Spotlight: America(s)

American Design Stories: Jeff Martin

Anna Carnick

The Vancouver designer and newly minted gallerist on hard work, reinvesting in community, and more

In the American Design Stories series, we ask designers from across the Americas to share their insights on American design today, along with three images that represent their vision of American design.

We’re pleased to share our conversation with Vancouver-based designer—and newly minted gallerist—Jeff Martin. Following years of work expertly crafting his own and other high-end designers’ works—as well as leading Excavated Vessels, a line of cool-as-can-be, cork-formed glass objects created from the waste of other production processes—Martin has recently launched an in-studio gallery space, Alpenglow Projects, to represent emerging design talent across Canada and beyond.

Vancouver-based designer and gallerist Jeff Martin. Photo © Jeff Martin

What does “America” mean to you?

I see it as broadly from the south pole in Ushuaia to the north pole and the Baffin Islands, including all nations, cultures, and distinct but connected histories in our hemisphere. What it distills down, creatively, to is an approach to work perhaps that is either eons old in age, like bent cedar boxes, or devoid of the trappings of conscripted production practices. And there is an immense amount of freedom in the latter.

What does “American design” mean to you today?

We are permitted, in contemporary design here, to approach things with a certain naivety and enterprising, intuitive, and unbounded expression that perhaps other cultures have not been so permissive of. I think Chris Schanck’s work is totally exemplary of this. His ability to completely define his working materials and parameters, and then go about 10 steps further into the process of making his work that he is building his own code of work. His studio is his art.

I think that American design is best understood as design created by a group of scavengers—scavengers of offcast materials. We are sponges for ideas, and we have the cultural permission to explore. I look to one of my friends, Steven Haulenbeek, and see his practice as completely holistic. He studied, and is, an incredible photo-realist illustrator. And he lays out his ideas via drawing.: Drills flying in from outer space to puncture slabs of ice. Then a boiling kettle appears and pours molten wax into its excavated mold, the ice melting and exposing the intricacies of disparity between the hot wax and frozen ice. The ideas he dives into have no precursors.  No one was doing this before him, and, as he’s a trailblazer, no one can easily catch up to him. He exudes a zealousness for creation.

Does that notion of America or American design figure into your own work?

Yes, of course. A good example would be our decision to pursue the creation of a new way of making cast objects. Our team researched patented, known, and used methods of casting metal to come up with our own, unique pursuit. We discovered that casting molten pewter directly into hand-trenched cork molds created a fantastic texture. But in order to extract the work, we had to destroy the molds.

This does a couple of things. One, it makes the work non-repeatable, so unique. And, two, it leaves us with a pile of waste from digging the metal out of the molds. So we decided to lay the wasted cork into plywood molds in order to create molds for glass blowing. Because we make our work in North America and we don’t want to create waste, the garbage of one process became the foundation material for another process.

Steven Haulenbeek's Resin Bonded Sand Cactus Lamp with Peyote button dimmer knob at Alpenglow Projects. "Steve and I have a close bond as designers," Martin says, "and I am in constant awe of his ability to make unique, collectible work from what others may deem as cast off waste materials." Photo © Jeff Martin

What American stories are you telling with your work?

I hope it’s perceived as a story of ingenuity and hard work.

What is an example of the best of American design?

Emeco is astounding. I could wax poetic about a lot of people and things really, but everyone should dive into the practices of living contemporary designers. It’s so vital. And the best are not commercially focused practices: Thaddeus Wolfe, Chris Schanck, Steven Haulenbeek, Cody Hoyt, Bari Ziperstein, and Henry Norris to name a few.

What is an example of the worst of American design?

Shoot! I’d rather not say! But let’s be honest, there are more than enough very well-funded companies with no actual designers on board who only pillage design from the greats and push everyone else out to the fringe. The commodification of a look that is not endemic to your brand is the worst way to approach business.

What are the most urgent topics that designers can and should address today?

We have major issues with recycling. But perhaps that issue comes from consumption in general. That’s a difficult question to answer in equal measure. I think as a designer you should probably start with something close to a thesis. You don’t have to be all-the-way-there with your analysis, but a general idea would be good. How does your work impact the world, the community you work in, and your own desires?  Fine tune ideas before they go public! Small caveat, if they are good ideas, get them in the public domain quickly so authorship is timestamped.

