Ben Barber // Ben Barber Studio
When I moved from New York to Vancouver, it was Ben Barber’s work that first got me excited about the design community here.
His forms and colours transport me to a simpler, more playful world. After visiting Birdman The Welder, I've become more interested in the possibilities of metal furniture. Designing and achieving those possibilities is still a bit of a mystery to me though, and Ben Barber’s Pluto Table has had me particularly spellbound. So I went to his studio at 1000 Parker Street to see if I could wrap my brain around a sphere.
When did you start making furniture?
Growing up, art was always around. My grandma was a painter. My dad was a fairly good craftsman. He wasn’t an artist by any means but he was always handy around the house. I remember using power tools at a young age.
After high school I took a year off. I was living in London for a couple months and I started soaking up all the galleries. I didn’t realize until then how much I enjoyed it. At the time I was doing some amateur photography – just fun stuff. I came back to BC and completed a program in Capilano called the Studio Art Program. It was a nice entry into art school. I applied to the design program at Emily Carr but they shut me down…three times. Then I applied to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and got accepted for sculpture, so I moved to New York.
When I graduated, I moved back to BC and started an internship making furniture with Union Wood Co. I did that for the summer. It was there that I thought, yeah, I could see myself doing this. So I started in a co-op part-time just making and exploring. Eventually I thought, you know what – I’m young, just do it. Take a risk. So I started doing this full time in 2015.
Over time, I’ve learned that the part I enjoy most is designing. I did some fabrication myself at first, but I like focusing on my specific strengths and sourcing expert craftsmen to fabricate at the high level of quality that I’m after.
I noticed that your furniture is metal, but you mentioned working in a woodworking shop first. Why did you make the switch from wood to metal?
I think initially I was always better suited to work with metal, I just didn’t know it. Wood was more accessible, but everything I tried to build out of wood was really pushing the boundaries of what wood structurally should do. Once I started trying the same designs in metal, everything became much stronger.
What objects are currently in your product line?
Right now I have six products. I actually just removed quite a few. As I kept working, I started to realize which ones actually deserve to be out there in the world. The piece that’s been around the longest is the mitered dining table. The Kube-Rick chair has also been around for a while. Then there’s the Daily Bed (daybed), the Pluto Table, the Fin Credenza, and the Bullet Bowl.
The Bullet Bowl looks a lot like the feet on the daybed and credenza. Was that purposeful?
Actually, the feet on the daybed and credenza essentially are the Bullet Bowl. I was building the credenza and trying to figure out the feet. The standard height for it to be off the ground is about six inches. I realized the Bullet Bowls are six inches high, so I put them under the credenza just to see...and there it was. The design is slightly different from the bowl in order to provide a connection and stability, but the form is consistent. It was a perfect way to utilize a language and a product that was already being used into something new.
These designs seem really efficient in terms of production and I imagine there isn’t much waste. Were those considerations you took into account during the design process?
That’s one thing that’s definitely nice about metal. For the base of the Pluto Table, for example, the process and materials are fairly simple. From one big sheet of metal, discs are cut. Then it gets spun into the form. The base is fabricated in two halves and then welded together to achieve the sphere. There are still materials left over, but it’s a lot less cutting and grinding than some other methods.
This process also lends itself to batch orders, which is another awesome aspect of taking more of a design role. If I get a large order, I’m not worried. The local vendors I work with are amazing at what they do.
Explain this spinning process to me a bit.
It starts out with a big steel mold that’s on a lathe. The metal disc that’s cut from the sheet metal goes on and starts spinning. There are rollers that coax the metal to wrap over the mold. When it’s tight to the mold, it gets popped off. For copper bases, we don’t even have to use heat.
When I think of your work, I think of spheres. It's hard to say that any furniture isn’t form-based, but it seems to be a particularly prominent element in your work.
That’s probably from the sculpture background. And maybe it’s minimalism. Donald Judd was a huge influence on me. When I first saw his work it was just mind-blowing. As an artist, he didn’t actually make any of his own work. He was one of the first guys that got me hooked on that sort of look -- made me really look at the form and allow it to play with the visual weight.
What are the differentiating characteristics of your work?
The main difference that I like to see in my work is the ability for the form to make you feel. I’m really interested in how a particular shape, colour or other design element can affect your emotional state and trigger memories. I like to think that you see something pink and you may have your own personal identification about what pink is…maybe you grew up in a house with pink walls or your mom wore pink lipstick. Generally, I strive to contribute to a calming environment. At the least, hopefully what I create puts a smile on your face.
What’s next for you?
At the moment I’m trying to think about new materials. What else can be used? What else would be good to work with? I always want to think about what I could be using that’s going to work with my design philosophy. Often I’ll think of something and then realize that it doesn’t really work with what I’m trying to say.
Stone is a material I’ve been thinking about lately. I worked with marble and soapstone very briefly years ago. I’m sure I’ll figure out a design and then send it to a stone smith only for them to tell me that it won’t work. That’s how you learn though.
Who would you be stoked to collaborate with?
It would probably have to be someone that’s more of an artist or sculptor. I really like Korakrit Arunanondchai. He’s done some great performance work and installations. I think it would be interesting to see what would happen if we were to have a conversation. Jonathan Stewart’s work is also amazing. It would be interesting to see what he had to say.
The answer to this question probably changes every ten minutes in my head – I’m one of those people that spends a lot of time doing R&D. Every time I have a new idea I think of other people.
Any advice you would give to other designers just starting out?
Generally, my advice for starting out would be to just literally start doing it. You might always feel like there’s some reason you shouldn’t do it. Just get out there and do it. Start making mistakes. Get feedback. Ask someone who is maybe going to hate your work for their opinion. Don’t be afraid to put your work out there.
To learn more about Ben Barber Studio, or to get in contact with Ben, visit benbarberstudio.com.