Eric Trine, Maker
In December, a couple weeks ahead of his appearance at the Portland Bazaar, Eric Trine told me about having recently given a talk where he described himself as an artist posing as a designer. By which I understood him to mean that, as a guy who makes stuff for functional use (tables, lamps, pot holders, chairs), he’s always trying to walk the line between aesthetics and usability. Lest I get confused, he later clarified, “I’m not a designer in any traditional sense.”
Most of the time, Trine, who rocks a hairstyle that’s half greaser, half California soul-wave, refers to himself simply as a “maker.” It’s a title at once utterly expansive and implicitly practical. The choice is indicative of his approach to his craft. He spoke at length about his desire to make beautiful, eminently useful things, often furniture, that people can actually afford. At one point we got to riffing about Design Within Reach, the slick modern furniture brokers whose moniker belies the price point of many of their offerings. “I want Design Within Reach to actually be within reach,” Trine told me. “As much as I respect high end furniture makers, I kind of want to disrupt that market. I want my stuff to be affordable.”
Trine is currently a student in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Applied Craft + Design offered jointly by the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Oregon College of Art & Craft. He fits the mold of the kind of graduate student you might expect to find reading Foucault, not wielding a Skilsaw. He spoke animatedly about “building a rhetoric” around his craft. “A lot of my work comes from concepts,” he told me. “I’m not thinking about the object. I’m thinking around the object.”
While studying painting during his undergraduate career Trine also served as resident builder and creative handyman for The LAB, a small conglomeration of shops in Costa Mesa self-styled as an ‘anti-mall.’ “I was their resident maker and cool-stuff guy. They’d be like, ‘We want to paint a mural,’ or, ‘Redo the oil drum fountain,’ and I’d do it. I was doing that all the way through undergrad.”
Six months after he walked with his BFA, Trine’s father got him a job as the art director at his multi-million dollar power tool company. “Art director?” I asked, experiencing a brief moment of cognitive dissonance. “At a power tool company?”
“Yeah. I wrote the owner’s manuals for welders and generators and pressure washers. There came a point when I had to write the manual for a welder and I needed to know how to use it to write the manual. So I taught myself how to weld. So that kind of opened up these other doors. Having ideas to do something needs to go hand in hand with the skills to do them.” The theme of being both inspired and constrained by his practical skill set was one Trine would return to throughout the conversation.
Upon graduating he’d still thought of himself as a painter. Then he and his wife moved into their first house and he decided to essentially furnish it himself. “We had no furniture, so I was like, ‘I’m just gonna make it all.’ It was an evolution from DIY to advanced DIY to it coming together in a way where I was like, ‘I love this. I just love it.’ ”
The experience of furnishing his home was a catalyst for Trine. He transitioned away from a more traditional painting practice and began focusing on building things in earnest.
If you talk to Trine for very long about the thought that goes into his creations you’ll hear him speak about hospitality. He regularly re-arranges the furniture in his house ahead of entertaining so as to best accommodate the mood and size of the group he anticipates hosting. “When we have people over I think about how things are set up for the way we want to host and interact. I’ll set up the living room for having two people over. How can we sit after dinner comfortably and have room for our cocktails or wine glasses? We watched a movie the other night and moved the couch so that we could lay down by the fireplace to watch it. Afterwards I said, ‘Why don’t we just leave it like this for a while?’ ”
The attention to detail is all in the service of relationship. The central thesis of Trine’s grad school application had to with how objects serve a role in welcoming others into our spaces. “My proposal was about the role of the built environment in home-making and hospitality. How the continued use of an object in one’s home changes us and reinforces our personal narratives about ourselves.”
He later articulated his view on the preeminence of people over objects in a different way. “I don’t want furniture to take up a ton space. Even visual space. As soon as people show up, all the dynamism and the energy in the room comes alive. I don’t need my furniture to do that. It all comes back to how to facilitate relationship and experience and up the quality of life. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t happen because someone has an awesome fourteen foot walnut slab table. It’s because that fourteen foot walnut slab table fits twenty people around it, and they can be there and enjoy each other. In my proposal I talked about the power of Two Buck Chuck. Nobody ever looked back on a night of spaghetti and cheap wine with friends that went late into the night and said, ‘Man, I wish we’d had better wine.’ ”
In addition to prioritizing the role objects play in faciliting relationship, Trine’s philosophy takes into account the attachment and even possessiveness a creator often feels towards his work. He holds that objects “must be released to go have their own life.” I pointed out the humility, even self-abnegation, inherent in making furniture as opposed to painting. The maker of the chair slides out of consciousness in a way that a painter does not. Even if he remains present in the mind of the one who bought the piece, Grandma’s going to come over a year later and sit down on the chair and enjoy it while quite possibly never thinking twice about who made it.
“For me that’s freeing,” Trine said. “I started out as a painter and I always envisioned my paintings in somebody’s house. I never wanted them in a gallery. It continued to get more and more abstract until it was just about having the right color on the wall in the room. I thought about galleries, these spaces with all white walls and nothing but the paintings. Where does the painting live after that? A house with a hodge-podge of furniture. Is it going to go into somebody’s house like my parents that has Pottery Barn stuff? Are they collectors? Are they people my age with a bunch of shitty DIY furniture and IKEA stuff and they bought it because they’re your friend? My brother is a photographer and he’s doing a show where he’s putting a couch in front of all his pieces, because when they go home these large format photos are going to go above a couch. No gallery has an eight foot ceiling anymore. They’ve all got 12, 15, 20 foot ceilings. I don’t like it. The art is continuing to move so far away from the home.
