Artist Feature III: Eric Trine

Eric Trine MFA Exhibition 2012
Eric Trine. 2012 Final Exhibition.
We are so excited to finally roll out this Q&A with artist/maker Eric Trine, as this felt more like having a couple beers with a friend than simply discussing the work. I am actually having a hard time writing this intro, because the similarities in what Eric touches on and the conversations we've been having at home is uncanny. Sure, he was just answering the questions we asked, but somehow in Eric's developed thoughts Darrick has been able to sort through a couple ideas that were already on the table. In response, Darrick created an exercise for himself- to produce two pieces of furniture under some new parameters, creating a certain openness that was not there before (more about this in another post later this week).  

Eric has an impressive set of skills in his arsenal- a renaissance man really and another example of someone with fine art experience pursuing craft. He has just completed the first year working towards an MFA in Applied Design and Craft through the joint program offered by Pacific Northwest College of Art and Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland [jealous]. He speaks of his work with great ease and confidence, but with a humble quality that makes us want to support him in all of his efforts. We both look forward to collaborating with him somehow in the future. Eric touches on important ideas relevant to any maker trying to decide how and why to get things made these days. Useful is in.

Eric Trine Final Exhibition 2012
Eric Trine. 2012 Final Exhibition.
Eric Trine Final Exhibition 2012
Eric Trine. 2012 Final Exhibition.

Eric on his final exhibition:

Basically, I tried to present my work in a total context - so my work is situated amongst all the things I buy at thrift stores and flea markets and stuff that I actually live with. Since it was a group show I wanted to make it very clear what was my part of the exhibit. The point of showing my work amongst all the other stuff is to de-emphasize the role of the single object and elevate the grouping of objects. It was more about composition than it was about a vignette like one would see in a magazine. Some people said I was an excellent curator. I tend to shy away from that term. I collected and organized - that's not curation. It was really interesting to see how people interacted with either the installation as a whole piece, or the individual pieces. For some people, the structure disappeared and it was all about the objects - and they constructed narratives based on the proximity of certain objects to others. For other people, it was all about the structure itself and the objects kinda took a backseat. But it's really so fascinating to see how quickly people assign meaning/narrative to things. It really has to more to do with their particular interpretation than my work. It says more about them then it does about the object(s). And that's precisely why objects are so interesting - because they are suggested to our will; our meaning-making.
Eric Trine Final Exhibition 2012
Eric Trine. 2012 Final Exhibition.

LeyLines: We can relate in the sense that all of us essentially migrated out of Southern CA at the same time in the name of pursuing creative interests. Portland has been a sort of beacon of light for us, as we've dedicated many hours of conversation about how it might be one of the best places for a youngish maker/craftsman/artist to live these days (even pre-Portlandia we felt this way). Although, we've also discussed how perhaps living next door to 17 other bearded woodworkers might be a bad thing for business. Can you speak to the experience you've had up there thus far?

EricTrine:I love portland! It's a really fertile place on so many levels. Growing up in Southern CA, I didn't realize how much of a distraction good weather was. Up here, I've been so productive in the studio simply because I can't just grab my surfboard and run down to the beach for an hour or two everyday. Secondly, because of the weather up here, there is an intimacy embedded in the culture - just by virtue of us having to stay indoors through the whole winter. It's understandable why the food culture up here is so prevalent - people spend a lot of time indoors eating and drinking together.

As for the 17 other bearded woodworkers - I think it's a good thing that I can't really grow a good beard! Ha! I'm the clean cut one out of the bunch. There may be a lot of folks up here making a lot of things with their own hands but there isn't really any sense of competition amongst us. I mean, obviously there is competition in the sense that we might all by vying for the same audience/customer but we are all rooting for each other to succeed. We're all stoked for each other, all the time! It's a great environment. I was really fearing I was going to get the stink eye for being an outsider, especially being from California, but everyone I've met has been awesome. Things were much more competitive in Ca. Another reason folks might be receptive to me/my work is that I am bit different in my aesthetic and material choices. I'm not a fine woodworker, and I don't have any aspirations to be one - that cuts out a huge swath of my potential competition. Overall, I couldn't be more stoked on Portland. It's the perfect setting for me at this point of my artistic development.

