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Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu

Serban Ionescu

The work of designer/artist Serban Ionescu conjures a weird fusion of funny and creepy. Serban’s pieces are nominally furniture, but they seem crouched, animated, full of some strange life. He often names them like you might name a pet, and they’re imbued with a coiled, kinetic charge. The chairs are his trademark: they leer at you with sloppy faces; they’re painted up in funhouse colours; they lean like drunks. A New Yorker by way of Romania, his work straddles multiple worlds: furniture design, architecture, metal work, and folk art.

We recently came to know Serban in that New York sort of way, where you see someone around at openings often enough that it starts to feel inevitable that you’ll meet. Barrel-chested, often wearing a soft-shouldered jacket topped by a wide-brimmed hat, Serban cuts a distinctive figure. Eventually we did meet, arranging a drinking session via Instagram DM (how else). Anyone who has met Serban will tell you that he’s a voracious conversationalist, eager to hold forth on any number of subjects. In that first meeting, holed up in a Greenpoint bar, we quickly got to trading stories about our respective practices, how we came to be in New York, and how we might work together in the future.

Serban lives with his partner and newborn baby in a cosy third-floor walk-up apartment in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighbourhood, not far from his studio. He designed and fabricated much of the interior himself, and it shows. Like one of his frenetic pieces writ large, the apartment is clean, open, organised, but at the same time stuffed with details. Art, drawings, books, and furniture are all arrayed and densely layered. As a summer storm rolled up and broke open over Red Hook, we sat down with Serban (on some of the first chairs he ever built) to talk about his process, art versus design, and watching his grandmother cast spells on the neighbours when he was a kid.

Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu
Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu

Kristen: Can we talk about your apartment a little bit?

Yeah. This apartment was abandoned, so nothing was here. The ceiling beams were exposed. The floor was all fucked up. There was no plumbing, no electrical. We punched that window in because you can see the Statue of Liberty and the water. When I was in the process of making furniture for it, I made a chair. I was making these sculptures that weren’t functional.

My background is in architecture, and I kind of left the design/architecture world in 2009. But, again, while I was in my studio, the work was very abstract. It wasn’t about client design. I was just painting and drawing and I wanted to strip away what I had learned in school and was like, ‘Hey, where can I go?’ Let me go towards the cartoons.

Andrew: You thought, ‘I know what I learned in school, how can I throw it all away?’

Exactly.

Kristen: You’re from Romania and then moved to New York, right?

Yeah, I was born in Romania. I was there from zero to 10.

Kristen: What do you remember about that?

My parents came to New York when I was eight and I lived with my grandparents. So there were two years that I was by myself, more or less, with my grandparents. My parents came to New York to settle in and make a home. That was a crazy time. My grandfather died, so my grandmother was busy taking care of the whole funeral and dealing with grief. I was discovering new friends, having crushes, stealing, trying cigarettes, getting drunk for the first time, huffing paint.

Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu

Andrew: Were you in the city or the countryside in Romania?

The city.

Kristen: Were you one of these kids who always knew you wanted to be an architect? Or were you just huffing paint and being cool?

I don’t think I was—there was no cool factor. It was post-communism, so Romania was in the shadow of the ‘80s. It was tough economically; there were lines for bread and milk and all this shit. There were no imports coming in. During the Cold War they were exporting all the goods, so people were limited in their resources, and a black market began forming. There was entertainment, films, music, all these things were coming through the black market. Both of my parents were engineers and draftspersons. My mom drew bombs and my dad drew tractors. He was a mechanical engineer and my mom was a nuclear engineer. My mom worked in a hidden mountain, some shit like that. She couldn’t tell us where it was.

Andrew: You’re talking about the political context and the bread lines, but are you bringing all that stuff in now as an adult or were you aware of it as a child?

