Brian Presnell designs furniture and custom interiors. He began his career in the mid 1990’s as a museum art handler. He currently works out of his studio at CCIC in downtown Indianapolis. We had a chat with the artist to reminisce on his greatest achievements as well as his insightful advice.
What piqued your initial interest in designing your product(s)? I studied Furniture Design at Herron in the early 90’s. It was actually before the Internet so we had to look at slides and books to find what we were looking for. I also think seeing Phil and Sue Tenant’s home for the first time left a huge impression. I was like yeah man I want to live like this. I want art and handmade things to surround my life and home. That was all it took, really. I was all in.
What principles do you use when designing? It probably depends on the piece itself. Or the space it’s going in to depict how it could or should look. I have a visual vocabulary I rely on I suppose, but each space and the things in it are different. You must approach each one differently, so the principles vary.
Who and/or what influences your design style? How would you describe your design aesthetics and values? When I got started, I found out about George Nakashima. Phil Tennant had a pretty good pile of his slides at the Herron Library. I liked his work so much that I visited his studio and met his daughter Mira. Later while working at the IMA, I convinced the lead designer, Sherman O’Hara, to get two Nakashima benches for the Japanese collection permanent galleries at the Museum. So if you are ever up there looking at the art, sit on a real Nakashima bench and thank me when you see me. Most of them in the U.S. are on risers with a label in front of them.
What comes first for you, the design materials or the design concept? Again, it depends on the project. I often rely on the form or look of the materials to help me make design choices. With live edge or organic wood forms, often the shape of the boards or lines in the grain of the wood help in determining how the other lines or design will work together.
What is your favorite tool, and why? Probably my sander because it means you’re almost finished with the piece. I like finishing things.
Describe a piece you’ve created that you are most proud of. What was special about it? I made the frame for the Jan Toorop painting at the IMA . It resides in the pointillist gallery near the Pont Aven section of the collection. I worked closely with Ellen Lee and David Miller on the design of the moldings. They used old photos of the painting from the turn of the century to see the original painting frame. We based the profile of the frame on those photos. Getting to work with Ellen and David frequently was probably the most rewarding part of my time spent working at the museum. If you know anything about the IMA those two folks have done so much.
Describe the commissioning process. What are the best and worst aspects about doing commissions? Commissions are awesome when they happen. I hope someday I can work strictly off of commission work. The best part is getting paid; the worst part is paying Uncle Sam.
What advice you would give to aspiring designers like yourself? Use your hands, learn how to use and work materials. Computers are great and all; however to me, the look of a handmade object is centuries old.
What is one thing that the creative/design community can do in Indianapolis to help grow an audience for custom or handcrafted work? There is so much already going on. I know a ton of artist and craftsman all over the state. The problem is not with the artist and makers. I think the sports event/tailgate crowd should buy less sports apparel and way more art and design. Less $125 dollar jerseys and more collecting is my best shot at this audience coming around.
Dream commission/client? Let me do a fancy chair at the Knoll factory. I want to retire like Bertoia and make art.
What makes your work different from anyone else’s? Probably me. I don’t know what else to say on that.
What’s your most rewarding memory in your business? Gosh I have done so much in this city. Maybe helping IMOCA in its infancy. Meeting all the living artists I have had the privilege of helping install exhibitions.
…to me, the look of a handmade object is centuries old.