Fresh Talent: John Liston

By Regina Connell.

I wasn’t the only one completely blown away by John Liston‘s work at the American Craft Council Show in San Francisco. Throughout the show, his booth was mobbed, and as I wandered the aisles, the buzz was all about John. So when it came time for us to give out the Award of Excellence for the show… well, it just had to be John.

Craft meeting design as seamlessly as I’ve ever seen it. Warm modernism. Smooth, crisp lines. Bursts of color. Crazily detailed craft, setting off sleek lines. Thoughtful, functional details.  I’m still thinking about every little piece I saw that day.

John Liston specializes in strong, clean lines

Not surprisingly (except perhaps to him) John sold most of the work on display during the show. And the crazy thing? He was wait-listed to get into the show to begin with. And this was his first show.

But it won’t be his last one. This quiet, self-effacing man with a shy smile is a designer-maker on the rise. Next up for him are the Architectural Digest Show and the Dwell on Design Show. (His work was accepted unanimously by both juries.)

John in the studio

John’s day job is with John Lewis Glass Studio, where he does mold making and metal fabrication and then helps cast the glass. (The studio is known for its award-winning work: in addition to its own pieces, it does architectural commissions for the likes of Frank Gehry and Norman Foster.)

And yet somehow, John manages to find the time to make his own work.

How long have you worked with John Lewis? I’ve been working with John Lewis for 5 years. It’s the longest time I’ve ever had a job. I grew up a military brat, and since then I’ve always seemed to need to make a change.

My dad was in the military and spent time overseas (mostly in England and in Germany). Every time we had a school vacation we would hop on a train and go somewhere. My dad would go off on temporary leave and my mom was pretty fearless: she’d hop on the train with 4 kids. It was great. By the time I moved back to the US when I was 11, I had 22 different countries in my passport.

What do you think all that exposure did for you? It led me to being really independent.

What else did you take away from all of that? Since so many of the things we did were cheap or free, there were a lot of architectural things we’d look at: castles in England and Germany, churches in France, lots of gardens. One of the things I’d hear from my mom: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” As kids, of course, we weren’t as cognizant of that, but looking back it’s amazing the things we did!

Architectural metalwork

Were you always making stuff as a kid? We were always scouting and we were always doing handicrafts. I’m always getting bored and doing something.

So in college you studied … ? Metal work and jewelry design. [John graduated with a BFA in metalwork and jewelry design from Rochester Institute of Technology].

Metalworks in progress

What’s your favorite part of the jewelry process? I loved exploring new techniques and working with metal in general. Honestly, it’s so malleable and there’s not much you can do to mess it up, whereas with ceramics and glass it’s so hard to fix your mistakes. [He still does mock-ups in small scale.]

Is there a piece you’re particularly proud of? A bearing ring. (I was always into skateboarding, so I bored out a track and put in ruby balls. It’s a great piece.)

When did you move from small to larger scale? Later in college. I liked the aspect of working large; there’s something more physical about it. I always grew up doing sports (soccer, tennis, skiing, and snow boarding) and with jewelry you’re not using your whole body.

I love being able to feel it in all of your muscles.

John’s workspace

Woodworking in progress

So how’d you make the transition? After I graduated from college, I worked at an art foundry called Polich Art Works just outside NYC. We were doing most of Frank Stella‘s work… that’s where I ended up working with amazing people, including Louis Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Maya Lin, etc. [Amazing.] Working one-on-one with these artists just really inspired me to doing what I’m doing now. It taught me that having your own view point is so important.

You’re working with all these amazing artists in New York; what made you want to move West? It was simple. I wanted to explore the West Coast. So I moved to the Bay Area in 2001 and expected to get bored with the area and move on. But I haven’t gotten bored yet! I moved to Berkeley to begin with, and I’m still there.

And I’ve been focusing on the furniture business since then. I started working at the ArtWorks Foundry in Berkeley doing bronze foundry work.

Liston orange chair

Your work has such amazing lines. I see some architectural influences… Yes. I love industrial structures and things like that. I love architectural shadows. It’s kind of where that kind of concept comes from: furniture is small architecture. I’m trying to make it as minimal as possible or as strong as possible.

A lot of furniture gets over-designed. I’m about stopping the clutter.

Wood suspension bench

Do you have a favorite building? Or type of building? The structures I tend to lean toward the most are like grain silos: something that’s holding something organic. I don’t know why those come to me. I love the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. They’re an enormous inspiration for me.

Material matters

I’m absolutely drooling over that rocking chair, and believe me, I don’t feel that way about most of them. Tell me about how this one came to be. I’ve always liked rocking chairs and I was trying to come up with something that was modern, something that I could see myself using. I love negative shapes and like to be able to see through things, but still have form. Leather works well. I love the idea of hanging chairs and of leather. It forms to your body so well.

Leather rocking chair

Do you sketch as part of your process? I feel that the best ones are the spontaneous ones. I’ll do small models… but not really. I find that if I sit down and draw it out, the final project just doesn’t work as well.

Liston Halo lamp

You work with so many materials. Do you do all the work yourself? That sideboard that I’m still thinking about… the burnt wood detail work on that was mind-blowing. So many people just get so deeply into one thing. I’ve never been afraid of materials. In foundry work, you learn about so many different materials. You have to not be afraid to use them. The burnt wood cabinet was all old pallet wood that I cut and stacked together, and then put in a metal frame. Shou-sugi-ban [the Japanese technique of burning wood to create texture and color] was the inspiration for the cabinet.

Burnt wood sideboard

Burnt wood sideboard, interior

What’s next? I see myself constantly making. I want to be able to outsource some of the production and have a limited production, but constantly have new, one of a kind, one-off things.

What’s a dream for you? I’d like to be in a high-end gallery. To be surrounded by other people I look up to; that’s what I’d love.

But I love the functionality of furniture. I want it to be usable.

Who would play you in the movie of your life? Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He’s amazing. He gets so into character. And what kind of movie? More of a drama. I was born with a cleft palette, so I had like 12-13 different surgeries by the time I was 16. I think that every summer from 10-17 I was having surgery for something.

What do you read for fun? I love culinary stuff as well, so Blood, Bones & Butter was one of my most recent books. But another author I really like is AM Homes. I read one of her stories in McSweeney’s and got hooked on her. She captures suburban living and how terrible it can be sometimes.


All images of finished work courtesy of J. Liston Design

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