Founded in 1989, Modernica shares the same fertile Southern Californian soil that inspired Modern design in the post-war period. Following in the tradition of Richard Neutra, George Nelson, and Charles and Ray Eames, Modernica praises the virtues of distilled form, elegant simplicity and craftsmanship. Dedicated to the art of handmade design, every piece of the Modernica collection is crafted by an artisan in their factory located in downtown Los Angeles, or employs original technique unique to each designer. Placing technique, quality, and tradition at the forefront, the Modernist narrative is present in every object in their showroom on Beverly Boulevard. The space is tranquil and meditative and like a gallery inspires consideration about the process, method, and technique. For Modernica, design inspires a way to live to artfully. President and co-founder Jay Novak spoke with Installation about the legacy of Modern design and the tremendous influence that informs the aesthetic and philosophy that drives Modernica.
Nestled in the corner of Modernica lies a trifecta of rare and beautiful pieces likely never to be encountered in the same place at one time. A vibrant woven tapestry hangs on the wall, and despite the high ceilings of the showroom, the tapestry is a focal point that arrests the senses and draws the eye into the fabric, the traces of the artist’s hand. Designed, named and produced by Henri Matisse, Mimosa is a rare find. Woven by Alexander Smith, there were only 500 tapestries ever made and this particular one is number 459. Beneath the tapestry is a single ceramic bowl rendered in shades of blue that are mesmerizing as the oceanic floor. An incredibly rare and special piece, the ceramic bowl was designed by the forerunner of the California Modern Pottery movement Marguerite Wildenhain at Pond Farm. Placed directly across from Wildenhain’s pottery is one of the most famous audio pieces of the Machine Age. Designed by John Vassos in 1935, this portable, battery operated record player inspired by the streamline hardware of of aircraft, automobiles, and racecars, changed the way Americans experienced music. Following in the Modernist tradition, the record player is devoid of ornamentation but its rich red lining and chrome are both utilitarian and stylized. This holy trinity of rare objects are just a small part of Modernica’s vast showroom, but they are indicative of their commitment to honoring rare and timeless works of design.
An installation of Stan Bitters ceramic birdhouses is arranged in a crescent formation around the signature Modernica fiberglass chairs. The ceramic cocoons appear on varying heights on on the outstretched arms of a tree that more closely resembles a coat rack.
Installation Magazine: When I think about Modernica, I definitely think about your chairs.
Jay Novak: Our fiberglass chairs?
They’re brand new, but, even the machines that we make them on are 60 years or older because they’re the original machines.
They’re evidence of maintaining the tradition of the form, rather than replicating a design.
That’s it. We were trained by the people who made them for Charles Eames, located in downtown Los Angeles who were fiberglass experts. Those are the same people that trained us. We were very lucky to learn the craft behind a lost technology. The chairs are made of pressure-molded fiberglass. They are held together by molecular fibers.
This may sound like a silly question, but because it’s pure fiberglass what is its lifespan?
It turns out that they are close to indefinitely. I have from the first few months of production one, it’s from 1950. It’s in my house. I have a 14-year-old that was raised around it. I would estimate that the life span of one of these is a couple hundred years. Our company policy is that when we build something it should be good for a hundred years. No less. The chairs reveal our fascination with the beauty that come from the past.
If you’ve ever driven by the Modernica showroom at night, George Nelson’s iconic Bubble Lamps cast an incandescent glow and appear to effortlessly float in mid-air.
Nothing can be more representative of Modernica than the Bubble Lamps. George Nelson designed the Bubble Lamp collection, first manufactured by Howard Miller in 1952, about the same time that the fiberglass chairs were made. As it turned out they’re one of the most effective lighting instruments ever designed. In 1979 the collection went out production, but in 1998 Modernica acquired all of the tooling and equipment in Michigan and began producing the Bubble Lamps again, Modernica is the official manufactures of the Bubble Lamp Collection. The most definitive, iconic shapes are the Saucer and the Cigar- the elongated, cylindrical one.
They’re dramatic and effective and yet they maintain a spirit of minimalism. What are they constructed out of?
The frame is steel, and the membrane which, is so incredibly important is basically a vinyl that has fibers in it and is fire retardant. It’s basically a fireproof vinyl, but making them is quite a process. The frame is spun like on a turntable, and the fibers and the vinyl are shot in a very thin spray. And as it catches it the fibers its makes gossamer look, and it eventually fills in.
