Interview: Concrete Designs of James De Wulf
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Is concrete…sexy? Before you laugh or start to say no, we implore you to check out the evidence in the amazingly creative work of James De Wulf. He’s making concrete look sleek, modern and yes, quite sexy. He’s mastering concrete — finding exciting ways to manipulate the material, creating gorgeous furniture that would look stunning in modern homes and those of any style. He also happens to be one of our newest designers at 2Modern!
We got to call James and ask him why he uses concrete — and let us tell you, his passion for this material is palpable. It’s so refreshing to find someone who loves and gets fired up for a material and their designs so much. We got to ask him about his inspirations, how he got into concrete and what he’d (jokingly) be doing if he wasn’t a furniture designer (for all our sakes we hope he sticks with it!). And of course, check him out on 2Modern: James De Wulf.
We’ve got that transcript down below! Shop for James De Wulf products.
2Modern: We are speaking with the talented and dynamic furniture designer James DeWulf today. Thanks for sitting down with me!
James DeWulf: Of course.
2M: So let’s just dive right into your background. How did you come to be a furniture designer?
JDW: I fell into it really. I was groomed for finance by my father and then I kind of stumbled into making concrete once and fell in love with it and never turned back.
2M: How does one even play with concrete? Were you working on a home project or something?
JDW: No, I was a real estate developer and I was working on a condo project at the time and my architect said I should look at concrete countertops. And I thought that sounded cool, so I visited a shop and didn’t end up using the guy, but at the time I just thought it was so neat to work with a material that was liquid that turned to stone. And then when I actually moved to California and started messing around with it I just thought it was so cool. I was making ash trays and anything vessel-like.
2M: When you started making concrete countertops and concrete vessels, was that right about when concrete as a material really took off?
JDW: No, I wouldn’t say so. I’ve definitely had a nice impact on the industry, but I would say the pioneers of concrete as a really serious interior material have been Fu-Tung Cheng, maybe Buddy Rose, Syndecrete was a nice company that got into it, David Hertz…but I probably got into the game 10 years after the first people started doing it. Using concrete, really high finish, pre-cast, poured upside down sort of thing, I’m about 10 years late to the game. But usually the people who do this kind of work — because it’s very heavy, laborious kind of work — usually those people are your contractor types. And I like doing that kind of work, but I also went to Emory [University] and I’m very mathematical minded and it turns out I love design. We’re the one company that I know about that is really design driven but we also handle all of our own manufacturing. So it’s given us a niche. And I’ve played a lot with the boundaries of the material. Meaning I’ve really tweaked the strength and the ductility of the materials so that I can achieve thin pieces that before weren’t really possible. And design-wise, because I know I can make it that way, I play with the proportion to achieve something that I find very aesthetically pleasing. Which someone else trying to make the same thing would make it big and bulky. I don’t know if that makes sense.
2M: Oh definitely, definitely. I was gonna ask if you have some sort of your own proprietary mix that is this secret formula that no one else knows about.
JDW: We do. We do. Definitely.
2M: And it really looks like you stay on top of what’s going on in the concrete world in terms of materials and new technologies. Do you like reaching out there and finding the newest things?
JDW: I do. I don’t consciously do it but just because I’m in it all the time, but yeah, I definitely have my finger on the pulse of technology in the concrete world for sure.
2M: It sounds like the materials themselves are a huge inspiration for your designs, but do you look to anything else?
JDW: You know what’s funny? I do get inspired and I’m a super emotional person and I feel that when I look at too much other design I get a little too inspired. So I try not to get too influenced by other designs. I never went to design school, I try not to look at design magazines because I find you’re unconsciously mimicking these other designs that you love. So when I design I try to get in a…not childlike…but fun, I’m sketching, doing what I think is gonna sell or what the market wants.
2M: The bulk of your work is custom projects?
JDW: I’m now doing about 70 percent of what I call product. Dining tables, coffee tables…sometimes they are customized and sometimes they are just standard what I design. And then 30% is custom sinks and counters and stuff.
2M: How enthusiastic or hesitant are homeowners about bringing concrete elements into the home?
JDW: There’s definitely a hesitation with concrete. It’s been around since I started 10 years ago. It’s still here now. Concrete has a bad rap from people who don’t really know what they’re doing or people having unrealistic expectations for what a product can do. It’s not a machine made thing, it’s an organic, handmade product which has imperfections which I see as beauty. But then, the way we seal it is very durable and long lasting. A lot of people do foam core or fake weird stuff that either makes it look cheesy or it doesn’t perform properly. So there are a lot of people out there who doubt the material because of that.
2M: I’ve definitely seen some bad stuff. But looking at your stuff — it’s kind of sexy your pieces. Being able to get that thin profile, that sleekness, it’s really good-looking stuff.
JDW: Thanks. I’m glad you said that. It’s funny, I was interviewed a couple of years ago and said I thought concrete was sexy and got made fun of for that from all my friends. But I do find it to be a very sexy material. Our finish that we’re kind of known for has a very buttery feel to it. When I’m at trade shows it seems like every person that walks by has to touch it. The organic nature, the surface…I’m not sure what it is about it exactly but it’s definitely a touchy feel material. And, I’m obviously biased, but I like to think my designs are sexy.
2M: Well I agree, so it’s okay. No one will make fun of you. Let’s talk about the future of your business.
JDW: We’re expanding slowly, but we are. I’m doing lighting now, mostly out of brass and hammered iron and then with our tables we’re exploring other materials as well. Obviously concrete’s always going to be the main material I work with, but I love brass and I love stainless steel, pretty much all metals. I don’t really work with aluminum much because I’ve found it to be weak and with time it doesn’t perform like I like. But yeah. I’m pushing all kinds of materials and trying to have fun with crazy designs and what not.
2M: Are you staying away from wood on purpose?
JDW: When I first started I did a fair amount of work with black walnut, which is a beautiful wood. I do still sometimes work with wood. The real answer to your question is I don’t know. I really get fired up about concrete and metal and so I just kind of go that way and I really feel like I understand the structural characteristics of both those materials and I know how to push the envelope with steel. With wood, there are so many people doing wood. I don’t know. I could make some wood pieces. I have nothing against working with it; it’s just not something that I’m super excited about.
2M: If you weren’t making furniture, what would you be doing? Would you still be doing real estate or would the finance plan of your father would have worked out?
JDW: No, I could never survive in an office environment. Honestly if I wasn’t designing and working with my hands and being creative I’d probably be under a bridge doing heroin.
2M: [laughs] Well alright. Thanks so much for talking with us.
JDW: Thank you.
2M: You’ve been listening to a 2Modern designer interview, for more fun podcasts, design advice and more, check out the blog at 2Modern.com