The problem of living with known design icons is that you they tend to suck the air out of a space. They lose their identity as functional pieces, and become Objects with a capital “O”. It’s a little like having that designer handbag: what a lot of people see is the logo, the recognizable shape, not the craftsmanship and artistry and its smartness. It doesn’t matter how much you tell them you just love it, they just think you bought it because of the label.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Pieces can have a strong point of view without being egotistical or self-conscious. The secret? Combining strong design (great visual balance, functionality, comfort) with deep craftsmanship which softens and deepens the design, creating texture and interest not possible on more mass-produced products.
It’s hard to get that balance right, but John Liston – San Francisco and NY-based furniture and object designer/maker – surely does.
John’s interest in the worlds of design and making started early: a self-described “military brat” who spent time overseas (mostly in England and in Germany) he spent his vacations traveling around Europe on every school break. By the time he moved back to the US when he was 11, he had stamps from 22 different countries in his passport.
The architecture and decorative art he saw influenced him to go into design: he received a degree in metalwork and jewelry from the Rochester Institute of Technology. While he enjoyed the jewelry making, this athlete (he grew up playing plenty of soccer, tennis, skiing, and snow boarding) grew to realize that he enjoyed the full body aspect of making larger objects.
So after college, he went to work at an art metal foundry called Polich Art Works, doing work for artists such as Frank Stella, Louis Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Maya Lin. From this enviable start, he moved out to the San Francisco Bay Area and began working, starting up his own shop while working at another foundry.
The thing that distinguishes John from other makers is that he is material-agnostic, as long as that material is great. He works as happily in wood, glass, and metal and is completely fearless, something he ascribes to his experience in the foundry.
His visual signature? Strong lines, and a sense of texture and movement. But the execution of this can come in eye-catching pops of color or in more subtle chairs, a stunning shou-sugi-ban drinks cabinet and lighting.
All this talent has won him lots of notice, including the American Craft Council San Francisco show’s Award of Excellence in 2012. It was his first show, ever. This was followed by inclusion in the Museum of Craft and Design’s prestigious West Coast Design 2.
Most recently, he’s been creating leather and seating. He loves negative shapes and likes to be able to see through things, but still have form. And for that, he’s been turning to leather, which adds further dimension by moulding to the form of the body.
John’s successfully created the all-important post-plumen/distressed wood/steampunk aesthetic while bringing into his work the soul and perfect imperfection that only comes with the work of the hand.
And if John’s work becomes an icon in the future? Then you can just smile mysteriously and shrug, and say you bought it because you loved it. Just keep your smugness to yourself.