LL: Something we are always talking about is the inability to find quality, American, INTERESTING well-made furniture that's affordable for people like us. There are the unattainable $30,000 handmade dining sets, the sort of 'acceptable but not interesting mass-produced' Pottery Barns and then Ikea. Would you agree that there is tangible space for a market in between and how do you see yourself fitting in?

ET: There is a HUGE space in the market for inbetweeners. It's all about finding that sweet spot on the production side of things I think. With some of my pieces it makes more sense to make 3 at a time rather than 2. There's a more economical approach to my material usage when I can manufacture at a certain scale. That's the advantage that larger companies have - that economy of scale. But I think there is a lot of room for movement between the 30k dining sets and Pottery Barn. The same level of creativity and innovation that goes into making a single piece needs to be applied to the business strategy as well. I'm able to keep my material costs and labor time fairly low because I make a lot of my pieces with a metal base. If I was working solely in wood that would increase my overall finishing time immensely, thus increasing my prices.

The other thing I'm developing is a wider range of pieces - something available at every price point. That way I create an opportunity for my customer/audience to get acquainted with me on the ground level and work up. A lot of folks who buy benches from me often say that they'd like to order a dining table one day. Some folks who buy my plant stands will probably come back around for a bench or coffee table.

It's all about finding that sweet spot on the production side of things I think.
Eric Trine
Eric Trine. Bar of Soap- Swallowtail Coffee Table

Eric TrineEric Trine

LL: Darrick and I agreed that one of your greatest assets has got to be the ability to build QUICKLY. I realize every project may not be fast, but the skill to simply turn things out is a gift that not everyone has. Many times that can be dictated by the medium, but I think it's also the capability to let go in a sense. I would imagine your less susceptible to getting bored with what you're working on as well. Is any of this true? How would you describe your most successful working circumstances?

ET: Wow. That's an incredibly on point reading of my work. I do work really fast. I am able to work really fast for a couple of reasons - 1. I make really simple stuff - I don't make deceptively minimal work - like the minimalist painters who actually put in twice the amount of work to make it look like the painting was never touched by human hand - I actually just make simple stuff. Why make a complex miter joint when a 45 will do? I have an almost vernacular approach - a 2x12 on a stack of cinder blocks make a great functioning outdoor bench, you know?. 2. I've been making stuff for my whole life, so my hands have been on a lot of materials and a lot of tools, so I can make quick and accurate judgements on the fly. 3 I'm an efficiency nerd - I think the children's book Cheaper by the Dozen influences me a lot. The Dad character in that book was an efficiency expert and he would always find ways of doing things faster or better. I tend to think that way. I don't de-value the work part of it - but the work is in service of making a rad thing that another person can use and enjoy. So, I love finding ways of getting more stuff out there for people to use and enjoy.
In that way, I able to let go easier and allow that piece to go and have a life of it's own with its new owners. The criteria is always: make rad stuff for other people to enjoy vs. make the greatest object of all time. It keeps me humble and keeps me focused on others/customers/audience.

My most successful working circumstances -
There are 2 kinds of work that I do now - products and commissions.
With my product style work it really is just work. Man as machine. Cranking those pieces out. That'll be the future work of assistants and interns for sure.

As for my commission work, I love working with clients who have a clear vision but are also able to let go and let me do my thing as well.  Often times clients will send me source images from other designers/companies/magazines and sometimes I just flat out ask, "If that's what you want me to make, why don't you just go buy it from the company that already makes it?" It'll probably be cheaper and they can deliver it to your doorstep for a flat fee! So, I like the opportunity to take the vision of the client in a new direction - get creative with it. That's how I arrived at the design for the Bar of Soap coffee tables I've been doing lately. I had a client who basically said "we love everything you do, we trust you, we want a walnut top with a steel base, have at it." That freedom is awesome, and totally rare. It's like having patrons rather than customers. They really believe in my work and aren't just looking for a glorified ottoman.

