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LEON RANSMEIER

Interview by Michael Bullock

Photography by Nacho Alegre

Published in apartamento 6, 2010

Leon Ransmeier is a young American industrial designer that has made quite a name for himself designing utilitarian objects, such as doormats, dish racks, lampshades, heaters, and humidifiers. He has been unafraid to take on unglamorous but essential products transforming them so they can actually fit in with the rest of our modern lives. Under his directions these objects do something special; they rework minimalism, a category typically defined as cold. In each design Leon introduces clever shifts in functionality managing to give minimal design charisma and sometimes even humor.

Standing across the street from the address Leon texted me, I’m confused. I look up at the ornate carved façade of the classy 20 story turn-of-the-century apartment building and I check my text again to make sure I have the right address.

The building is formal, a place for bankers, not what you would expect from a young creative guy like Leon. I buzz penthouse number 2 as directed. When I get to the top I am greeted by a very friendly Leon, he guides me up another flight of stairs through the industrial guts of the building and down a narrow hallway finally arriving at his spectacular live/work studio. The dramatic entrance and extreme contrast between interior and exterior make the place feel like the home of a comic book hero. Then he invites me outside to his rooftop and the breathtaking view of Gotham further secures this comic book fantasy. Leon seems to have hit the NYC affordable housing jackpot, but only a designer could have seen the possibility of a living space in this tiny rooftop shack originally built to store paint. There is an uncommon justice to a bohemian living above bankers in their own neighborhood. Leon’s home is proof that even now in Manhattan there are still possibilities.

Your hallway must freak out drunk girls you’re taking home for the first time. They must be thinking rape and murder.

Yeah, I usually give a disclaimer, although I’ve been shying away from, one-night stands lately. I’ve had some bad experiences. I’m more interested in something that has some sort of foundation. It’s interesting though to meet somebody and bring them, it’s a good filter. The hallway is quite frightening but people are always amazed when they walk in here because you walk through that filthy hallway full of elevator motors and water tanks and you come into this bright, white space and it’s refreshing. Every day I walk in here, I feel refreshed. And everyone that comes here says that it has a nice vibe.

It does. How big is the space? It’s fairly small for a live/work situation? Well, except for unbelievable rooftop.

Yeah, the shack is 400 square feet but the rooftop is about 2500. I looked on Craigslist for a long time and I had the luxury of not having to move immediately so I could be really selective. I’m sure you’re acquainted with finding rentable real estate in New York City. It sucks! Real estate agents in Manhattan are probably some of the slimiest people on the face of the Earth. Beyond that, pretty much below a certain price point is a vanilla-white painted studio in the East Village with over glossy hard wood floors, and I’m really not interested in that sort of place. When I moved from my last place, my main objective was to find a space that was a workspace that I could also live in, opposed to a live-in space that I could also work in. So I was really looking for a studio to have the ability to further my own projects.

How do you use the roof space?

When the weather permits, the roof is an extension of my studio. We use it for working all the time, setting up trestles and tables, etc. It’s great for the kind of loud or dirty work that I’d rather not have inside. It’s also the first place I go when I’m done working to have a beer and relax. In the summer, the breeze off the river is much cooler than street level. A nice view from a window is always great, but being able to walk around and understand one’s context in this manner is fantastic.

I’m worried about the lack of relaxing seating in here?

It’s high on my list of new furniture

What kind of comfortable chair would you pick?

It’s tough! I’m sort of leaning toward an old brown club chair that looks like it’s been through the ringer.

Oh, that will go nicely with your panelling.

Yeah, and I think it would be a contrast with these gray floors. I like the combination of cold, productive, commercial objects in combination with warm, humanistic, historically rooted items. I mean, I think this lamp is a nice example, it looks almost like something from a Phillip Johnson interior; it’s geometrically rationalistic yet it’s...

Where did you get it?

I pulled it out of the trash on the Upper East Side.

