Joshua Howe Design: Machine Age Organic
Lighting and furniture designer Joshua Howe, covered neck to toe in a rubber welding suit (head protected simply in a dark blue oversized ski cap), greets me in the middle of a narrow, bumpy, tree-crowded Chatham off road. He motions me to follow him onto a rocky private road, and we drive past duck ponds and stray barn chickens to an unknown hilltop destination. The longish ride made me think I might be approaching a secret outpost of the CIA. The mysterious building turns out to be a decent-sized studio workshop with some very sophisticated metal fashioning instruments (one of which can measure parts to within two thousands of an inch), drawings of new designs, neatly organized cabinets containing parts, as well as signature lighting hanging from the ceiling and on the floor. Within these sylvan confines, Howe, age 37, is focused like a drill on the creation of some of the most original modernist lighting and furniture to appear on the decorative arts scene since Serge Mouille or Ingo Maurer – work recently featured in The New York Times Home section and rapidly gaining recognition from decorators and architects nationwide.
The young lighting designer, who works mostly with metal and other industrial materials such as frosted acrylic and cement, the latter of which he mixes himself to create marble-like patterns, spends his days precisely measuring, cutting and drilling away, molding mundane factory parts in quiet artistic solitude. No assembly lines here, just a number of work tables – and that incredible machine. It’s a fascinating mix of the hand made and the industrial, which is as good an explanation of Howe’s vision of design as any. “A lot of what I do is tweak proportions. I have the idea for a piece, and then I play with the scale of the relative materials. It is amazing how radically different the overall feeling of two different pieces based on the same idea can be,” Howe says. (He carries many of these smaller parts and tools in a wonderfully stylish leather doctor’s bag that he found at “some garage or tag sale.”)
Hanging in the center of the space is one of his signature pieces, the Alleron hanging lamp. “It’s named after the flap on the wing of a plane that you see sliding up and down. Part of my inspiration are man-made elements but also botanical things like flower petals, which you can also see on parts of the Alar wall and floor lamps that light up, balanced at the top of a long metal stem. Someone I know called it Machine Age Organic, a description that I really like,” he says.
The minimalist furniture Howe creates also has a graceful industrial attitude. “The nesting tables are a contrast of cement mixed with pigment set into a super super thin metal frame. I like the organic element of the concrete in juxtaposition to the geometrically perfect base that it sits on. The metal work is an exercise in perfection while the concrete is a different kind of exercise—each slab is one of a kind. Which is both good and bad: I get lots of requests from people who say that they like this slab or that one. I can get very close but I can’t replicate it exactly.” His concrete method: “Add colored pigments, swirl together, let it dry, and hope for the best. I love the material but I do so much to what it naturally is. I feel like I’m just scratching the surface with it.”
After studying at Parsons (where he earned a degree in industrial and product design), and then working at an architecture firm in New York City, Howe moved to the area five years ago with a girlfriend who worked at Jacob’s Pillow. But it wasn’t until a couple of Hudson shops –Sherri Jo Williams’ culture + commerce project and (the now sadly closed) Mix – started displaying his work that Howe really got going on his current path. In addition to being able to purchase completed pieces at Williams’ store, “she also sends me requests for custom sizes if the scale isn’t exactly right for them.”
As for where all this inspiration came from, Howe only has a vague idea. “There’s definitely a pattern in all that I create, but where that all comes from I have no idea. There seems to be a lot of repetition going on but it’s just there inside me.” Now that his work is getting national exposure, I ask if it has turned into a boffo business. Howe demurs, in typical low- key fashion. “I’m getting custom work, some interior design, and architecture firms are on the radar. While my studio is capable of doing limited run productions, my passion is for the projects where my hands are a part of everything, even possibly factory orders. But I don’t want it to get to be too much for me. I want to be able to do it all myself.” —Scott Baldinger