Q&A – Kate Greenberg

Words by Brett Winchester
Photography by Sahra Jajarmikhayat
Photography by Federico Floriani
Photography by Cody James Perhamus
Photography by Gabrielle Greenberg

Furniture designer and maker Kate Greenberg is known for her subtle and evocative work that reflects a melded view of the built and natural worlds. Based in Oakland, California, she finds joy in challenging traditional ideas of personal comfort and expression.

TLP: Tell us about your creative path and how you got to where you are now professionally?

KG: My path was certainly a winding road. I didn’t know anyone in the design field or construction growing up, so I wasn’t aware these professions existed as options. I studied mathematics and art history in college, which led me to pursuing architecture – and then had the realisation that I hated being on the computer in an office all day. Once I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where there’s this huge manufacturing underbelly, I discovered metal fabrication and threw myself into the deep end. Soon enough, though, I was craving to have my hands on the entire process from start to finish and returned to school to study furniture design. Though it took a good de-cade, I finally found and fell in love with furniture design; it’s the perfect intersection of so many things with which I resonate, like history, hands-on techniques, theoretical thinking and material understanding. However, I was blissfully unaware of the perils of trying to make a career out of it in America. The last few years, I’ve been slowly chipping away at my practice, which fluctuates between concept-oriented art, product design and furniture manufacturing.

My work questions contemporary notions of the home, offering an alternative to the objects and habits we are accustomed to.

TLP: What is your design philosophy?

KG: Don’t get caught up in other people’s ideas of desirable design. Seek comfort in your objects and in your space, but really ask what comfort means for you. Play that out in your private world, take risks with your lifestyle and your home. Find objects with which you deeply identify, made by an actual human. These things create an undefinable connection between the life of the artist or maker and your life thereafter.

TLP: What themes do you explore in your work and why?

KG: My work questions contemporary notions of the home, offering an alternative to the objects and habits we are accustomed to. Things like how we efficiently store goods, sit at a table or create lighting for a room for day and night. I gather visual motifs from my architectural surroundings and from phenomena in nature and try to reason with them through the lens of furniture. I like to think my work pursues an abbreviated, twisted version of domestic history. I’ve always identified with architectural phenomenology, where the feeling or emotional experience precedes the physical thing. When I began designing furniture, I wanted to investigate that type of effect and see if I could start with the feeling, the intangible dream, the fleeting thought. This exercise usually ends with an object that doesn’t quite fit into a familiar box.

TLP: What emotive response do you aim to evoke?

KG: Ideally, when you look at my work, you feel slightly confused and then engaged and congenial. If one of my pieces moves you, makes you want to spend time with it or live with it –you may not even know why – this feels successful to me.

I was raised in a house full of black and white photography and became naturally accustomed to seeing life in instants – fragile and chaotic, but balanced.

TLP: What primarily drives the final outcome of your work–function, form or material?

KG: Form drives the initial design, but function comes greatly into play as I home in on the details and start to imagine the piece in use. One of the best things about starting with form is you quickly realise there are infinite possibilities. Designers have only scratched the surface. This is not always true for hu-man-driven function, which is dictated by our wants and needs and societal structures. When I’m working with a material like steel, which I’ve had extensive traditional training with, the material becomes more of a subconscious element. I am already aware of its language – how it cuts, bends, melts, machines, patinas. On the other hand, when I incorporate materials I’ve had less experience with – like glass – I must listen to the feedback from the material itself and let it define the design. Sometimes this means playing up a material’s shortcomings, which some-one with more classical training might not venture to do.

TLP: How do you approach materials and composition?

KG: I was raised in a house full of black and white photography and became naturally accustomed to seeing life in instants – fragile and chaotic, but balanced. Furniture is a stagnant form of art, as opposed to music, and I find myself designing with the idea that the object is in motion, and we are just seeing it momentarily. I find irregular, asymmetrical compositions provide the most fulfilment when engaging with a piece in its three dimensionality. My work usually includes some contrasting textures, such as an immaterial hue of light against cold, hard metal. Lately, I’ve been trying to bring in materials that are less familiar. These require some parameters for experimentation, a lot of patience and eventually a discovery of how I personally relate to the materials. Then I can begin to use them.

“I’ve always identified with architectural phenomenology, where the feeling or emotional experience precedes the physical thing.”

TLP: What are some challenges you encounter in your work?

KG: I always want to push the envelope a bit with a concept or aesthetic, but I also want the pieces to be very live-able – not too fragile, fully functional and comfortable. Striking a balance between those two desires can be exhausting, but it’s so important that the end user or client adopts the piece into their lifestyle and takes part in transforming its identity over many years. Aside from mental hurdles, I am admittedly always facing technical challenges. Sometimes this comes as a blessing, because I am coming up with backdoor solutions and formulating my own way of making so I do not feel the pressure to attain some set level of craftsmanship. But I would be lying if I said the making process comes easy to me. Every project brings its own complete journey.

TLP: What do you find helps when you’re feeling uninspired or stuck?

KG: I drink more caffeine! No, just kidding. I’ll go for a meditative walk and try to think about literally anything else – the wind, breathing, surrounding sounds – and from there I let my mind wander into memories and thoughts. If I’m designing with pencil on paper and it’s feeling like I’m trying too hard and it’s simply not working, I’ll turn to a different method: clay moulding, collaging, paperfolding, wire bending. These methods feel like they have limitations, which is sometimes helpful when in a rut. Though it may sound obvious, research goes along way, especially when the research has nothing to do with design. I can easily spend weeks on JSTOR or in the library if I’m designing a new conceptual piece and I don’t understand what the form will look like. I won’t necessarily translate raw information, but it will usually lead me somewhere.

TLP: What are you working on now?

KG: This past summer, I’ve been fulfilling product orders – a set of dining chairs and a coffee table – and making smaller custom objects for a residential interior. Work is more straightforward right now. I was fully steeped in my creative realm during the first half of this year with a spatial lighting and sound exhibition in Milan. Since then, I’ve been in execution mode and slowly planting seeds for next year.

TLP: What’s next for you?

KG: I am developing a set of new designs for someone near and dear to me, but don’t want to reveal much yet. There is also a collaboration in the works, which has been a long time coming. Having worked alone for a couple years, I cannot wait to have a dialogue with another artist with whom I’m aligned but can also push my thinking to its outer limits. I’m excited to get my work up onto a few international online platforms in the next few months. Though I currently live and work in California, it’s never quite felt like the provenance of my designs. My goal into the next year is to keep extending outside of the little world here.