I bought a new shade for it. It’s a great lamp. And then I have these Christian Dell lamps produced by Kaiser, which I got from a friend in Rotterdam who used to collect and trade them and also Friso Kramer furniture - which is why I have so much of it. I’m also a big fan of his.

Which pieces are those?

The chair you’re sitting on, the chair behind my desk and the stool I’m sitting on. He’s a Dutch furniture designer and focused primarily on institutional furniture. He made a lot of contract pieces for the office, but he also did a lot of work as school furniture. His work is reductionist, beautiful, industrious and comfortable. A lot of his work is Jean Prouve-esque, he was obviously influenced by him. It’s still different and has his own signature, but it’s not as precious because it’s not as iconoclastic at this point. I mean Prouve has been exploited.

There is something monk like about your quarters, everything you own seems essential, is it out of the necessity of a small place or is that your approach no matter how much room you might have?

I try to avoid an over-accumulation of objects. I have a hard time liking most things. I question my attraction to new objects, especially contemporary design because I question it’s longevity and aesthetic. I want to know that I’m going to want it in five years and I’m going to cherish it. Jasper Morrison often quotes an Irish proverb that says, ‘Keep a thing for seven years and you’ll find a use for it.’

What’s the last thing you bought?

Well, I bought this brush to clean my shower, but I debated for a really long time whether or not I should buy this really beautiful Muji brush that has a very sculptural handle; it’s actually a really nice looking object. The bristles aren’t quite stiff enough and it’s all white. My shower is very militaristic and institutional looking, and I decided that I really wanted a brush that I didn’t care about so I ended up buying a brush from the hardware store that has no design identity. I’m glad I did because the Muji brush is a statement in a way. The hardware store scrub brush is really useful, you could drive over it with your car and the bristles would pop back into place. With that being said, I did buy the Muji toilet brush designed by Industrial Facility. At the time they weren’t carrying it in the Muji Shops in New York yet so I bought it in Milan. I think it might be the best toilet brush ever designed.

Can I see it?

Sure.

Oh, that’s really nice.

It’s kind of gross to show you my toilet brush, but you can really see that Sam Hecht put a lot of thought into it. I brought it back on the plane and when we arrived to JFK I opened the overhead bin and the toilet brush fell out into the aisle and people looked at me sort of strange, like: who imports a toilet brush? But I’m glad I did.

What’s the story of the place? You can really find this on Craigslist?

Yes, it’s was being advertised as a rooftop artist studio. It was a terrible, dark little cell phone picture, but the description as terse as it was, caught my ear and I figured I had seen so much shit already that I had nothing to lose. So I showed up and this place was filthy and literally full of trash. I was told it was added in the ‘60s and was originally built as a storage shed for paint and other building supplies. Sometime in the ‘80s it was a painter’s studio, later it become a club house for the Verizon technicians to hang out in between house calls. It had no bathroom and only one window. It was the middle of the winter and this door had a big gap at the bottom; it was cold.

But being a designer you knew it was a dream Immediately?

It’s a commercial space and the thing with commercial spaces is always that they’ll renovate to a certain extent to meet your standards. So, I said is that the case? How much room for negotiation do we have here? And he told me to put together an offer. So I went home and drew up a floor plan and specified the type of door I wanted. I even specified how I wanted the bathroom to be laid out and where I wanted the plumbing.

And did they pick this terribly harsh lighting?

No, well these florescent overheads, that’s the work day lighting. They’re great in the day because in terms of luminescent temperature, they are the closest thing to daylight. You almost forget that they are on. At night it can be harsh it almost feels like an art gallery, but they help to keep me working.

When do you switch to nighttime lighting?

There’s a really nice time at the end of the evening when I’m finally finished for the day. That’s when I turn off the fluorescent overheads and switch to the incandescent lamps and drink a beer and relax and feel a sense of accomplishment.

