How to Make It

It’s What You Put into It

Wava Carpenter

Brooklyn designer Stefan Rurak extracts value from the simplest materials through physicality, risk-taking, and intention

Challenging the boundaries that separate art and design is well trod territory in Design Miami’s world, from the fair’s early years when the term “design-art” arose around the work of Studio Job, Maarten Baas, and the Campana Brothers, up to the present, as work from Katie Stout, Misha Kahn, and the Haas Brothers attracts the label “collectible design.” While definitive language for cross-disciplinary creativity continues to elude us, Stefan Rurak has been busy in his Brooklyn studio hand-crafting beautiful yet functional furniture that, at first glance, seems to fit comfortably in the design category. The way he makes what he makes, though, has more in common with the body-centric approaches of 20th-century painters and performance artists than with the narrative-driven output of his 21st-century peers.

Low Table IV by Stefan Rurak, 2021, from his Action Series. Photo © Todd Merrill Studio

The arduous, visceral nature of Rurak’s current creative process can be traced to his former life as a performance artist. Inspired by 1960s-70s icons like Yoko Ono and Chris Burden, whose pioneering artworks were all about testing the endurance (and safety) of their bodies, Rurak spent a chunk of his twenties locked in car trunks, refrigerators, and other confined spaces in pursuit of making art for its own sake. About that more “hardcore” time in his life, he says, “Putting your body on the line—pushing your body to the limits—is pure, because there’s no reason to do it other than to see if you can.”

Table Lamps from Stefan Rurak's Action Series. Photo © Todd Merrill Studio

Rurak’s identity as an artist began to switch over to designer following a chance visit to a woodworking studio. Attracted to a new kind of creative physicality—meditative yet exacting labor that contributes something useful to the world—he became a woodworker’s apprentice. Within a few years, he was running his own furniture-making business catering to architects and interior designers. “I rejected art totally for about five years,” Rurak explains, “until it just started to flow back in.”

Over the last decade, Rurak’s practice has become increasingly hard to pigeonhole along the traditional art-design divide as his focus evolved from wood to metal, mastering welding and patination before pursuing the untapped potential of concrete. Along the way, he began to see the essentialist forms of his furniture as canvases and his proprietary mixtures of patinas and cement as something akin to paint.

Inside Stefan Rurak's studio. Photos © Christina Wnek

Rurak’s practice today, embodied in his recent Action Series for Todd Merrill Studio, confirms that his pivot to design work did not diminish his appetite for experimental, hard-won artistic expression. He achieves vibrant, layered surfaces, ranging from the graphical to the impasto-like, through gestural bodily actions, pouring, daubing, and slinging various media—acids, pigmented mortar, and more—until he’s visually satisfied with the compositions. Watching Ruruk stand astride a sheet of steel with sloshing bucket in hand, it’s hard not to think of Jackson Pollock at work on a drip painting.

Inside Stefan Rurak's studio. Photos © Christina Wnek

Though an element of art-for-art's-sake has reemerged in Rurak’s work, he remains committed to “the realm of utility,” as he calls it. He explains that self-imposed limitations like functionality help him focus his creativity. “I like to find the exponential permutations within the limiting frame,” he says. Rurak also purposefully constrains his material repertoire around the most basic and inexpensive “everyman’s materials,” he says, like steel and concrete, because he can extract value from them only through the efforts of his body, his know-how, and the intuitive dialogue has carries on with each object during the process of making.

Low Table VIII by Stefan Rurak, 2022, from his Action Series. Photo © Todd Merrill Studio

“With simple materials, the value comes from what you put into it, and the results reveal the action you take,” Rurak says. “Mark making is performative, and marks are truth. It’s physical, requiring endurance and intention. It’s also intuitive and high stakes, because you can’t undo an action. There’s a lot of sitting and staring, trying to access the feeling. It either works or it doesn’t. And when it does, it’s magic.”◆


Stefan Rurak’s work is available in the Design Miami/ Shop through Todd Merrill Studio. And stay tuned for Design Miami/ 2022 this December, where Rurak’s work—including a new upholstered seating collection and large-scale fireplace— will take center stage in Todd Merrill Studio’s booth.