You can’t contextualise at that age, right? When I tell people that my grandmother would beef with her neighbours and they would put spells on each other, when I’m in that world, it’s like, ‘That’s cool. Grandma’s going to stop and put a lock of hair and spit on that woman’s door’. But now I think, ‘Oh my god, my grandma just put a spell on our neighbour’s house while we were going grocery shopping’. It’s kind of wild.

But I was around this engineering world, coming from both my parents and the way they drew things, and I would ask my dad, ‘Hey, can you draw me a car?’ He would always draw a plan view or an elevation view. So I learned to draw that way. Parallel to that, my mother was—again, because of this limitation on goods—also a fashion designer. She would make her own clothes and I remember those drawings. They were elevational, fashion drawings.

Andrew: Flats.

Yeah. I’m an only child so drawing was—I didn’t talk till I was six. I started drawing when I was three. Even now I draw daily and it’s rejuvenating. My parents took me to doctors. They thought there was something wrong with me and there wasn’t. It was maybe that I was too insecure to talk. When I came to the States, drawing was kind of a tool to interact with.

Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu
Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu

Kristen: It’s interesting to me that you have an architecture background and also do interiors, but all of your furniture and sculpture work is so organic and stays in the 2D zone. Why is that?

My furniture stuff? I don’t see it as 2D at all.

Kristen: Really? It seems still drawn.

Andrew: It seems like it comes from drawing or that it’s rooted in that place. When I look at it, it looks like a bunch of flat 2D drawings. But then exploded.

Sure. Well, the edge is very important to me. It starts from the drawing and then I want for it to exist outside of material in some way. My work is very much about contrast. It’s like a doodle, but I also spend days engineering it for it to come together in a certain way. It’s a drawing that I might’ve made in five seconds, but then it has to go through the meat grinder to become sorted out. In that flatness, I search for space. I’ve always been interested in that feeling of flatness, and then once you digest it a little bit, you start understanding there’s space there.

Kristen: So, making a chair out of the drawing, is that a mechanism to create the space, or do you want it to be a chair specifically?

I think it’s a combination of the scale that interested me at first. Chair-ness as just the function alone was something of interest. It was something similar to the olive in the Martini; it brings it all together. The functionality put it together somewhat. Before, because I was making sculpture, it had almost endless possibilities. I could have added or subtracted, but the functionality allowed me to zoom in, in some way.

Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu

Andrew: Is the use important?

Somewhat. For the chair, I just like that scale. It was this scale that I worked in when I was making sculpture. It was something that I could hold, something I could carry. It relates to the body in a certain way. So that’s where the chair comes from, but I guess it was just the transformation. I needed to make chairs for this house and I probably wouldn’t have made chairs, let’s say, if this house didn’t exist.

Kristen: You talked about the edge being important. Is metal the best substrate for you because you can get it really precise?

The notion of the edge is so important. It’s right where a plane becomes a line, a line becomes a plane, or a plane becomes a volume. There’s something so beautiful about turning the corner of something—creating shadow, creating light. As I was going through the process of de-learning my architectural background, I would develop almost mechanical drawings. I was making them without thinking. And I really started loving the impulse of my line and was trying to transfer that to painting for many years. I was trying to bring that energy of Cy Twombly or Eddie Martinez. And then I started working with steel and it wasn’t so much the sharpness, but more the lack of material that I could get out of it. Some of my pieces are very thin, an eighth of an inch. I can’t find any other material that I can create space with that is so thin. Then I painted with powder coat to make it look plastic. I don’t care about the material. When people ask me what that steel or wood represent, I’m not interested.

Andrew: You were speaking to the immediacy of the drawing, and you said that sometimes the drawing only takes a few seconds and then you spend a lot of time with the engineering. But I was wondering how much you think about that. We grapple with this in our work, too. Sometimes you do something really quickly and you’re sort of mistrustful, saying, ‘Was it too easy?’ Do you have those reservations?

