The stuff that sort of rises to the surface in my life: A conversation with Roy McMakin

January 2009


Roy McMakin loves objects — especially functional ones — which might explain why so many people consider him an architect or designer. But regardless of whether McMakin is, well, making a house or a chair, he sees himself first and foremost as an artist. The notion of function has always been slippery in the art world, but that’s the slope he occupies. And indeed, for over 30 years he has created not only furniture and houses, but also sculpture, photographs, drawings, and landscape projects. McMakin’s objects play with function, but also scale, perception, language, desire, time, and memory. Over the years, McMakin has moved up the west coast, from San Diego, where he studied; to Los Angeles, where he opened a storefront, Domestic Furniture, and garnered lots of attention for his objects and interiors; to Seattle, where he has lived and worked since 1993. In addition to his individual studio work, he oversees a modest architecture office and Big Leaf manufacturing, a sprawling shop where his Domestic Furniture line comes into being. Yet, even with a talented, reliable crew and a seemingly endless stockpile of handsome designs in reserve, McMakin still has a soft spot for abandoned furniture he randomly encounters in the city.

Michael Ned Holte: When I was in Seattle a year ago, you were very enamored of a green dresser that you had found on the curbside and then photographed. Have you found any great objects recently?

Roy McMakin: I don’t know where this came from, but over the weekend I was thinking about a way to describe the stuff that sort of rises to the surface in my life and many people’s lives, the objects that you choose to want to look at and be around. And it occurred to me that a fabulous name for a vintage secondhand store would be “Cream of the Crap.” I guess I’m saying there’s always some object that gives the illusion of somehow making things better and either kind of clarifies something in my life, or feels like a treasure in a treasure hunt where something is hidden and lost away, and then I discover and see the transcendence within the object. So I think it’s more like what is the “object of the week,” you know?

MNH: Yes, I do. And when you photograph them from all four sides, and from above and below, is that a way to further clarify the object?

RMcM: With the photographs you mentioned I think I was trying to use a certain kind of veiled obsessiveness to say, “Here is this thing that I find fascinating, and I’m showing you that it’s fascinating, but I can’t, completely.” As much as I try to capture my fascination, there’s a doubt in my mind whether I can do it, even if I show you every speck of it. Are you able to see what I find fascinating? I mean, that’s one way to read the whole project.

MNH: We’ve previously talked about your objects as a kind of portraiture. In 2000 you made a piece titled Two Chests, One with No Knobs, One with Slightly Oversized Drawers, which is one of my favorite pieces of yours. One chest was a sort of blank, mute conundrum; the other was an empty skeleton with six white-faced drawers stacked neatly but nearly uselessly nearby. You confided to me that the working title of the piece was Self Portrait, but you “chickened out” and changed the name when it was done. More recently, I saw a dresser you made with one small drawer that didn’t fit quite right and sits on top of the dresser, but the piece is otherwise “normal” — normal in quotes. Is that piece a new self-portrait?

RMcM: The new one, if it is in fact is a self-portrait, shows that I view myself with increased functionality in the world because every drawer but one actually works. It’s functional, and I sort of intend for it to go out in the world. A person could put their socks or whatever in the drawer. It’s a lonely drawer, yet the face of it is painted a very bright white, and the rest is slightly creamy, slightly darker white. So the drawer kind of glows. I guess you could say that it’s a slightly more psychologically healthy self-portrait.

MNH: That’s how I read it.

RMcM: Yes, well, I’ll tell my therapist.

MNH: Your body of work comprises houses and other buildings, furniture, sculpture, lamps, photographs, and even performance, but you prefer to think of yourself as an artist. What’s at stake for you in that definition?

RMcM: I don’t know if it’s about what’s being at stake. I feel like “artist” is more accurate, and when I’ve tried calling myself a designer or an architect, it doesn’t feel like what I do. I think that all of this is predicated on what other people choose to call these different professions, and I guess you could say that designers and architects deal with the same issues as artists do in terms of expressiveness and meaning and all those kinds of things. So it might just be that there’s an inaccuracy with these labels that exist. But, there’s nothing particularly special about being an artist versus these other things. I like to do sculpture, and I like to do drawing, and I like to do photographs, and I like to do houses and furniture. So it feels like the right label.

MNH: You were a student of Allan Kaprow, who for much of his career espoused a “blurring of art and life.” Is there a way in which a chair — and I’m thinking of your chairs in particular — might be seen as part of that blurring?

RMcM: Yeah. I think when I left UC-San Diego and my education with Kaprow, as well as people like Manny Farber, the initial way that I wanted to put furniture out in the world was conceptual. I was trying to make the next statement after Scott Burton, who was an artist doing furniture, though it was always clearly meant to be seen as sculpture. Whereas I felt like the object that I make is in fact a piece of furniture, and while it is conceived as an artist, it’s still a chair. And I still feel this way. I was very focused on a kind of everyday looking at the world that, which I absolutely think came from Allan Kaprow and the blurring of these boundaries.

MNH: When you lived in Los Angeles you designed furniture for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, were you thinking about that as an opportunity to exhibit your work in a domestic situation, by having it on millions of TV screens, or was it really just a gig for you?

RMcM: I think the years when I had the Domestic Furniture store in L.A. I became very focused on the business side of it, survival, bringing work in. But I also saw opportunities to explore the circumstances and experiences of creating objects. I think it’s really interesting to make things and see them out in the world. But, in hindsight, I think I was kind of reckless or careless in terms of how the world saw what I was doing. If you look at Kaprow, he was pretty careful about the way his performances existed. I was less careful, but I look at the tons of things that I did for those five or six years as education in how objects come to be in the world.

