’s an intentional decision, and we’re trying to think through the user experience of all these things, and then use the right materials.’
The storage column, meanwhile, is perhaps the most analogous to the classic Swiss Army Knife: ‘As you look at each face, it serves a different function – full-length mirror, storage cupboard, retractable shelves and then a messageboard that’s magnetic.’
These seem appropriate executions, since Kenn sees his work as facilitation first and foremost: striving towards human stories that are bigger than mere ‘stuff’: an enabler of experience, hinting at something deeper. There are parallels here with the Swiss Army Knife itself: a classic piece of design passed down between the generations.
‘I wrestled for a long time with the fact that I was making products in general,’ Kenn says. ‘The world doesn’t need more stuff: bags, jeans, furniture. So why am I making more? If I can make things really well, embed a story in them and remind people that there is something they should be pursuing in their life, then it’s more likely they will act courageously and they will pass that story along to the next generation. Certain objects, when they’re passed along, are worthy of telling stories.’