As you get wiser and older, your instincts become sharper, right? I want to trust what I’m making. I want to trust that I’ve drawn for 30 some years and that I’m confident in the line I’m making. A lot of my work goes through the computer and I have many filters where I allow myself to change it if I want. A close friend of mine, Carlos Little, who is a great artist and sculptor, said, ‘If you can do it twice, it’s not worth it’.

Andrew: That’s interesting too. When you’re making furniture, people will ask you, ‘I love this chair, could I have four identical ones for my dining room?’ It gets at that whole ‘where is the line between art versus design’ thing.

I did the first chair three and a half years ago, and it was just me working with that scale and trying to make work that I could carry by myself. I think the chair was like the painting. It’s a flat plane, almost infinite in itself. And all my painter friends, I’m always mesmerised by the need to enter that void and enter that plane and work within that constraint. I think the chair has that: 17, 18 inches above the ground, and a back or arm rest. It’s like a three-dimensional painting.

Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu
Spreads from A Thing on a Table in a House
Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu
Spreads from A Thing on a Table in a House
Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu
Spreads from A Thing on a Table in a House
Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu
Spreads from A Thing on a Table in a House

Kristen: Were the wood pieces you made for a particular project?

I called them ‘Folks’. I was in Romania, probably in 2014, and I went to the Museum of the Peasant, which is pretty wild. I stumbled upon this room where there were maybe 12 dozen of these peasant chairs. Some of the backs had a face, though not a smiley face. That image really stuck with me. It looked like a crowded room. Then I did a show called ‘The Crowded Room’. It was about the passing of time as an immigrant; it was a little bit autobiographical. I was trying to talk about that with some of the pieces being characters and adapting within a space and so on. I was like, ‘I need to have something that speaks to my past in some way’. I made this chair one night in my studio, quick. I was also thinking about Gaetano Pesce. He’s done those face chairs, like the child chairs, but he’s really about technology and resins. Instead of going towards that path, I went in the opposite direction. And that contrast, something clicked there. As I was making them, they would break, because it’s old wood. So then I used these little leftovers from my steel pieces as the mending plates. They became these mended, folky things and people loved them.

Kristen: When we do more iterations of work, I think what we typically change is the material, and the forms really stay the same. For you, is there a concept that you know you’ll always be integrating, like a touchstone?

I’m interested in time, the autobiographical aspect to it. How the work fits in the spectrum of time. Let’s say from now until I die. Or how the work is made, the time a quick drawing takes.

Andrew: You make these quick, instinctual drawings and sort of capture that moment. You were talking about somebody like Twombly, who was trying to capture the energy of the gesture. So maybe you’re attempting to grab that and snapshot it?

Exactly, I think that’s part of it. But at the end maybe the main thing is form. I’m interested in creating new forms.

Andrew: Thinking about the work of yours that I’ve seen, colour is a big component. How do you choose those colours?

Sometimes it’s just like, ‘Oh, I need to make this thing red’. Then I look through my studio and pick whatever I have. If don’t have the red that’s in my head, I paint it orange. That first instinct will never be satisfied, though. I always have to go to the hardware store to get the proper colour.

Andrew: Do you ever choose the colour you think you want, only to find out you were wrong and now it’s too late? Because powder coating is like, you do it and then it’s done.

Exactly. For every process that I have, I want an element of surprise and excitement. It’s kind of like having Christmas five times during the making of an object. You bring this hunk of steel to the powder coaters and then get back this glossy, shiny object.

Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu

Andrew: Thinking again about this question of, ‘Why make a chair?’ Maybe part of the answer for you is, any piece of furniture is a small-scale impact on a space. Furniture is very practically part of the environment.

I had this thing when I was teaching: the cat in architecture. It’s the concept of an empty room versus a room with a cat in it. What is that cat? What is that disturbance to a space? Let’s say space is a positive rather than negative. Then the cat is a negative to that positive space. So what is that negative space that gets formed by a cat moving in a room? What is it about bringing something into a room that’s maybe not controllable, maybe not part of it? And what is the responsibility? How do you interact? That goes back to the idea of misuse as well. I’ve had pieces during a show where people put a coat on it and you’re like, ‘Whoa, this is an exhibition’. It’s the worst.