MNH: It always seemed like your interest was more in the details of an object rather than its context, let’s say lavishing lots of attention on a knob or the way that two pieces of wood join together rather than thinking about how the thing’s going to operate once it’s in the world.

RMcM: Well, I think that that was the case, and I trusted that the object would stand on its own as being interesting or not, and I think it did. In San Diego, where I’d gone to school and lived, I was well recognized as an artist. And yet when I moved to L.A. and started Domestic Furniture there were two audiences. One was the entertainment industry, and the other was the art world. And the art world didn’t really know my prior work, so they saw me as a designer that they found interesting. There was no sign hanging on the door saying, “This store is a conceptual art piece.” I would argue it was interesting, in kind of a charming, folk-arty kind of way. But I think it might have been smarter to not just assume everybody can read things quickly. That’s been a criticism I’ve gotten over the years: that I give people too much benefit, that they see the whole breadth of what I’m doing and can’t make sense of it, and that I should help them understand things a little better.

MNH: You moved to Seattle in 1993. What’s changed for you since leaving Los Angeles besides the weather?

RMcM: Well, I left L.A. for a few reasons. I had been working with a variety of shops to build my furniture, but I realized that I wanted to have greater control over the production of my furniture and get more deeply into the issues of craft. Ideally, I wanted to find a group of people that I could work with for a number of years to explore with, to help me realize my ideas and add to them. I realized that southern California wasn’t really a good place to do that, because there really weren’t as many people as interested in it as other places. I selected Seattle for that, and it’s an area where wood and trees are part of the economy. All of those things have been realized here in terms of the way I work, and the shop that I have, and the way everything is produced.

MNH: I noticed you recently completed a shoe store named Rock, Paper, Scissors. The dominant color is gray, which you have often used. Do you see gray as a kind of signature?

RMcM: It’s funny you noticed that little shoe store, which is a tiny project that came about through Ian Butcher, who runs the architectural side of my office. It was fun, actually, because it was an inexpensive, very quick thing that Ian mostly ran, and an experiment with me giving some key direction, but kind of delegating a lot. And I think it was successful because everybody was happy with the process. I think gray is a wonderfully useful color. Or lack of color. The reason we put it in the shoe store is so that it drops away and shows off the white or the colors of the shoes. But, I think it also has a really strong associative, emotional read. Certain things you remember in black and white or in gray, and some things you remember in color. Sometimes objects I make, or even houses, come out of the black and white memories, not the color memory.

MNH: For example, the piece you did in 2003 called Lequita Faye Melvin, which was also your mother’s name. Lequita Faye Melvin comprises nineteen discrete furniture objects that were in your grandparents’ house that you recreated from memory. Could you talk a little bit about how memory operates in your work?

RMcM: Well, memory was really the starting point for the furniture that I did when I was first conceiving furniture over 30 years ago. My fascination with stuff — the topic we started with — started really young in my life, initially in my basement. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a few odds and ends in storage. I thought of these as special pieces of furniture — “cream of the crap,” I guess — and I would bring them upstairs and put them in my room instead of my little bedroom furniture.

MNH: That’s perfect!

RMcM: Then, I had a fair amount of discretionary money as an adolescent because I would sell these paintings of landscapes and stuff like that, and I would use that money to buy furniture. We moved around a lot when I was a kid. I don’t think I had a sense of the past anywhere we lived, so I think I was trying to find or create some sense of past. When I started designing furniture, my explicit aim was to create pieces where time is ambiguous, so when people saw a piece they would be confused as to what point in time it was made, and if that ambiguity stayed with it as it moved into the future it might actually transcend style and exist outside of time. That led into my sense of architecture and the houses that I do, with my feeling that if you can stare memory and time down hard enough, then you might have a chance of potentially transcending it.

MNH: You showed me a ton of drawings that you’ve made, but I sensed that was really the tip of the iceberg. And coincidentally, today I just received a really beautiful little book of poetry by Ron Padgett called Poems I Guess I Wrote, which is a collection of poems that Padgett had found that he didn’t really recognize as his own, but became convinced were his because he recognized his own handwriting. And I love that idea so much. Are there, in a similar sense, any “chairs I guess I made?”

RMcM: I think in a lot of ways drawings are sort of like poems, and I think there are things that certainly surprise me. And instead of coming back as a fully formed memory, when I look through them, they come back as more of kind of a dreamlike thing, like, “Oh, yeah, that.” Like, sort of remembered, but also sort of fresh. I didn’t really focus on the drawings until about four or five years ago, and I kept them, but I didn’t really think about it, so when I see them now they kind of have this sort of intense longing that I like. There’s this furniture or this sculpture that I just am just so longing to have in the world. But it’s expensive to make things, and how do you get all these things out in the world?

MNH: Drawing is faster.

RMcM: Drawing is really fast and really cheap. When I’m caught up in the stresses of maintaining a shop and making sure there’s money to keep it all going, I have this fantasy that I just do drawings. It’s just a kind of longing, you know, a fantasy world where I just sit in my calm, quiet little life and make a drawing. And then I make another drawing, and then I make another drawing. It’s all perfectly satisfying, you know? It’s fully contained and has everything I need.

MNH: You mentioned Manny Farber earlier, and because he passed away last year I thought I would ask what you learned from Manny.

RMcM Well, I don’t know if I fully know everything I learned. It sort of reveals itself in time, like any good education or any good teacher. But one thing I think I learned — and this happened beyond school, because I became a friend of Manny and his wife, Patricia Patterson — was how to live, how to fill your time, how to make meaning. For me, it’s a matter of trying to show people the stuff of just life around you, this cream of the crap, and to show the kind of love that can exist in life.

MNH: That’s a nice full circle.

RM: Okay. Good.