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Jason Rens

The Portland designer talks about exploring the space between furniture and fine art.

Interview By Genevieve Dellinger, July 2, 2013

Portraits by Ken Tisuthiwongse. Art images courtesy of Jason Rens.


Among the truly exciting young designers you'll find harbored within Portland's small scale yet cosmopolitan streets is Jason Rens. A product of the environment at Oregon College of Art and Craft, where the emphasis lies much more heavily on the notion of “craft” than the desire for “art,” Jason comes as a bit of an anomaly. Unlike many of his peers emerging from the same program, his work is not dogmatically functional. It is dichotomous. His pieces are described as both prototypes and finished works; they have weighty presence and often function more as totems than anything else. His senior show in 2012 attracted the attention of Joseph Magliaro and Shu Hung of Portland’s newest design oasis Table of Contents, which now carries his work, and led to an invitation to participate in Sight Unseen’s Noho Design District at ICFF, NOHO NEXT. 

Jason’s influences are clear. Echoes of the Memphis Collective, Alma Allen, Martino Gamper all can be seen in his work. These artists all carry a tradition of light irreverence that can be seen through Jason’s work as well, and it's one of the things that makes him so special. His worked is finely crafted and thoughtful, but comes along with the offhand, almost casual air that only the most truly talented individuals seem to manage to pull off. In short, Jason is doing hard things and making them look easy.

He started with a background rooted in architecture, which evolved into and interest in interior design and furniture making, and into the small object line RasonJens and design collective SuperMaker, a creative hub located in Southeast Portland in a spacious warehouse (with a history of gonzo style designers occupying the space).

Nothing Major: It's been truly great to see the evolution of your work. It's really come a long way. When we met, you were studying up at Oregon College of Art and Craft and making pretty traditional furniture. Tell me about how you started out as a maker.
Jason Rens: I'm not sure how I started out as a maker. In some ways, I feel I've been doing it all my life with different forms and materials. But this current iteration of interiors, art/objects, and furniture started with the Jace Gace project [a Belgian waffle restaurant in Portland, OR]. Well, roughly. A few years prior I'd started working as a laborer with a design/build firm in Boulder, CO. Mostly residential & commercial interiors. I really liked it and decided to go to school. But after a year or so I dropped out of architecture school and moved to Portland to start working on the restaurant. 

Every ending is a beginning.

Anyway I designed/built that interior with [fellow designers] Nathan Gibson, Giles Neale, and Ryan Kosel. I loved it! Much more than when it opened and it was more about running a business. I just wanted to do more designing and making. So, about a year after we opened, I decided to cash out my portion of ownership and enrolled full-time at OCAC to study craft and woodworking. So, to your inquiry about "making pretty traditional furniture," I was picking up client work post-Jace Gace. Mostly traditional furniture side projects for clients. That's when I got involved with Holocene, I did some tables, benches, and things like that. But it was mostly client-driven as I was just beginning my studies and the journey to discover what would be my unique expression.

I'm interested in your personal evolution and how you've arrived at this place that seems to be a landing between furniture and fine art, without really fully dismissing either.
Yeah, you're totally getting it, as am I. In school there was a huge conversation about craft versus art versus design. With the digital revolution and dominance of technology, craft has gone through another identity crisis. I say “another” because it happened before with the Industrial Revolution when machine automation was thought to be destroying the "hand of the maker" and such. Anyway it's an interesting conversation, but I always felt a more dialectic approach was necessary. Instead of going in search of lines of delineation I found inspiration where they all came together.

OCAC is the last school in America that still has the word "Craft" in its name. So it was something we contemplated often, but it began to feel stifling for me. I began to see craft as a spectrum as opposed to a category. This was important for me because often in the craft community there is an expectation for technical prowess and large amounts of time for a value to be recognized. It's a completely valid view and there is long running history of incredible craft objects. But as I studied and experimented it became clear that I was seeking a way that combined craft with unique artistic expression with design. I wanted my cake and to eat it too! And so, to go a bit further, furniture is an interesting category, right? It requires architectural engineering, aesthetic concerns, design elements, and craft techniques. Plus, both psychologically and physically, it embodies us. And, like architecture and time, we all live with it daily and it dictates much of our experience. It's both highly visible and invisible. I've found it to be an inspiring realm to experiment in.

Let's talk about material, I know you have been working with wood forever, but it looks like some different materials are starting to creep in. Some bronze casting is happening, which is exciting. What's the transition been like? I'd love to know about your connection to material. 
I think of material as different letters in an alphabet. In combination or repetition you can make words which express ideas. But I feel language also has an effect on us subconsciously beyond its "rational" or "intellectual" limits. I feel it's similar with material. On one level we understand it intellectually, but there's also many feelings that material can evoke. And, if you look into the origin of a material, you can begin to sense what those feelings might be. For example, wood is often thought of as having a warmth and timeless feeling. And if you look at a tree it becomes apparent. They're growing up slowly out of the earth's soil as a result of photosynthesis converting the heat of the sun into matter. So wood literally embodies the sun and the unfolding of time. It's the same with any material. Each one physically embodies some kind of process over time and hence the viewer can potentially access that feeling.

I'm very attracted to organic materials like wood, metal, leather, clay, materials that arise in time from the natural world with a minimal refining process. I've only become conscious of this fairly recently, but it's helpful and I take it into account more often. And I continue to learn more about it too. For example, materials have cultural contexts. Metals, for example, underwrite the value of currency. Metals have an economic context and assigned value. My bronze bookends could be sold for the metal. Ha! But all of this goes to giving an object a feeling. Bronze feels very wealthy and refined. It also feels substantial and timeless because we know that it decays much slower than we do. We use it for statues and monuments. It's used to embody some of our most prized ideologies.

Wood is the piano of materials. I was drawn to it because it seemed practical. You can play the rhythm and the melody simultaneously. And with it you can write parts for the other instruments. It's been a very natural and effortless transition to other materials. What's been more interesting to me about the transition to bronze is moving out of the fabricator role. So far 98% of my output I've made with my own hands. The bookends were one of the first opportunities to prototype in wood & then hand off to a foundry. Thankfully it was with my brother Jesse so that made it much easier to relinquish control. We have a great relationship and he has a strong sense of what I'm after. After sending a wood prototype off and then getting bronze bookends back, which felt kind of magical, I was convinced that moving closer to a designing/prototype role is a natural evolution. I'd begun to sense that my creative inspiration was beginning to exceed my own technical know-how and time restraints.

I'd love to know more about your totems; they crop up over and over again in your work. Are these symbolic in some kind of way, or are you just mostly focused on shape?
My work is intuitively driven. There is my unfolding inner world "doing" while simultaneously the "action" of the outside world continues. Both of these points of perception inform the other & between them it seems a charge is created. I often call this charge the "inspiration." Sometimes it arrives as a dream or a white flash or a series of blunders in the shop. I don't question it much these days, but move with it and do my best to embody what it is requesting.

Perhaps one could see the totems as a phallic symbol of masculinity or something like that. Masculine energy maybe. I'm not sure. They read more as antennae to me. I see them as conductors of energy, receptors of inspiration, and transmitters of creative energy. But this perception has only arisen after the fact and while reflecting on the object. The vertical line: i.e. the column, totem, antennae also has a history of symbolizing the connection between heaven and earth.

You often collaborate with the talented jewelry designer Anna Korte, who designs the line AK Vintage. How is that informing what you make? You share a similar point of view, do you find yourselves working together a lot, or is it more of a convergence for specific events?
Yes, she is very talented and inspiring! In watching her process I've learned so much. We both are deeply committed to our studio practices. For both of us it's our first priority and how we work in the world. It's our form of communication and we are often inspired by similar things like modernist architecture, poetry, and decorative arts. I know our relationship has inspired me in profound ways.

One thing that comes to mind is really following your intuition. She's encouraged my to tune in to my intuitive feelings much more. She's always considering how something feels first. My "Pink/Frequency" thesis work was a powerful learning experience. I allowed myself to put my intuition first and it was initially really scary. But Anna was very encouraging and perhaps saw something I hadn't yet.

We've shown a work that we made together called "Threshold" and we've been talking about doing something together under the name "WAHYAY." Coming up in July we're doing a residency together at Sword + Fern. So far we've converged for specific events, but we show each other our work often.

Tell me about your recent collaborations. I know you did something with the mens store Neighbor in Vancouver, and have seen your work at Table of Contents, both of which are retail shops that have a heavy art-focused side. Are you interested in galleries, or do you see your work existing more in these living spaces?
Yeah, I'm really into collaborations right now. And I'm just as interested to see where this is going. There are a couple more retail spaces that have approached me that I'm really excited about, but can't say much about right now. I'm also working with LiFT on a collection of screen-printed wearables. I've also been contacted about designing products for some other lines which I'd really like to do. I'm in the middle of launching a online store for my Rason Jens collections. I'd like to have a retail presence that has, like you said, a "heavy art-focused side". It's important to me to have work that exist in living spaces. I enjoy that simple relationship and appreciation of living with something. But yes, I'd totally enjoy doing more in galleries. I feel like I'm just beginning and I have a vision I'd like to express widely through interiors, art/objects, films, collaborations, and things I haven't even considered yet.

Find out more at RasonJens.com