Kristen: Do you think there is anything negative about participating in design shows ultimately?

Andrew: This is the hardest thing. You could sell someone a painting and they could paint over it, but presumably they wouldn’t. Whereas you build someone a house, and they feel well within their rights to paint the house.

Kristen: Or if you’re participating in a design-specific show, I wonder about how that goes into your canon, and how that context may cement your work in some people’s minds. This is something Andrew and I talk about a lot, and I don’t know if there is really an answer.

Andrew: It’s the chair-guy problem.

Yeah, of course. But I would always surprise. I will maybe at times sabotage, because of that surprise. I always get feedback from people that own my work; someone who has lived with my work says, ‘Oh, it grew on me’. Especially in today’s time, where images are digested within fractions of seconds, it’s nice to hear that. My work has this element of digestion.

Andrew: We’ve talked a lot about this in terms of our work: starting with something that was wholly about design and drifting further away from that and then feeling like what we’re really doing now is more sculptural. You go back and forth between saying, ‘I don’t care, and people will feel how they feel’, and then needing to do some framing to help people perceive your intent.

Historically we’ve always had to compartmentalise ourselves in language and in order. I feel like the dialogue between art and design kind of lies between that. Sometimes when I go to bed I’m like, ‘I’m a fucking artist. I mean, fuck, fuck, fuck that client’.

Kristen: It’s like, ‘How dare you, trying to tell me what to do’.

Andrew: Yes, except all of the clients we’ve ever had, they’re great!

But it’s interesting how the dialogue with the client has changed, because of technology, Pinterest, and all these other things. I think a lot of clients think they could also design. I think for any designer or anything like that, it’s about creating a very bold aesthetic, where people come to me to get that.

Andrew: Maybe that, to some degree, accounts for the rise of the artist-designer thing. Because artists are considered to be these conduits for inspiration, and what they produce is unaltered. Designers are craftspeople that work with the client to make a thing. But if you are like an artist as a designer, then it becomes, ‘I’m going to design something, and you can’t alter it’.

Kristen: Blurring those two is pretty dangerous on some level. You’re really perverting both of those things by conflating them.

But at the end of the day, I feel like it’s about survival for the self. I’m thinking about making oil paintings. I’d love to make them in a year or so, and just make very large sculptures and small oil paintings. I don’t want to be the guy that was afraid to use yellow, or if I want to design a house, I’ll make a house, if I want to design a chair—

Andrew: You sort of say, ‘I will do whatever I want’, and then just be a person that’s living in the real world. And you determine the ways in which you navigate things and find the places where you do the things that you want to do.

Absolutely. Then there’s a public that might see you as an artist and others that see you as a designer. To be honest, coming from architecture and having left it in some kind of conscious way, and coming back to it through this other refreshed mindset, I’m perceiving it differently. So maybe the audience needs to perceive that. And it’s our responsibility, and I hate this. I’m not the most responsible person.

Kristen: Yeah. It’s like none of it matters, all of it matters. I don’t know.

Exactly. It’s terrible, but I think it’s about obviously attempting to do good work, number one. Number two: someone likes it, validates it.

Kristen: Number two: hashtag it.

Yeah, that’s number three. This is why I’ve never had that dialogue. As long as I’m in the studio and I feel like I’m awake and feeling good and there’s something that’s moving through me, if someone could sit on this piece and someone could fuck on it or someone could just look at it, I’m satisfied. No matter what that work indicates. If there’s something emotional that I might’ve been able to dictate and put into that, and that thing resonates and vibrates, then I’m satisfied.

Apartamento Magazine - Serban Ionescu
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