There’s just something about the simple beauty of matte white plaster that sends our design hearts aflutter, and it turns out we’re not alone. Brooklyn-based artist Stephen Antonson, who has been crafting his custom plaster pieces since 2002, counts mega-designers Michael Smith, James Huniford, and Miles Redd among his regular clients.
Stephen showed us around his work space, dished on his craziest commission to date, and shared what a typical day looks like for an artist whose medium is quickly gaining “of the moment” status.
What first attracted you to plaster as a medium?
“I love how versatile it is. You can sculpt it, tint it, paint with it. I really like the fact that it is such a prosaic material, but it can be shaped into pieces that belie its humble makeup.”
What were you doing before you started working with plaster?
“I was making fine art—drawings, photos, and videos—and showing it in galleries. But I have always made my own furniture and lighting.”
Do you consider yourself a product designer or an artist?
“I am an artist. It just so happens that I also design objects that are functional.”
How do your pieces usually begin?
“My work always begins with pencil drawings followed by wood or clay prototypes.”
Can you walk us through your process from start to finish?
“There are two ways the work is made. Either it is sculpted in clay and then cast, or it is constructed and wrapped in plaster. I sculpt the sconces from clay and then cast them. The chandeliers and tables are fabricated in wood or steel, then plastered. I put several layers on to ensure stability. Each piece requires lots of sanding followed by multiple coats of paint so that, in the case of a table, you can eat off it.”
How long does a piece typically take to create?
“It depends on the piece and the method I used to make it. The candlesticks take a few days, and a shell mirror requires about two months: I make each shell by hand and then approach it like a jigsaw puzzle, piecing the shells together to fit just so.”
Why did you choose to set up your studio in Brooklyn?
“The particular area I’m in is filled with makers of every kind. There are woodworkers, glassblowers, metalsmiths, musicians, dancers, weavers, you name it. There’s a shared language here: We are all creative problem solvers who want to devote our lives to doing just that… while making a living.”
What does a typical day look like for you?
“I get up at 6 a.m. and draw or look at books for at least an hour before my two boys wake up. I try to do this every day. After the breakfast shuffle, I ride both of them to school on a fantastic three-seater Dutch bike, by far the best way to get around. I go straight to the studio after that and begin working. I walk home for lunch, then return to work for the remainder of the afternoon. On these days, the bulk of my time is spent painting the plaster on or sanding it off. I spend very little time sitting. Some days, clients come to visit, to see the progress of their pieces. Other days, I have meetings with designers who want me to make a custom piece for one of their clients.”
We couldn’t help but notice the marble game. Is there a story behind that?
“My nine-year-old son, Finn, made it for his school’s science fair, the theme of which was Rube Goldberg inventions. We worked on it together along with his younger brother, James. The boys love to come to the studio, and they are here quite regularly.”
Where do you look for inspiration?
“I draw a lot. And I look around at everything: galleries, museums, books, and just the visuals of everyday life—a door handle, a streetlamp, a handrail, a fence.”
Are there any other artists or designers whose work has influenced yours?
“I always find myself turning to the French. But the real revelation is Hermann Obrist.”
Any specific books that you turn to during your design process?
“My wife describes my passion for art and design books as an obsession—there is always something that sets me down a path in them. I can’t say that there is any one in particular that is dog-eared.”
Do you have a favorite commission or one that was especially noteworthy for either its beauty or its off-the wall nature?
“Last year I made a gigantic chandelier designed to look like sea coral for Amanda Nisbet with 160 LEDs. David Mann commissioned a wall-and-ceiling installation inspired by my shell mirror. It’s gratifying when the work evolves this way.”
Is there a common misconception about your work or something you’d love for people to better understand about plaster?
“The most common misunderstanding is the idea that plaster is fragile. It isn’t. If you think about the old-school casts doctors used to keep a reset broken bone in place, you get the idea. I’m making dining tables that can handle heavy centerpieces, dishes, flatware, elbows, even red-wine spills!”
How would you describe your work in three words?
“Subtle, handmade, elegant.”
Anything new coming up in 2013 that you’re excited about?
“I just finished a circular cocktail table with a floating top that I am very happy with. I’m also working on a folding screen inspired by the surface of the moon that is going to be quite beautiful. I really like collaborating on any custom project, and it’s already looking like this year will be a fulfilling one that way.”