This is a follow up to Kristin McCourtie’s experience at the Los Angeles Design Festival. See the first installment here.
A studio visit arranged by the Los Angeles (LA) Design Festival team, introduced me to Meyghan Hill of wh(Ore)Haüs Studios and Uri Davillier of Neptune Glassworks – two designers/makers who share an abandoned warehouse in the fashion district of downtown LA.
Here with small teams they make all their own work, relying on design to allow their bespoke products to compete beyond price in a world where manufacturing has moved to countries with lower labour costs. They exude fascinating layers of contradiction that manifest in an edginess in their products.
I met Meyghan first, with her dog, Wombat. I thought then that I need to bring her to Melbourne so she can understand the contradiction that the tiny, hairy Terrier has to its namesake. She herself is petite, pretty but her work is big, bold, and strong, made of steel and stone. Starting her career as a fashion model with the Ford Agency, Meyghan found herself dumped by her fiancé after a six-year engagement. She had always been a DIY renovator with a quiet dream to be able to weld.
“If I could weld I would be self reliant” she thought, “I could even build my own shelter”. She still is not sure what made her drive to the Valley in search of welders who would teach her their trade but that was what she did. ”It could have gone terribly wrong,” she says. But it didn’t. She found some guys welding for the automotive industry and they took her in. She worked 17-hour days, hardly washed and turned her back on the world for the hardcore trade of metal welding, surrounded by a hardcore crew of men.
Maybe she chose metal because it seemed so strong and it offered some sense of power when she felt so powerless but what she discovered is that metal is a far softer material –fluid, more flexible and easy to manipulate than she had thought. ”You can join two pieces of steel at any angle and they meld together reforming seamlessly. It is actually more feminine than you would think,” she shares.
Emerging from the welding workshop nine months later, she found herself in a supermarket. Her once manicured nails ingrained with metal dust, hair matted, she was bruised, and scarred from her apprenticeship. They turned her away assuming she was homeless. It was an epiphany that formed the catalyst to start her own furniture business.
She wanted to call it “Ore Haus Studios” referencing her desire to create by extracting something meaningful from the earth and holding on to the strength she gained from the world she had been immersed in. But the name was taken and a friend joking said, “Call it Whore Haus.” Thus was borne (wh)Ore HAüs Studios.
Today, she proudly wears the marks of her craft – bruises up her arms, scars on her face but emboldened by her new-found view of her embodiment. Empowered, she wanted to own her sexuality and what it means to be a woman and where she had come from without shame. So the name was serendipitous and her journey is expressed in her work and defines her brand. People love it, she says, especially women. “They are deeply committed to the (wh)Ore HAüs tribe.”
I am not surprised.
So many women I talk to want to have an equal place in public life but one that maintains their unavoidable feminine, visceral experience of the world. I also met an emerging photographer, Liz Rice, similarly expressing this journey. Through slow photo sessions the women she photographs melt into their own empowered sexual embodiment. It seems like a personal kind of art therapy for both artist and muse.
It was Oscar Wilde who said “To love oneself is the beginning of a life long romance.”
Romantic love is the door to the soul. Embodied we find a path through the deep visceral experience of powerful sexual encounters with the one we trust to take us to our most vulnerable. Firstly, that must be oneself.
It seems in essence this is what is behind both these women’s creative stories. The struggle of defining and owning our corporeal reality, the line between objectification and subjectification, ownership and exploitation, shame and pride. The conversation is complex but regardless there is a movement and it is not only in LA.
Uri Davillier who shares the studio with Meyghan is in contrast a big man – solid and grounded. Arriving with his bull dog, he shakes my hand and puts down a card box with a tiny kitten only a couple of weeks old and feeds it water from a miniature dropper. “It might not make it but it would have died if I didn’t pick it up,” he says. Really, a soft, big hearted man, whose work expresses the similar contradictions: The precision of mathematical theory and the accidents that occur from the fragility that comes from working with glass.
He studied engineering and is deeply interested in mathematical research, still practicing calculus in his downtime. He spends hours working out the exact mathematical equations of his intricate work. But when it comes down to making the pieces he can spend hours getting it just right and at the last second it can break. It is quite zen really. “You have to learn to let go,” he says. “You can’t be precious about your art and it forces iteration.” He sees his work as the murky line that has always existed between art and technology. Both organic and highly ordered, Neptune Glassworks’ designs seek to challenge the false dichotomies of logic and free-association; masculine and feminine; transparent and opaque; old and new.
Meyghan and Uri and those they share their warehouse with have regular studio parties and welcome visitors who are keen to see their work in the making.
The arts district nearby is home to a growing design presence . The newly opened Hauser Wirth Schimmel is the newest edition of this Swiss private gallery and is the largest private gallery in the world. It is a 1920s wheat mill that is magnificently redesigned to create an amazing oasis in this fairly brutal precinct at 901 3rd Street Downtown. It is surrounded by a growing collection of curated concept stores such as Hammer and Spears, Guerilla Atelier, Apollis Gallery and Pokoto, Sci Arc store and lots of café’s and restaurants.
Another way to find the work of local makers in the LA Design Festival is the Parachute market – a pop up design market presenting emerging jewelers, furniture makers, milliners, and fashion labels set in a warehouse again in Downtown. Neil Diamond plays overhead and people wander with drinks in hand. A line of people wait for personalised poems as a poet bangs them out on a old type writer. I come across some performance art. Buffed and in boxers a man writhes around face down, eating sand. Above him another is decked out in a dress clearly a contemporary fashion label. He fires a semi automatic weapon at another man who stands in his candle-lit temple to himself. It was painful to watch and somehow seemed ‘very LA’ in concept. “But wtf !” I thought to myself. Perhaps that is the point. Part of me is still in LA trying to work out what it all meant.
I have always said that as long as I learn something knew everyday it was worth getting out of bed (I have a really comfortable bed). I learnt a lot every single day of this trip and I am grateful to all of those who shared their stories and taught me something about the wonders and woes of enterprise in California. The Uber drivers, my friends, new acquaintances and the hard working directors of the public design programs. I only wish I had more time to explore.
Kristin McCourtie is managing director of Design Foundation.