IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGORY BESON:
STUDIO BESON

Nov/Dec 2022
Interview by Devon Harris
Portraits by Jen Steele
“Tenderness” show photography by John Daniel Powers

I first met Gregory Beson at the furniture showroom in Lincolnville where I was working. He was my first sale, taking home a cherry Shaker side chair with a green, woven seat. Gregory lives and works in New York, but has a deep love of Maine, largely born from the time he spent in Blue Hill in his 20s. This past year he bought a plot of land on Vinalhaven Island, on which he plans to make a home.

I met up with Gregory at his studio in Brooklyn, a large, warm, space that smelled of mahogany. Gregory sat in an old, Arts and Crafts–style rocker, and I on a low, deep couch (which he told me later was designed by Hella Jongerius for the UN.) Gregory is soft-spoken, and I leaned forward on my elbows to hear him, praying my mic was picking up his words—many, but carefully chosen. I had questions prepared, but didn’t look at them once. As he told me, he’s been doing very little socializing lately (too busy preparing for his upcoming solo show) and has spent much of the last month in solitude. It felt as if my being there was less for an interview and more as fresh ears for conversations he’s been having with himself for weeks.

But Gregory is anything but self-absorbed, and repeatedly guided our conversation back to the idea of helping others. Were he not a furniture designer, he joked, he’d probably be a high school guidance counselor. For him the draw of Maine is the return to a more collaborative ecosystem. He has many friends there already, and spoke reverently about the many ways in which they support not only each other, but their neighbors and communities.

As we talked, he walked over to his large bookshelf and pulled titles that he thought would interest me. One of them was The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, as he reflected on the etymology of the word craft (from German kraft, meaning strength or power). In New York, he struggles with the tendency for power to be measured in money and status. Through the lens of craft, power is measured by the impact of your work. He refers to this influence as waves—the things we do and make inevitably causing ripples of influence far from our conscious understanding. As he spoke, my eyes drifted to photos of the wave-like ridges on a beach, taped to the wall above a textured, hand-carved side table that will go in his upcoming show—his philosophies literally etched into the material he uses.

When it was time to go, Gregory drove me across the bridge so I wouldn’t have to wait for a Lyft in the rain.



Mark

I want to talk to you about chairs.

I like using chairs as a vehicle, something everyone can understand. If you have a body, you can understand a chair. It’s anthropomorphic. It looks like a being. It has character. You can project yourself into it— what will I feel sitting in that?

When I was in school, thinking a lot about materials and systems, I designed the bone chair and salt chair so I could use that typology to explore those essentially artistic ideas. I was essentially trying to be a sculptor through chairs, which might have confused the pieces a little bit, but it was where I was at. I haven’t been thinking too much about conceptual chairs lately. Truthfully, I’m a little more interested in how people live day to day. Not that they can’t be artful and poetic, that’s still important to me, but I also really want functional.

I’m teaching a class on chairs at Parsons right now, and the big question is, “What chair should we make right now?” The answer is whatever they make. I don’t know the answer for myself, but what I come back to is more philosophical. My next show is called “Tenderness,” and it’s related to this John Berger writing that says, essentially, that tenderness is a free act. It costs nothing and won’t necessarily give you money. It’s something you choose to do because you want to. So, when making furniture— if it’s functional—there’s always a user. One of the pieces I’m making is a long bench that has a thick cushion made of antique textile. It’s my version of tenderness. It’s not a chair, it’s not a sofa, it’s more transitional. It’s just a bench that is soft and beautiful, where you would put your shoes on, and then go about your day. That moment, that breath, is what I’m interested in.




…Tenderness is a free act. It costs nothing and won’t necessarily give you money. It’s something you choose to do because you want to.




My sister’s having a baby, so my family just gave her a rocking chair. It stood out to me that the rockers transformed the chair into something so, as you would say, tender. The Shakers also, I believe, originally added rockers to their chairs for the elderly members, who would be similarly comforted by the rocking motion. It’s such a caring approach to furniture-making.

Yeah, empathy embedded in objects. This is where chairs get interesting. There are some people who care too much about a conception of comfort. Everything has cushions. And others who are focused on “functional sculpture,” or “collectible design,” or whatever they might name it —where it almost completely throws function and comfort away and just becomes an “aesthetic,” kind of like what Donald Judd was doing. I made a chair using similar Judd geometry. I sat in it and thought, “This is terrible. This is unkind.” It seems to me, you see people doing these wild “art,” chairs because you don’t have to deal with ergonomics. You’re just dealing with the eye. And if that’s the case, okay. Some of that stuff is interesting. But it’s so much more interesting to hold somebody—, really hold them—rather than just hold their gaze.

Tell me more about your upcoming show.

I’m making 12 pieces. Big pieces and intuitive and gestural pieces, a lot of carvings. I’m trying to be very thoughtful of the materials I’m using and the process and making it more improvisational. It’s an interesting time to come to talk because it’s kind of this transitional moment for me. I don’t know if anybody cares what I’m doing. I care a lot about it and I’m putting my full self into it, but I don’t know if that matters in the work. I know it will matter to certain people, and perhaps that is enough.




…In this world where you can get everything you want, how do you have something where you actually have to mean it and want it to get it?




I ask myself that a lot: “If I care, but no one else does, is that enough?”

I think what I’ve realized is it doesn’t really matter. It’s kind of the way I think of my farmer friends. They’re always going to farm. It’s almost like they have to farm. It makes no sense in a capitalist system. You make no money, you beat your body up, and it’s just a hard, hard life. But they’re never not going to do it. Whenever they try not to do it, they just do it again. It’s what they love, and it must be done. I suppose I feel similarly, I’m doing what I must. This summer I did an open studio residency at Haystack and it felt so liberating to get out of my comfort zone. I barely worked in the wood shop. I was doing clay extrusion explorations; I was 3D printing, making paper, drawing while dancing. You could move through ideas very freely with a community of true artists. I’ve always found myself around designers and it’s just a very different thing. The artist’s pursuit, I think, is more about pursuing an idea. Like, I want to really understand this thing—whatever it is. From kind of fun, silly work, to more serious, political work. There are certainly designers who do that, but it’s so easy to get caught up in ego and money as a signifier of success within the design world, not to mention the lack of any real criticism within the field.

It sounds like an amazing communal experience.

You have a group of thoughtful people, and you get free meals all day, and it’s beautiful in and out of the spaces, and you can make and do whatever you want. It’s like a utopian society. I really felt like we could do anything. I’ve never experienced that before. I watched everyone’s skill sets grow because of this trust. It was just an explosion of energy. So many of those people I’ve become good friends with. Nelly’s coming to DJ at the opening of my show. Julie’s helping me glaze the ceramics this week. Paolo and I are planning to collaborate together. I feel like if I got into trouble with the show, there’s probably 10 of them I could call and ask, “Can you come down for two days and help me sand?” And they’d say, “Yeah. We’ll be there.”


Mark



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