Spring is just around the corner so now is the time to start thinking about outdoor living. With the warm welcome of sunny days ahead, let me introduce the Zen Outdoor Bench by Aric Mayer and Marni Saling of Aidan Olive. The Zen Outdoor Bench is beautifully crafted using local materials, local builders, and local facilities. Enjoy the Q&A!
I am very curious about both of your previous experiences or “past lives”…
Aric, you appear to be a man of many artistic talents. I noticed that you have worked with all sorts of mediums such as paint, wood, film, photography…you even learned how to build your own tools! How has your artistic background impacted your designs and business practices? How would you describe your design style/philosophy?
AM: It seems that what I work in comes first from a personal need to be in that medium. Then I start at the beginning and strip the materials back to their basics. With painting for a while I went all the way back to Vasari’s notes and made all my own paint and ground from scratch, finding and grinding pigments, etc. With photography I built my own cameras and made my own emulsions. Doing this really gives one a closeness to the material and an ownership of its processes. From there I start to look at a need that there is for something to exist. Those discoveries just come out of living.
I’m attracted to design because it has such relevance to the user in her or his daily life. The late art critic Clement Greenberg called for a re-integration of the aesthetic in the west into our daily objects. He used Africa as an example of a place full of cultures where the aesthetic was never removed from daily life. Traditionally in Africa everything has a life and a soul in addition to its practical function. Well, I was born and raised in Kenya and can really appreciate his point. In design this integration can be achieved in a way that is meaningful to the user on a daily basis and I’m drawn to the holistic potential that is there. It is possible to make an object that is useful and beautiful and functional and in a way alive. This is very exciting.
I am also moved by the traditional Japanese relationship to wood. It used to be that if a Japanese family had a daughter, they would go out and cut down a tree, rough mill the lumber and put it up in their eaves. However many years later, when that daughter was ready to start a family, they would call a master carpenter who would come and make furniture for her out of that same wood that was cut at her birth. This attention to material as having an important role in our own life cycles is beautiful.
Marni, I almost did a quadruple take when I saw that you were recently an Advertising Director for Comedy Central at MTV Networks, and had previous jobs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Woodland Park Zoo. How might one go from Advertising Director for Comedy Central to starting your own outdoor furniture business?! How have your previous jobs influenced running Aidan Olive?
MS: Well, we had a set of twins, Chloe and Laszlo. Leaving Comedy Central was a hard decision. It was one of the best jobs I have ever had and I enjoyed all eight years. The people were fantastic and I left there with many friends. But spending time with the wee ones seemed the best decision and let me tell you running an Advertising Department, with multi million dollar campaigns was way easier than corralling two small babies. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
When deciding to start Aidan Olive, I know I could utilize the talents I had learned about branding and introducing new products from Comedy Central and use them for our company. Also believing in and enjoying the product as I do, it was an easy decision and has been a really fun challenge.
Coming to a small town like Bellingham allows one to get to know the vendors that are a part of Aidan Olive personally and lets us get involved in a community that embraces entrepreneurship and hand built items. All of the places I have worked have required a love of the unconventional, whether it is an unknown comedian or a budding dance or theater company. This works in our favor for starting Aidan Olive.
What roles do each of you play within the business?
AM: I’m the dreamer and general mad scientist.
MS: I’m the business director. I try and keep our feet on the ground.
How do you come up with your designs? Where do you get your inspiration? Any particular designers influence your work?
AM: The Bauhaus philosophy of art and design really appeals to me. The cross pollination that is possible between media enriches them all. It is wonderful and exciting to work across media borders because so much design and art have similar foundations. For instance, the concepts of negative space translate across all media from painting to photography to design and into sculpture. But in each medium they play out a bit differently. In design I always feel that the users are the starting point. They are the beginning negative space that the product must be built around and they are the invisible presence that must be related to throughout the process.
Lately I have been looking a lot at David Adjaye’s architecture. The way that he strikes a balance between his African heritage and modernism is prescient to how I think the future is going to play out. He constantly recycles space and buildings to create something new without completely destroying what is old.
MS: I have always been a fan of Eames and I think that there is always a chance to streamline and clarify furniture. Combine that with an appreciation for the outdoors and a desire to bring clean lines and aesthetics to outdoor furniture that fit in with the landscape. I grew up with a boatbuilding father. We lived on a 52 foot wood sailboat in the San Juan Islands of the Northwest. Good woodwork was always quite literally underfoot and wood meets the landscape right outside the main hatch.
I have to confess to being a sucker for benches. In a store full of a variety of seating options, I am nearly always drawn to the benches. What design components were key to your construction of the Zen Outdoor Bench?
AM: One of our favorite things in the world is to sit outside with good friends, good wine and excellent food. If everyone is comfortable and the weather is good, this can stretch on for many hours. On other days, just sitting alone under the sky and letting the world fall away for a bit is about as good as it gets. A great bench is the perfect platform to build these experiences around. The first and main design criterion is that it has to be comfortable to sit on. Once that was established, then the rest could come together visually. I just love the armatures for the seat and back. I never tire of looking at how weight on the bench is distributed around the joinery.
If you could place the Zen Outdoor Bench anywhere in the world where would it be? (i.e. on the highest dune in Morocco, outside the Parthenon, on the deck of your favorite designer or artists’s home, etc.)
AM: Anywhere that someone gets some enjoyment from it…
MS: On a beach in Tahiti, with me sitting on it!
I am pleased to see that you “offer a product design and built by a community.” Running a business using local materials, builders, and facilities as you do puts a real person behind your product, which I love. How has this impacted your design and ultimately your product?
AM: I think it has made it more humane. I have been interested in the whole concept of sustainability since I was a child. For my eleventh birthday I asked for a lifetime subscription to The Mother Earth News (which I didn’t get.) As we see the world globalize, and capital and manufacturing are able to move around so much faster and more efficiently, we also need models for how we can create economically sustainable local communities as well. One model is to create a vertically integrated design and manufacturing process that one can own from start to finish. This is not only great for communities, but it is great for the design as well.
What is next for Aidan Olive? Next we will be rolling out a matching table and chair, and have a lot in development in the studio.