The Southern California spirit is infectious. It has seeped into everything, from fashion to art to music and even interior design. No one is immune to this spirit – native or non-native. Such is the case with designer Sean Knibb, who today is introducing a series of gorgeous white Carrara marble tables with incredibly precise details of crumpled t-shirts and jean shorts that are concepted in his studio in Venice Beach and carefully etched and sculpted into the marble surface by Italian artisans. The entire process takes 700 hours. Upon first inspection, you can’t believe you aren’t looking at white cotton t-shirts and jean shorts – that is until you notice the veins of the marble and feel the cold, hard surface. Down to the ribbing of the collar and the fringe on the jean shorts – all the minute details are there. It is a strange juxtaposition indeed – until you realize how beautiful and unique the tables are in all their complexity. The series of tables, entitled Casa Canova, are a testament to the designer’s inventiveness and creativity, which has been applied to everything from landscape design to hotel design. Knibb was actually applying his design prowess to the Line Hotel in Los Angeles when the idea for these tables originated – two of which can be seen at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF), which opens today in New York City. We got a chance to talk to Knibb before the fair to discuss the easy breezy influence of Southern California and the design concept behind his new marble tables.
Oliver Kupper: What was your first introduction to design? Was there anything specific that made you want to become a designer?
Sean Knibb: From an early age, I was always interested in making things. It’s always been a big part of what I wanted to do as a grown-up, or what I thought would be interesting to do. So I was always thinking about how to make something or make something for someone. My dad was into design and liked nice things. We grew up in that kind of environment.
OK: Did you grow up in LA?
SK: Yeah, my brother and I moved to LA when we were about five. We lived in Manhattan Beach. And then we moved to Playa Del Rey, Venice. We’ve been up there a long time. We bebopped around the place quite a bit. Pretty much, that’s been home for the majority of my life.
OK: You were originally a landscape designer. You went from landscape design to hotel design. How did that transition occur?
SK: It’s funny, before I was a landscape designer, I was a furniture guy. I made furniture. The jump was—for me it seemed—very gradual. I started doing these interiors for restaurants for friends. Then, over a couple of years, one of the restaurants got noticed. We won an AIA award. That restaurant was the catalyst for the hotel developers to look at my work. That was the project that actually brought the attention, but the desire to do that was there for a long time.
OK: California—Los Angeles particularly—has been a big influence on your design. Is there anything specific about California or Los Angeles that inspires your work?
SK: I think space. There’s a freedom in LA or in California that gives me the feeling of being able to experiment and being able to do new things without feeling whatever pressures you might be feeling in another location—whether it’s Europe, New York. There’s a general acceptance and freedom. I always say it’s like the Wild Wild West. It is the Wild Wild West. That, to me, is the freedom of the ability to express yourself—whether it’s garden or interior or furniture or rubber or Carrara marble. It makes more of a vibe of creativity. I think the movie business plays into that. People in the movie business used to say, “You’re only as good as your last picture.” Trying to always come with something fresh and a new take on things, but still have substance. It has that feeling.
OK: Your new series—t-shirts and jeans in Carrara marble—it’s a very interesting juxtaposition, contradiction, or dichotomy, if you will. I’m thinking of Ed Ruscha or John Baldessari—these artists that the vibe of California was the major influence on them. Even in jazz, too. It’s interesting to find out how LA inspires people in these different ways. Where did the idea for including jeans and t-shirt patterns in marble come from? Where was that inspiration from?
SK: I’ve been looking and studying—whether it’s Bernini or Canova—all of this stuff that’s happening in Europe and happened in Europe. If I’m going to be a designer, what am I going to use to tell my point of view now? So looking at all this stuff—they were carving the things that they saw—elegant women dressed in robes, all of the stuff that was happening around them. I kept looking around and going, “What the fuck are we doing right now? What’s the fabric of today? What can I pick up on?” For me, the whole idea of, “What do jeans mean?”—torn, cut off jeans, chicks in jeans, and guys in jeans. Then t-shirts and how we’ve morphed into $150 t-shirts or $200 t-shirts. We still have $5 t-shirts. What is this particular object? How do you go from 5 bucks all the way to 200 bucks when it’s still just a t-shirt? There’s the idea to play with the symbolism of it and to carve it into marble. That, for me, really personifies the ability to take a simple thing and turn it into an extravagant thing, to take these shapes that we really take for granted and to apply those in the marble or in the space.
OK: And that references where we are now?
SK: It does reference where we are right now, but also says, “Hey, what do you stand for?” Can I use these things that we take for granted in a way that brings some insight and some pause into what’s happening. Also, to use the fabric of where we are right now. I’m not in Italy with the acanthus leaves and the Corinthian columns that have just been formed. I’m in LA with all these icons and they’re wearing t-shirts, or the worker that’s wearing a t-shirt. Everything’s homogenized into one thing. Let’s use that. Let’s make that feel luxurious. That’s how it started. And I’ve been fucking around with figuring out how to take fabric—other people have been doing it too. They just bail it up and ship it to India or Africa. We were toying with how to make cool seating with it. Take the stuff that we’re using and throwing away and figuring out how to bring it back in. Not just recycling, but make it feel uber now.
OK: How long does the process take? How many people does it take to work on one piece?
SK: I do the compositions in the studio and then we send it over to Carrara. It takes about three months for one piece. It takes two guys to carve it. One is a rough carver and modeling, and the other person is more the detail. They work together and then we go back and forth about little details. It’s really two people that do it.
OK: Do you go there and hand-select the marble? Are you involved in that part of the process?
SK: No, it wouldn’t be wise for me to select the marble. They select the marble based on what the composition is and the depth of the relief and what we’re working with. The first t-shirts were a little bit looser so the marble didn’t have to be so perfect. For the jean shorts, because there are areas that don’t have any carving on the piece, we needed a really nice, crisp background, so a cleaner piece of marble was chosen. That’s something that I really entrust to the guys to work through.
OK: And they’ve been doing this for generations?
SK: Oh yeah, this goes way back to the beginning.
OK: From a practical standpoint, as a designer or interior designer, where would you recommend putting one of these tables? They’re functional, right?
SK: Yeah, they’re functional. It depends. It depends on your level of commitment, I think. It can be purely a decorative or occasional piece. Or it can be something that you engage with on a daily basis. It’s your level of commitment—whether it’s in your dining room or in your kitchen.
OK: Yeah, there’s a lot that goes into it. What are you trying to communicate as a designer? What’s your ultimate message? Is there anything blatant or not so blatant that you’re trying to communicate?
SK: I don’t, personally, go into it with a specific message in mind. It’s more about sensitivity and thought about whatever my current mood might be, or what’s at the forefront of my thinking. In design, for me, it’s not so poignant in every move. There are moments of poignancy, but I like the idea that it’s very individualistic. I don’t try to put too much wording and text and my point of view so heavily in the forefront. I let the piece be more dynamic and have its own life and own way to thread through whoever is looking at it or engaging with it.
“Casa Canova” will be view from May 16 to 19 at Booth 1955 at ICFF, Javits Center, 655 W. 34th St., New York. Tables are available for sale by request. Text and Interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper