Encinitas, CA-based Marcus Papay is one of the more unlikely rising talents of the design/making world. Major surfer. Low key. Ready smile. Collaborative. Keenly, subtly intelligent. One of those sees-something-that-needs-to-be-done guys and just gets on with it.
And yet, he had one of the hottest products in our recent 100% California booth at Dwell, one of the ones that was most obsessively Instagrammed, tweeted, and written up in various august publications.
It was his Sinuous Lamp that did the trick, a modernist three-legged floor light with a “shade” that reminded me a little of spun sugar or cotton candy close up, except what was spun was fiberglass and a renewable form of resin, and it came in shades like daiquiri, tangelo, and sexy black. There’s both lightness and rigor; the effect is subtle, cool, and playful, without that try-too-hard irony that’s out there.
The effect, of course, is 100% Marcus, and yes, absolutely, quintessentially 100% California. We caught up with him post-show.
We’re always so interested in the choices people make in life, and in their careers. In your case, was it mostly nature or mostly nurture? Well, in my case, nature and nurture came together. My grandfather had a hobbyist workshop, and there I’d be as a kid, tinkering away at the workshop, with full attention (which is pretty rare for a kid). I’m pretty sure that had a heavy impact on who I am today: the hands-on creativity that comes from just watching and doing. And my dad is an engineer, my sister is an architect, her husband is an engineer, you get the idea. But basically I grew up around the ethos of making things instead of buying them…or buying them and them making them what you want to be.
And California? Your work feels like the state but how did growing up here influence you? Maybe not the way you might think. I grew up in Camarillo, classic California suburbia with all those tract homes. And in those homes, everyone has the same furniture. You see all the same things all the time, and you get really bored. So as I was growing up, I got the idea that I wanted to see something different. So I would take things apart and put them back together, paint them, do all that. [His mom must have loved him.]
So what was the first thing you remember making or altering? You know as a kid you’d get these model car kits. Well, I built this ‘69 Camaro. But when I was done, it looked too normal, so I changed the wheels for some that were really big, and lowered it, painted it gold. I totally tricked this thing out, and it had a totally different meaning. I was 15.
You tend to refer to yourself as an artist. Is that how you think of yourself? You know, these terms are so fickle. I was lured into calling myself an artist in grad school. [He received his MFA from San Diego State University, studying under Wendy Maruyama]. The reality is that it takes art and design and craft to make a thing no matter what. Part of me is a designer, part of me is an artist, part of me is a maker…and now I’m a business man.
Who, along the way, has influenced you? David Trubridge for sure has had a big impact on me. [We’d have to agree. See our profile on this maverick here.] I got a scholarship through SDSU to study an international business. I got to New Zealand and everyone thought I’d be surfing all day (I just ended up surfing half the time), but David had an artist incubator that had emerging designers working through it. In the program, designers would pay a small fee to have shop access and access to David. I got to spend some time with them, but then also sat through meetings with clients, and I got a good look at the business side of what I was getting into. It was a really powerful experience to see that someone created these amazing products that were risky—he was selling his vision of what style is. That’s when I started shifting toward design and away from pure sculpture and art. It taught me how important your environment is, too. They’re in a part of the world where the environment really impacts them, so a lot of their work was based on that. Coming from California, there’s awareness of the environment, of course, but we’re really pretty sheltered. It’s not really dauntingly present for us. I walked away from the experience feeling like I should really draw from where I’m from and let the culture resonate through to my work.
How does that show up? I build things that are pleasing to the eye but that have a mysterious element to it. The ocean has a real impact on me: there’s this energy that it has that I try to harness in my work. I put it into my pieces in my own way. I let that impact me, and channel through the aesthetics of my pieces. That’s the hardest part for me: channeling these ideas that we have into our designs in a non-obvious way.
Why do you think your design is such a stand out? With the internet and all the design blogs, we can see all these styles from distant cultures and that tends to influence people a lot. But things are getting muddled. I think we should be about where we are. What’s interesting is when it truly is about the place. I like the idea of grounding it here. Design should stem from localized parts of our culture, in a way it defines us. When we design things from influences outside our way of life, it loses meaning. The work I have been focusing on reflects the world I see around me. Not through images on a computer screen or television, but in the people’s homes and yards and cars around me. I feel it is more true to the interpretation of my culture.
How’s your business evolving? I’m really embracing lighting right now. When I was making furniture, I wasn’t free to make any form I wanted. Why not? Because I’m pretty much a minimalist. I mean, there’s no reason to change a perfect chair: How can you better perfection? It’s hard for me to put myself into that object. But lighting is different. It’s functional sculpture. I’m able to be really open and free about it. Right now, I’m having fun making lighting and getting into LEDs. I’m starting to talk with LED light suppliers who have cool designs that I can incorporate. It’s got me really hooked.
OK, let’s talk about surfing. How much time do you spend surfing right now? I just got back from a surfing trip in Mexico, where we surfed 6 hours a day. I went with my crew: it’s a week of surfing hard. Surfing is therapeutic for me…I work a lot of design issues when I’m surfing because I’m not thinking about anything else. Conditions inspire a lot of textures and finishes. When I was in Mexico, it was calm, so the surface of the ocean was really smooth though it had the rolling waves. Then this thundercloud moved overhead, and the texture that made on the ocean was incredible. It was a really mystical thing that happened for a little while. Surfing also teaches you to be very patient. You can’t make nature do anything. You have to roll with whatever comes through. You have to figure out and ride the energy. Pretty cool. I’m lucky to have grown up surfing.
Who would play you in a movie? Oh, I don’t know. Probably Jeff Bridges. He has this easygoing way about his craft that resonates with me and he plays his characters genuinely.
What are the five objects that define you?
- The yellow #2 pencil I’m always looking for
- Messy hair
- Student-made coffee mug
- Resin stains on my shirt
- Red eyes (not from the wacky tabacky, from constant saw dust)
Unless otherwise specified, all images by Marcus Papay.