It’s a clever solution, tell me about your strange choices in art, you only have two things a list of racial slurs and Mickey Mouse?

Where is that slurs piece? It’s in my closet actually because I was out of town and I have been paranoid about it. I have this fear that somebody’s going to break in and be offended by it and smash it. I really don’t want that happening because it’s sentimental to me.

That piece is necessary in here, it gives a nice amount of disrespect for this very well ordered place. It helps the balance.

I agree, It’s my friend Dan Colen’s piece and it was originally for the DBA pen launch: it’s non-toxic ink, recycled paper and everything. Dan ripped apart the notebooks and ripped apart the pen and used the reservoir of the pen as a fat magic marker and then wrote what could be perceived as the most offensive list of racial slurs possible. There’s this nice juxtaposition of the most politically correct, mindful medium and the most politically incorrect message. I like that the message is not the medium.

[Looking at the piece]

What are ‘Mics?’

I think they’re Irish people.

I’m a ‘homo-wop-spick.’

I’m a ‘Kike.’ What’s a ‘Spick?’

Latin

Oh, right. Spicks are Spanish and Wops are Italian. There’s a comma at the end that I like too, like there’s room for expansion.

It’s nice to include everyone, and so you have that next to Mickey Mouse? Yeah that Mickey Mouse portrait is kind of sentimental to me because it was given to me by my aunt. My parents used it to snort drugs off of when I was a child and Mickey is floating in this really trippy, infinite silver background. And he’s wearing ‘70s style attire. It’s the ‘swingin ‘70s’ Mickey Mouse. So I like it, I mean I don’t allow much room in my life for nostalgia, it’s dangerous and I think it holds you down and keeps you rooted in the past, but that particular object transcends it all in so many ways. It’s become art; and has this weird, dark history.

Do you have any more beer?

Yeah, plenty!

What was your parent’s house like when you were growing up?

My dad was a struggling artist and working several jobs to support his art. When I was very young we lived in a school bus and I actually lived in a tent outside of the school bus and we had an outhouse. This was up until I was about three and then when my sister was born my parents bought a trailer. My grandfather had given my dad some land in North Carolina, way out in the mountains and so they were in the process of homesteading. First he built his ceramic studio, which enabled him to have an income, which enabled him to buy the trailer and then eventually he built a house there. It was a beautiful place, really open planned and pretty sparsely furnished. But then they separated and are now more or less polar opposites and live in very different ways.

Your mom is an artist as well?

My mom is a performance artist and my dad is a ceramics artist. They’re both really creative in different ways.

Were you inspired by your Dad’s work?

It was a really fantastic way to grow up. If my dad was working and I was hanging around, his way of baby-sitting me was putting a big hunk of clay in front of me and just say, ‘make whatever you want,’ and we would glaze and fire it together. As a really young kid watching that clay become a solid, shiny, usable thing really affected me. He definitely influenced my desire to be a creative person, no doubt about it.

And Mom’s?

My mother had a huge impact on me socially. Dad was a bit of a hermit, but she is extremely outgoing and charming. In a way I’m a bit of both. Sometimes I joke that I’m a misanthropic people lover.

Can you take me through your design process? Like explain from start to finish the stool you just prototyped for Established & Sons?

It was nice. I met Sebastian in Milan, and we spoke about the possibility of working together. When he was in NY the next month, he mentioned that it would be interesting to work with a young American designer, as that was something they haven’t done yet.

Did they give you a design brief? We need a bar stool that does X, Y, Z...

Essentially they don’t give specific briefs, they give a somewhat open brief. I am interested in working on a project with them that could have a whimsical concept built into it, but could potentially meet a larger demand in the market. Not to sound like a capitalist, but a barstool is a contract product and so they sell in numbers. The sales can actually generate income for the designer and the company. I saw that as an interesting hook and thought it might be something they would also be interested in. What’s good for me is good for them and vice versa.

So since you could make any barstool, how did you come to make this barstool?

