Is it Retro? Modern? Or Just Fabulous?
by Tammy Adamson-McMullen
There's no doubt that we've become a throw-away society, says Kurt Lenard, who owns 31 & Change Furniture Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y. But much of what we throw away—especially manufactured items from the '30s, '40s and '50s—are not only salvageable but, with a little work, highly desirable, suggests the young advertising-executive-turned-furniture-designer, who is making a name for himself in the home-furnishings market.
Lenard's creations are a combination of flea-market finds, natural materials, industrial components and eye-popping colorful accents. He especially likes using reclaimed items from bygone eras. Whether it's a cabinet with industrial-strength drawers or a beautiful Victorian chair with curvaceous legs, "There's something about the craftsmanship back then that we don't create today," he says. "Part of what I enjoy doing is taking that old stuff and giving it a new life, but not just a new life but a new look."
Lenard is fairly new to the home-furnishings world, but he's always been intrigued by design "in the traditional sense," as he says. After working most of the last decade in advertising and graphic design, Lenard went back to school and studied woodworking. He opened a studio last fall and named it "31 and Change" to reflect important dates and moments in his life.
"I was born on Aug. 31, and I turned 31 when I launched (the store) in the fall. 'Change' reflects the decision to quit my advertising career and chase this crazy dream down," he explains.
The dream included Lenard's desire to create something tangible, with substance and weight, that reflects his design sensibilities. While his creations are definitely artistic, "They don't belong in a gallery but in a house," he states. "I don't want to make anything that you look at but don't use. That's definitely not my world."
Lenard has been surprised at the growing response to his furnishings, which are sold not only at his studio but in other stores around Manhattan and also on Fab.com. The popularity of his pieces might have a lot to do with the way Lenard artfully puts together polar-opposite concepts. His work is both retro and modern, organic and industrial, urban and rustic.
A prime example of this dichotomy can be found in the Green Avenue collection. Each bench incorporates three different cast-off chairs, which Lenard restores and paints in the same bright color, that are then connected by a bench seat made from hard hickory.
Another example is an end table from the Union Street collection. The table is constructed from a cross-section of Buckeye burl from California, mounted on an antique cast-iron water heater base from New York. The base, originally built in the late 19th century, is revitalized with a fresh powder coat of energetic green.
Lenard's bright color palette also draws attention to his work. Lenard enjoys adding a hot pink, lipstick red or shocking yellow to a piece. The colors help to tie the look together and give it a contemporary edge. Plus, "By adding a bold color, I can make it eye-catching and popping," he says.
Lenard sources his reclaimed pieces from estate auctions, garage sales, second-hand stores (including one of his favorites called "Junk" in Brooklyn) and even from curb sides and trash bins. "I've pulled multiple chairs out of the trash that just needed a little glue or fixing," he says.
Where wood is concerned, Lenard purchases many pieces from a lumberyard in Sheffield, Mass., called Berkshire Lumber. The lumberyard, which is reputed to have the largest display of unusual slabs and burls in New England, has "some of the most beautiful slabs on the East Coast by far," he says.
When Lenard sees something at one of these outlets that interests him, he almost always gets an idea of how it might be used to create a unique piece.
Though his venture is still fairly new, Lenard already is enjoying some of the rewards of his work. His pieces range from $300 to $2,200, depending on the piece, and are attracting an international audience.
But mostly Lenard enjoys the freedom of creating something that's uniquely his own.
In advertising, "A lot of people have a say in your work. It kind of goes up the ladder to your boss and then to (his or her) boss, and by the time it comes back it's been changed a lot," Lenard explains.
"Here, I find a lot of happiness in that when the piece is done, it's still mine," he continues. "I sometimes occasionally go back into advertising, maybe for a month or so on a contract basis. But the furniture has so much peace to it."
For a look at more of Lenard's work, check out the following pages.