What impact have the events of the past year had on your perception of your role as a designer?

I have felt way more care for the other people in this space. I personally bought more work from others. And I have tried to be a good patron this year personally. We also designed a lot more smaller scale and approachable work. I became way more self aware of our market, and wanted to serve more people like me.

Martin's Joinery Table with Dan John Anderson Stools, Lambert et Fils Lighting, and New Format Studio Credenza at Alpenglow Projects. "All of these designers I have met on the fair circuits since my career began, and I am honored to be representing them in my new gallery space," Martin says. Photo © Jeff Martin

How have current crises figured into or impacted your studio’s experience and approach?

We have begun to explore ways that we can positively impact the communities being hurt around us. Socially, environmentally, and culturally reinvesting back into the people that make up our continent with some of our profit. And we took a forced year off from international fairs. It was interesting to have to fight for a space at the “dog dish” in our industry for several years, and the trappings of engaging in large, more commercially focused shows. I’m glad we did it.  But this year we didn’t, and our sales continued to be strong enough that we had to move to a larger space for production.  The space actually had a resin casting room with lots of natural light, so we converted that into a showroom of sorts. It’s humble at 1000 sq ft. But we began to help other artists and designers sell their work here too, for a really good split (75/25 in favor of the designers). It felt like we have been solving a few problems with that.

Where do you look for joy or optimism?

It’s all around us. I have an incredible wife and partner, and a two-year-old daughter.  And this year I was able to deal with some personal issues that have been sort of like a reset for me. In a way, this has been one of the best years of my life. I think I have found a much deeper inner peace than before.

Do you have a personal mantra?

I try to live my life with a profound admiration, respect, and acknowledgment for the ontological state of the world.: How things are, how they become a certain way, what they may become. I love how we can engage in different ways with different aspects of the natural and built world, and it’s where all of my own ideas come from.

How can the design community become more equitable? And to whom or what should the design community be paying attention right now?

I think we need more paid internships and even basic opportunities for exposure to design and craft from secondary school up. I think we need to reframe what we think of as acceptable standards of craft. I am so inspired by what is being made overseas and in Latin America, where I think the general population in Canada and the US may have these latent feelings of subpar products coming from these regions. But these areas have been so fueled by North America’s own consumption over the past hundred years, that they provide some of the absolute best in fabrication today. Just because something is “made in America” does not mean it’s better.

What gives you the most joy in your work?

Looking back once a new concept is underway. Remembering the feeling of the spark and curiosity, and continuing to push that for better and better revisions to the outcome. Be it better engineering, a more interesting form, a lower output of waste, or finding the right vendor for fabrication. It is all exciting and wonderful to me. The design never stops, and I think from the outside, many people would assume shapes and materials are what we consider all day long. Which is only partially true.

What are you most proud of in your work to date?

Knowing that some of my work resides alongside heroes of mine in really exceptional collections will always make me proud. But I think that beyond that, or press, or awards, is the sense that I have continued to design my business to become more and more like me, as a person, over the years. 

Thank you, Jeff!

Jeff Martin is a trained woodworker and designer; he is the founder of collectible design and production studio Jeff Martin Joinery and the offshoot glasswork line Excavated Vessels. As of 2020, he is also the founder of Alpenglow Projects, a contemporary design and art gallery based in Vancouver, Canada. The gallery is the latest extension of Martin’s patronage to some of the 21st century’s most exciting emerging and established creatives.

Inspired by the 2020 Design Miami/ Podium theme America(s)—and all the complexities that go along with it, especially in this moment—Anna Carnick and Wava Carpenter of Anava Projects connected with a selection of outstanding designers with personal ties to the Americas to get their take on “American” design today. Their responses were insightful, inspiring, and diverse: From thoughts on the most pressing issues and challenges facing designers now, to hopes and suggestions for a more equitable future, and reflections on their own American design journeys to date. Each story is accompanied by images provided by the designer that embody what America(s) or American design means to them.