Where are the limits between art and design? Is functionality the only way to differentiate an artwork from an object? Brian Thoreen likes to work in these in-between spaces, the fuzzy areas where definitions and classifications blur. Originally from Los Angeles, he’s recently relocated to Mexico City, a place that inspires him like nowhere else. Today we speak with him about working with James Turrell, what draws him to furniture design, and what are his plans now that he’s moved to a new city.
First of all, tell me a little bit about who you are. How would you describe yourself?
My name is Brian Thoreen and I am a designer. My main focuses are furniture, experimental interiors and architectural installations. I am from Los Angeles but have recently relocated my studio to Mexico City and split my time between there, Los Angeles and New York.
It takes a long time for people to find what they are passionate about. Did you always want to be a designer or did you start off on a different path?
I definitely started on a different path. I grew up working construction and building things but it wasn’t until after high school when I was taking a painting class at college that I had a moment of clarity in the interest of fine art. I started working as a studio assistant and art installer for various galleries and artists and my passion for art grew. After a few years, though, my interests veered toward architecture and design. So for many years, all throughout my twenties, I bounced between art, design, fabrication, building, welding, architecture, fashion and just about everything in between. During that time, my core passion would always come back to furniture but it wasn’t until I was thirty-five and on my own that I felt I was in a place to present my work as my own language.
Do you consider yourself an artist? Is there any difference between being a designer and an artist?
For the most part, I am a designer but the lines between art and design can be blurry and this is where I like to exist. I think there is a very important distinction between art and design in terms of the vernacular but the most exciting spaces to explore are the fuzzy ones, between the definitions and around the boundaries.
Growing up in Los Angeles, were you able to gain more opportunities as a furniture designer/artist?
Well, the design world, the blurry part, doesn’t exist in Los Angeles like it does in other cities. But I was fortunate enough through working in the art world to be exposed to and get to work with the unparalleled and rebellious sector of artists and galleries that that city grew up on. Working with and around people like James Turrell, Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell and Robert Irwin from the early light and space movement to contemporaries like Robert Therrien and Peter Wegner very much informed my outlook and provided the opportunity for me to understand how to push limits and think about things differently.
In what ways did the work of such important artists contribute to yours and vice versa?
The only way my work ever contributed to any artist I have worked with was by being a good fabricator, assistant, listener and/or worker. Now their work contributing to mine is a different story. As I stated above, having the fortune of being able to work with these people and just to be around this kind of work and environment is quite possibly the biggest contribution to my work of all. It taught me to always challenge and question things. It taught me the importance of work that inspires wonder, awe and emotion. It taught me to stick to things but also to not be afraid to abandon things when necessary.
In your opinion, when does (furniture) design become art?
I don’t really think it ever does on its own. Like I said before, these lines can be blurry. It comes down to function versus non-function but mostly I think it comes down to the artist’s or designer’s intention. If I decided one day to make a sculpture, then I suppose in relation to that piece I am an artist. The same goes for an artist who decides to design a piece of furniture. When Donald Judd made furniture, I think that made him a designer in relation to those works but did not make those pieces of furniture into art.
To some extent, design, architecture and art are all somewhat related to each other, would you agree? How do you manage the balance between the three within your work?
Yes, I think they can all be related but aren’t necessarily always related. Again, I think it comes down to intention and purpose. When it comes to my work, it is not about managing the balance but about defining my intentions for each piece or project. For some people, there is no need for these fields to be related. For me, it is imperative that they are related in terms of concept and possibility, not in whim or fantasy.
What feeling do you aim to portray when you’re designing a new piece?
Every piece is different in terms of the feeling I want to invoke. Sometimes it is feeling unsettled or anxious. Sometimes it is wonder and curiosity. The feeling I am always trying to include is simply some kind of emotion. I think an emotional reaction is always crucial to successful work.
Your first solo show was called Unsettled. Looking at your work, I see how each piece is a combination of materials that rely on each other for stability; does this concept apply to your life in any way?
Yes, this concept came directly from my life, which was new for me. One day, a friend asked me how I was feeling in life at that moment and my answer was ‘unsettled’. Then, the light bulb went off and I knew that finding a way to relate that feeling and emotion into physical and three-dimensional form was where I wanted to go with the new work.
How do you experiment with materials and what is the most difficult one you’ve worked with?
Sometimes the materials inform the concept and sometimes the concept informs the materials. It really just depends. There is no material that was the hardest to work with. All are difficult to work with when trying to find new possibilities within them. Sometimes, it is about keeping it simple and letting the materials be what they want to be. Sometimes, it is about finding a new way for a material to exist. Forcing it into something it didn’t know it wanted to be.
What are your future plans for the upcoming year?
I made the decision to move my studio and myself to Mexico City at the end of 2017. So right now I am focused on getting my studio up and running here. I launched some new work here at the Zona Maco art fair. It was a collaboration between myself, Hector Esrawe and Emiliano Godoy that was commissioned by Novel Limited, which is the premier glass studio for art and conceptual design in the Americas. We plan on growing this body of work and showing at more fairs this year and next. There are some projects starting here in Mexico this year, which I am excited about but cannot speak about yet. Mostly, I am excited to get my studio up and running and developing new work in a new country and city that inspire me like nowhere I have ever been.