I’ve been thinking about barstools for a long time; it’s a very saturated typology from a design perspective. Most of them are approached in the same way chairs are approached in that it’s an opportunity for a designer to use it as an example of their specific authorship, and so the styling becomes the primary focus. I’m looking to make something that will be a little more timeless and also just function really specifically to that way that people interact with barstools. You have to ask what it is that you do when you are sitting at a bar, aside from drink, which is obviously the first priority. Most of the conversation you would have is directed at someone sitting next to you, not at the bartender. Also, this whole gesture of mounting and dismounting, especially in a crowded place after you’ve had a few drinks is what led me to try to come up with a solution that rotated with out being a pedestal.

I get the sense that you approach design much more like an artist in the sense that you get interested in topics and subjects and allow yourself freedom to explore them.

It’s the advantage of being an artist because although they may be specialized in title, most of the artists I know don’t want to be called a painter or sculptor or whatever. Culturally, artists are given carte blanche in terms of their interests, inspirations, medium, and avenues of exploration. For one reason or another, industrial designers are stereotypically interested in stainless steel, titanium, plastic and carbon fiber and want to make design for the masses or potentially high-sculpted one-off pieces for rich design collectors. Either way the driving factor is narrative or it’s very much material and process based. Without discrediting my professional peers, I think that a lot of approaches in industrial design are quite myopic.

I agree but how do you get around that?

I think what’s more interesting is actively nourishing an interest in culture at large; politics, technology, science, religion and economics and bring all of those things together. Back in the ‘60s in Buckminster Fuller’s ‘Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth,’ he condemns specialization as essentially the confining system that is largely responsible for a lot of our errors as human beings, because people become blinded by seeking their own maximum potential in one area only. In that book he redefines wealth not as financial accumulation but as maximized human potential. For me that’s a really inspiring idea.

I agree, if you only understand your field then you never see how all the systems work together and it’s harder to come up with the different connections that make new ideas that could create progress in your field or others.

Human potential is the greatest when it has the greatest number of avenues and variables to explore. So what am I going to be doing in ten years? I don’t know. If you were to give me a job interview and ask me what I was going to be doing in five years, I’d probably say, not working here. With that said, I don’t want to be judged as non-persistent or someone who doesn’t follow through. I’m obviously interested in completion and I’m definitely interested in this idea of sort of despecializing and trying to learn and grow as much as possible, in as many different ways as possible.

The last thing that I want to ask is your philosophy of the ‘four F’s?’

It was originally explained to me as the ‘three F’s’ by a colleague of mine who may not want to be credited for it. But, his original three F’s were: ‘FUN, FAME and FORTUNE.’ Then a friend asked me for something and I said ‘I’ll do it, but it’s a favor...’ And I thought, ‘FAVOR! The fourth F’. So, there are four reasons to do a project; it’s either FUN, it’s going to make you FAMOUS, it’s going to generate a FORTUNE or it’s a FAVOR. I think those are four good reasons.

Well you need to add FAMILY and FUCKING, But when you’re approached for a project...

I try to adhere to that.

You do?

I mean fame is kind of a nebulous concept, but I guess I’m more of an idealist than anything else.

For some people fame is a very concrete goal.

I mean, I always think it’s so ironic, the idea of being a ‘famous’ industrial designer, because in the end you’re making really dorky, utilitarian objects. There’s this joke amongst my peers in New York that if you want to pick up a girl you shouldn’t tell her that you’re a industrial designer because it just doesn’t work. However, if you say the words ‘creative director,’ then it sounds powerful but industrial designer... not that sexy. Artist, totally good; musician, totally good. ‘I work at a magazine,’ works every time and I’m sure you’ve been pulling that angle, Michael! But, you know, furniture designers and product designers, there’s not a lot of sex appeal and for a good reason. I mean, I just went on and on about a fucking toilet brush that I brought home from Italy.

Good point

(laugh)


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