We are mutts, most of us, aren’t we? We’re a little of this, a little of that. And that’s why the concept of purity is both seductive (we love what we are not), and alien. Dangerous, even. (Dear God, where is she going, you’re saying. Bear with me.)
In craft and art terms, it’s common to think that single media–wood, glass, ceramics–are what’s natural, but maybe–just maybe–what’s more natural is mixed media.
A little tension between the elements is good: it keeps things interesting, makes you remember, gets you to think. Purists may say it’s gimmicky, and in many cases it is. But when it’s done well, the piece stops being about the material itself, and becomes an entirely different object, an entirely different experience.
Not everyone who attempts this gets it right. It requires mastery of multiple forms, and mastery of the combination. A couple of bad decisions in the combining process, and what you have is a hot, hot mess on your hands. And all the great craft technique in the world won’t save you, honey.
That’s why a lot of people stick with purity. And that’s a pity, because the combination, if done right, can be pretty magical.
Enter Florian Roeper of Studio Roeper, mix master extraordinaire, whose work’s been aptly called “soft industrial” and “sensuous cerebral”. He works in wood (salvaged), etched copper and brass, resin, and leather, creating intricately simple doors, tables (dining, coffee, side), and chairs. A single medium is not for him. And thank goodness.
The day I showed up at his studio/workshop in at Alameda Point Studios, a former Naval Air Station (check out a previous posts on other studio denizens, Chris Loomis and Liz Dunning), I found an old industrial sewing machine sitting in the middle of the studio. Leather samples were scattered over a couple of worktables. An awl rolled around, bumping into a wood sample. Good sign, I thought.
Turns out mixing is in his blood. Florian was born in and grew up in Heidelberg, Germany. His father’s German, and his mother’s Italian. Break it down, and you see it. He’s frank, funny, incisive, direct. And he uses his hands to gesticulate. A lot.)
An interesting combination. Southern Germany and Northern Italy, perhaps? No. My father was from Hamburg (northern Germany, near Denmark) and my mom’s family was originally from Sicily, but she grew up in Tripoli (Libya was an Italian colony through WWII.) And my grandfather is half Greek. (Now that’s a combination.)
And you came to the SF Bay Area…how? When I was 5, we moved to Bay Area for my dad’s business. Then we moved back to Germany when I was in high school.
But I always expected to come back to the States; my idea was to go to college here. I had originally been interested in architecture but chose the simpler version. I started studying graphic design. Why graphic design? I’ve always liked form: my eyes are really good with form and I just really liked the language of it.
How’d you get into the idea of making to begin with? My sister’s boyfriend, actually. He had made my sister a stereo cabinet that looked like it came out of a store. That surprised me in a positive way…it was amazing and cool that you could just use tools that let you make things like that. The meaning of the piece was so much greater.
So you landed at CCA. Yes, that was an easy decision: I loved that everything was under one roof. I signed up for graphic design but got to see what was going on in other areas…and got locked into wood instead. What got you so excited about it? Was there a certain piece that thrilled you? Yes. I’d seen a piece in San Diego: it was a Japanese-style low coffee table. It had a couple of vessels built into it that just made it very interesting. My first coffee table was a similar idea.
So post-CCA…I had started working in my senior year at CCA. I was an apprentice for Al Garvey, now retired. For many decades his specialty was exterior doors. He was the person who got me into the patina work in copper and brass and zinc. He also opened the door to seeing what it meant to be a craftsman and what that lifestyle was all about. He worked out of his garage, and his workshop felt like his second living room.
He also made everything in his house–he was very much of his era that way. That was common for studio craftspeople of that generation, putting his hand into everything that surrounded him. Very true. Did that appeal to you? Not really, I’m not so into carpentry.
But you were into doing more art-related work, more sculptural work. Yes, soon after I went out on my own, I was able to do a show together with Donald Fortescue. We both did sculpture.
Around the same time, Al left the country, and I was looking for job but what was available was mostly cabinetmaking jobs. I’d bring my portfolio along and they’d be surprised. Finally one guy said, can’t you just try to find a shop and do some more work that you want to do. So I did. And I moved into Alameda Point.
The gallery I’d been working with commissioned some pieces. But not a lot sold. So I decided to do more functional work, but put your art into it. (Smart.)
So you took the combining you’d learned with Al, and kept working it. Yes, I keep integrating the metal work and over the years it’s become all about the mixture and the combining of materials. I can’t use just one thing. There’s not a single piece in my collection that’s made of one wood. Even the entirely wooden bench includes lots of different woods. That’s my signature. I’m pretty sure it’s just coming out of my cultural background….a divided cultural background, two parents from different cultures, being German in America and vice versa. (Perfect.)
Talk about your other influences. Architecture is a big one, I love examining proportions, shapes, spatial relationships. Example? I travel to Italy a lot and I like going to the old churches, Renaissance buildings…all the ornamental finishes, paintings, columns, marble inlay. Not that I want that in my living room but it’s more an emotional inspiration (I know what he means) I can put myself 500 years back in time and feel that this truly was something holy to build, not just in a religious sense, but in a spiritual sense. From a business perspective, it was also a great marketing pitch for the Church (heehee). They built these insane buildings and people would come from all over and look and marvel at these things in disbelief, er…belief.
There is a style that influences me because of its simplicity: Romanesque. Solemn and humble and again holy in a spiritual sense. That’s inspiring to me.
I also like the work of HC Westermann. He’s from the Vietnam Era, a sailor back then….he came back and opened a wood shop and started tinkering around. He makes lots of references to sailing, but not literally. I can’t put in words what I like about his work. Maybe the way he uses materials. Plus he uses a lot of found objects. (HC Westermann used his work to comment on social issues…which Florian does, as well.)
Anyone else? I have a very very favorite piece of art: Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons.
Seriously! First time I’ve heard Jeff Koons mentioned in one of our interviews, and I’m kind of loving it. Why? It’s mostly how that object is crafted, the fabrication of it. I don’t know a single piece that is more subtle in its fabrication but is so damned loud. Most people don’t look at the creases made into stainless steel to mimic the creases on a baloon. There was a piece on Iconoclasts about the making of this piece…that’s just really inspiring stuff. The fabrication is just so subtle. I try to emulate that.
Why is subtlety so important to you? I’ve been exposed to the overly craft side of furniture. So my highest goal is to be subtle. That doesn’t mean that my work isn’t decorative. But I don’t want it to scream, “Look at this cool technique!!!”. I hope that in my work the technique is visible but quiet. (Too rare a POV, alas.)
How do you work? Mostly commissions? Yes, but most of my work is based on my collections.
Who plays you in the movie of your life? The show would be based on Project Runway, but more like Project Crit for furniture. I’d be the Simon Cowell character. Really? Would you be as vicious? (He looks like such a gentle soul…) No! I’d be very constructive. But I love to critique work and I’m very quick to know what could be improved. I make fast decisions. This is the German in you coming out. Definitely! How do people take that? They know I don’t mean it personally!
Too funny. What was the best gift given? My girlfriend gave me a gift certificate to Osmosis, where you take a bath in cedar chips treated with enzymes. (Been there. Awesome. And deeply, bizarrely Northern Californian. And no, the cedar chips don’t give you splinters.) How appropriate a place for a wood guy. Yeah. Closest to being a tree that I’ve ever felt. That was so, so good.
First thing reached for in the morning? Water for my face….
And what things define you? Things don’t define me. I hate owning things when I’m not really comfortable with them. A rentable culture would be good: I love to return things.