The criteria is always: make rad stuff for other people to enjoy vs. make the greatest object of all time.
Eric Trine
Eric Trine. 5 Chairs Project- #5

What does it mean to be making things in 2012? And what is my contribution to that conversation? This is the hard work.

LL: Bravo on finishing your first year towards an MFA in Applied Craft & Design through what appears to be a phenomenal program. It looks like a complete blast! I certainly don't question the value of your current study, but can you speak to why you decided to go back to school? I think this is a tough question for a lot of artists. On top of that, how are the ideas in your thesis evolving thus far? An excerpt from from Eric's site describing his thesis:
an investigation into the role of the built environment in homemaking and hospitality. I aim to arrive at an undergirding philosophy that can direct my practice of designing and making objects specifically for   the home setting.

ET: There are a lot of reasons why I decided to go back to school, but I think the main reason was to be challenged and add contextual depth to my work. I think one of the great roles of an MFA program is to give the artist the time to research and reflect on the question of "where do I fit in all of this?" "where does my work fit in all of this?" This, being the history of art, craft, design - culture at large. What does it mean to be making things in 2012? And what is my contribution to that conversation? This is the hard work.

My thesis has changed direction a bit. I am still very interested in the role of the object in homemaking and hospitality, but that's kind of taking a backseat to an investigation into the business of craft. Making stuff is great, but making stuff and being able to support a family is really what I want to do. So my emphasis has really shifted towards developing a business strategy for all of this. I've been fortunate enough not to have to take out only partial student loans for this program, but some of my peers are going to graduate with 90k in dept and no viable pathway for paying that back. It's absolutely asinine. So my goal is to figure out how to do that so we don't keep graduating insanely talented makers who don't know how to make money.
Eric Trine
Eric Trine. Canvas Cabin.

Eric Trine
Eric Trine. Contour Stools.

Eric Trine
Eric Trine. 5 Chair Project- Chair #2

LL: The answer to this question may be in constant flux, but as of right now do you and Heather plan to stay in Portland for a while after you graduate? If not PDX, what else is on the list?
ET: We are actually planning on moving back down to Southern Ca fairly soon after graduation. We'll probably finish out the summer and then move in August. We really love the culture up here, but the draw of family is really strong for us. We'll probably move back to Long Beach. I think Portland is the best city on the planet, but I also see that we can take what we've experienced in Portland and invest it in the city of Long Beach. Long Beach has the potential to be the Portland of the Pacific Southwest. Plus, there is such a great manufacturing industry around LA. As the scale of my business increases it's nice to know that I can outsource so easily right in LA. I do prefer the weather in Portland though, I'm not a big fan or year round sun, it kinda seems unnatural.  

LL: I think some people find this question a bit banal, but I do not care! I'm a firm believer in dreaming. What is your ideal dream scenario, in life I mean? What would you do with unlimited resources and/or the opportunity to work with whom or wherever you wanted? 
ET: A gigantic community warehouse/workspace/design center. I'd like to create the opportunity for other designer/makers to be able to produce their goods without having to worry about the overhead of studio rent and equipment. There's a place here in Portland called ADX and it functions largely in the way I've always dreamt. I love the model that Beam and Anchor, also a Portland business, operates where they have workshop and retail all under one roof. They have some woodworkers, a leather worker, upholster, soap maker, and retail all in the same place. It's genius. They also sell the goods of other local makers as well, including some of my stuff. They are pretty much living my dream right now. I think a place like that in Long Beach would kill it! I also want to buy some properties in the desert and mountains, and style them up as rental properties. That would be the best!

A video of Eric making a desk. See more videos here.

Eric's official site here

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