Trine submits the idea that people, “often buy furniture because it fits, not because it’s a tremendously beautiful object. I find it weird when people buy the famous Eames lounge chair. I had a friend who bought one recently, and it completely took over the entire space. It ruined the room. It became, ‘I am now the important thing in this room.’ It’s like that scene in The Matrix where they program in the girl with the red dress. Now whenever somebody sits in that chair it’s like they’re asserting that they’re the king. I hate that shit.”
He later referenced the Swiss writer Alain de Botton’s treatise on the psychology of buildings and spaces, The Architecture of Happiness. “Architecture has no power to enforce what it’s suggesting,” Trine insisted. “All the power is in its suggestion or invitation. I’m the maker and I put value into the objects I make. The buyer exchanges money, which is value, with me. But after that I have no power to tell them where the piece is supposed to go or what it means. It goes into their space and takes on a life of its own. An Eames lounge chair has no power to make you relax more. It’s not a glass of whiskey. Maybe because of that it’s more subversive. An object is a question. An invitation.”
Before migrating to Portland, Trine and his wife lived in Southern California. As with anyone, his perspectives on life and work have been influenced by the family and place he grew up in. When his father’s business took off his parents tore down the house he had grown up in, rebuilding their dream house on the same property. He described this as having had a huge effect on him. “My family built and designed a house specifically for our family culture, the way we do things, and even the next generation. My mom built things into that house geared towards grandkids. None of us were even married at that time. I was left really thinking about our immediate family culture, and about how that extends outward to hospitality and hosting people. And I was thinking about architecture and space.”
As he seems to do with most things, Trine views Oregon’s ominous weather, a distinct departure from Orange County’s 328 days of sunshine a year, through the lens of how it shapes the way people congregate. “People here spend a lot of the year indoors. The way people interact with each other is really shaped by that. You are spending your time in your own house or someone else’s house or a restaurant or coffee shop. That’s a different kind of proximity. If you’re in a house, you’re either the guest or the host, and that’s kind of vulnerable. I was in the store the other day looking at cornbread mix and this other guy was there, and we just started talking. It wasn’t an awkward, ‘Oh I’m seeing another person outside of a car,’ moment like you’d have in L.A. People are just warm here.”
For reasons that have to do with weather, or social climate, or a confluence of relatively recent urban development with an influx of fashionable developers, architects, and consumers, Portland has become something of a Mecca for modern revivalism. From the poured concrete and trim wood ceilings of its hippest restaurants, to the explosion of mid-century modern furniture and accoutrements available at vintage shops and even events like the Bazaar, it can seem as if the entire city is bearing homage to Frank Lloyd Wright. Trine explained an aspect of the style to me that I’d never considered.
“One of the things about studying modernism and modern furniture is learning about how it was created to be moveable and more lightweight. It’s able to be moved around and facilitate different interactions. Now modern furniture, half a century later, is so fetishized. You have to have that mid-century modern name associated with it. Dwell has done a great job with that. But in many ways it’s like the beige of the 90’s in Irvine.”
While the experience an object facilitates is ever-present in his mind (Trine explained to me how picnic tables, being backless, lead folks to lean in toward one another), at the end of the day he still has to actually make things. I was curious about what took precedence in his design process. Usability? Pure aesthetics? The relationship of the piece to the space it will be in?
“The very first thing I think about is, what can I make personally? And then, what’s within my realm of building capability? I want to make things myself. I know basic woodworking and I know how to weld. I could design something on a computer and send it off to some fabricator to do, but I’m not interested in doing that. Plus it just ups the cost so much.”
The desire to keep things simple is reflected in what Trine described to me as his “back road, professional novice approach.”
“When I walk into someone’s space I’ll ask if they’ve got a piece of paper. I’ll give them a stick drawing. ‘Here’s what I’m thinking, it’ll kinda look like this, this is kinda what I’m gonna use, roughly cost this much.’ It’s like, ‘This is what you need, this is what I can do.’ There are thousands and thousands of designers and fabricators and furniture makers who are way better than I am, so I tend to not even think about it. I just try for simple, direct answers.”
I asked him whether he was committed to never having someone else manufacture his products. He explained that he’d be more than willing to have something mass produced if banging out the same pot holder 500 times became mundane, but quickly springboarded into talking about the drawbacks of only designing things for manufacture by another person. “One thing that’s different between me and a lot of designers with an industrial design background is that the first version and all the prototypes get made by me. Never on a computer. Most of the time something won’t even exist in drawing form. This project I just finished, these chairs, never existed on paper. I just got out some metal and started torching and bending this thing and was like, ‘Yeah, that looks about right.’ I built five, each in under two hours. All very different. Now I’m solving the problem of how to make them comfortable and make them work.
“A lot of industrial designers now are doing things on CAD, on 3D printers, but when they actually go to the manufacturing process the guys in the shop will be like, ‘This can’t be made. You printed it, but it can’t actually be made. Where does this leg go?’ I don’t have that background. There’s this little object I made recently and I thought, ‘Damn this would be cool if it was like 12 feet.’ My mentor told me to throw it in Google SketchUp. I sat on that thing for two hours and couldn’t figure out how to draw the thing. Finally I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m just gonna do it.’ I bought the wood and made the actual 3D object, 7 feet high, 12 feet in diameter, in three hours. Somebody told me the other day, ‘You’re like John Henry vs. the Machine.’ ”
Photographs of Eric Trine by Josh Elliott