HANNAH VAUGHAN, DESIGNER
Tell us a bit about your childhood and how it influences your work today.
I grew up in Los Angeles, California. Like most kids in LA, I spent a lot of time in a car; tent and car camping in the desert and in the front seat in traffic on the many LA freeways. Unlike most kids, my dad was an artist, and my mom, a bookbinder, so I learned how to use my hands and build things at a young age. Helping build our house (read: helping demo the old house with a sledgehammer), helping my mom in the bindery, and learning to stick weld- my childhood led me to be curious, adventurous, and not afraid to get my hands dirty, but I also just spent a lot of time in the car observing.
I would stare out the car window studying the fast moving landscape, freeway overpasses, the LA river- fully molded in concrete, or the eerie Mordor-esque fiery petroleum refineries in Long Beach. My work is deeply influenced by this fast moving view of the landscape and the marks that we as humans have made on the surface of the earth. I am often working on translating these marks or remnants of human industriousness into household objects; translating petroleum tanks into lighting fixtures, or crushed scrap metal into side tables. In grad school, I became infatuated with the endless acres of car pick apart yards outside of Detroit, Michigan- I think they reminded me of the 12 lane traffic jams of my youth. The infrastructure and power lines that lead to heavy manufacturing in Gary, Indiana also mirrored the Long Beach refineries.
My childhood taught me to keep looking out the window and to swing a sledgehammer with careless abandon.
How do you source materials and what are the preferred materials you use?
All of my designs come from material experimentation. It usually takes the form of an encounter with a found material. Sometimes only the idea and original prototype is made from the found material, and other times the design is always made with recycled materials. I’m a bit of a material magpie- always looking and collecting pieces or images of materials that inspire, ignite, or simply speak to me.
Because I work with found materials I spend a lot of time in scrap yards, pick apart yards, dumpsters, and on construction sites. I go hunting in recycling yards all over the country for interesting sheet metal that I can make the pieces from. I’m often looking for pieces that already have character to them, be it the specific pressed texture of a washing machine, interesting hole patterns from metal shelving, pressed and formed texture from car parts, or a really good color. I’m always on the look out for a specific bright orange red color.
I treat my little Subaru Impreza like a pick-up truck, rolling huge logs into the back, stacking tailgates and bails of found materials. I always have ratchet straps on hand and have built my own roof rack from wooden dowels and pool noodles in case I have to pick up something larger than can fit in the back of my ‘truck’.
Describe a specific project/ piece that you hold dear from origin to completion.
While in grad school outside of Detroit, Michigan, I saw a big pile of rusty, bent in half, cnc railings leaning against a dumpster waiting to be scrapped. The pieces had very rough, chewed up edges covered with metal slag and rust. They were all bent in a rough upside down ‘U-shape’ and leaned up against the dumpster. In the process of being stacked, some of the pieces had fallen over sideways creating a ‘greater than’ > shape. In my mind immediately- It was a chair! I saw the upside down u shape as the back and the ‘greater than’ > shape as the seat the pieces would alternate and create a chair.
After getting permission (a step I have found to be important sometimes), I saved the metal from the dumpster and jumped on and pried the material with a vice until I had two distinct curves that made up the back and seat respectively. I left the carved out edges of the material, while softening the sharp edges so it could be comfortable and not dangerous. It became the original Bent prototype.
In order to make the piece reproducible, because I have yet to come across the same material in my explorations- I took a paper pattern of the original chair curves and built two jigs to match the specific curves of the back and seat. Now, when I make new Bent chairs I take new 2” steel bar material, heat it up in my metal ‘through forge’- basically a round tube open on both sides with very hot flames shooting down from propane burners- and bend them around the homemade jigs. The back and seat pieces are then stacked and very carefully tig welded from underneath so the welds are invisible. The piece becomes a conversation about line. The chair that appeared in the pile of trash has now become a reproducible design object.
Who has been most influential to you professionally?
I have always admired the work and studio practice of contemporary designer, Max Lamb. I think we are both inherently ‘scrappy’ using whatever tools and resources around us to inspire and create. I remember learning that he started his Nanocrystalline Copper Furniture series in his apartment kitchen sink, and watched videos of him casting pewter side tables on the beach with a stick and hot plate. I identify closely with that scrappy ingenuity. Both of our studio practices have an element of performance. I love his ability to jump between very different materials and techniques, never being bound by what people think he makes. It’s a lesson that I try to hold very close to my heart. You have to let the work and material lead you, instead of trying to chase what you think people want to buy. I think a lot of designers pigeon hole themselves to a specific material or technique and lose the love of making and experimentation. For both of us, experimentation with a specific material leads the design process.
More directly, my dear friend, mentor, and one-time boss, Vivian Beer taught me how to actually work professionally as an artist. Seeing and working with someone who is running their own small design studio is the best education you can ever have. She was first my teacher for a two month long metal furniture class at Penland School of Craft in North Carolina and immediately afterwards called me up and hired me as her assistant in New Hampshire. I’ve worked with and alongside her for more than ten years. We’ve built concrete and metal furniture, large scale public artwork that wraps around buildings and spent months in the desert in an RV together. She is also incredibly scrappy (a favorite trait of mine) and has shown me how driven you have to be to make it in the design world. She is always re-creating and re-inventing her studio and practice and pushing herself to take on bigger, more complex and ambitious projects. She is one of those people who you can always count on, and who inspires you to be better at what you do.