Does the craftsmanship of the lamp mean that each one is slightly different?
Very, very slightly but yes. Some membranes are thicker than others, and some have a slightly thicker texture on a more humid day. They also have a very different texture than on a very dry day. These are made in Michigan where they’ve always been made, within miles of where they’ve always been made. We also found one of the last people that was really well trained in the process.
I wasn’t aware of how your direct relationship with the craftsmen behind these designs. And that’s something that’s so critical to the collection itself is that each piece, while its part of a collection, each one is unique. And I think that is at the crux of this story. Is that your intention in when you founded Modernica?
We’re really taken by the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the past. Being able to continue in that tradition is kind of thrilling.
Let’s talk about one of the piece you designed.
Well in the window, there’s a system of chairs, benches, tables, dining tables, that’s actually something I designed, and it came out of our factory and it was developed right here. It uses systems of wood jointing that are bit new but influence by the Japanese type of jointing.
The joint celebrates the sensibility of Eames because you have managed to distill a facet of design into its simplest form. Have you always been somebody who has always been fascinated by making things?
I wouldn’t want to claim that. By designing things? Yes. I don’t have the patience to be a good craftsman. This is the joint coming through, but most of its invisible. This is one piece of wood that’s been cut out like that and then it slips in, and so you get a seamless joint thats incredibly strong.
And its just two pieces.
Really simple. Not simple to do, it just takes a lot of development to be able to do this without hand carving it. With some economic expediency. It makes a very architectural table that has a huge amount of integrity.
Who would you say has inspired you the most in crafting your own pieces?
Personally, it’s Eames. He embodied craftsmanship, social agenda, long term business thinking. He really embodied it all. He also distilled designs down. He was obsessive about finding the final solution on a design, and I love all that. And I know that I don’t do that either. I mean, I’m not that obsessive. But I know that it’s kind of like a hunt to find which solution is best. He’s also indigenous here, you know.
From 1943 to 1988 the Eames office was located in a renovated garage at 901 Washington Boulevard.
People who have studied his writings, I can say I have studied not only his writings but his pieces- I have taken them all apart and put them all back together again. I’ve seen where they break, I’ve seen where they don’t break. I’ve learned his thinking from his pieces. It’s his three dimensional treatise. Like a thesis.
You have come to understand the work on Eames on a really intimate level. You understand the nuances of his design because you have studied his work, restored many of the pieces and employ the same machinery and technique.
These chairs lived a long, active life. There was a family with kids and they had dinner every night. These chairs had wine spilled on them and ketchup and all kinds of things. And these took some restoration, but they weren’t re-finished. That’s what I call sympathetic restoration. They can’t be refinished. The way these chairs are finished, they can’t really be refinished. It ruins them. So you have to work with oils and waxes. These chairs are about 65 years old. These chairs were made by Eames in Los Angeles. These are the earliest. The earliest of the early. A complete set of Eames chairs in near perfect condition.
It’s just such a romantic idea to think that these chairs were used every day. Is this something that you would sell only as a set?
Only as a set because a matched set of six– its called an Evans chair because it was made at the back of the studio at Evan’s products– a matched set of six.
When they’re tucked in, they fit perfectly. It showcases the curves of the chair really well and there’s something that just screams “Eames.” There is a disparity in height and yet it feels cohesive.
Eames would only make something as high as it needs to be. That would be a typically- I’m not saying he said that- but that, that’s minimalism. He would never make anything bigger, or taller than it needs to be. So these chairs are slightly lower than standard, and these tables are slightly lower than standard because they don’t need to be any higher. 28.5” works fine and 31” is unnecessary. I do think that Charles Eames would be upset.
Why because of their retail price?
These were fifteen dollars new. And that was just at the threshold of what a middle class family could afford for a simple chair. And thats where he wanted it.
And that’s what you’re doing with fiberglass chairs, following in the tradition of making beautiful design accessible to a wider audience.
That’s part of it. That’s on my mind.
The idea of having something that’s unique but also that’s within reach is special.
I’ll show you this is a bed that we made. It also came out of the design studio.
This looks a lot like that, the beams that you were showing me- the construction of the Modernica joint.
This is an interlocking piece. Everything in here is symbiotic- it adds to the structure of the piece next to it, or that it’s attached to. So it all creates greater strength- than the sum of its parts. There’s more strength than the parts would indicate.
The exposed threads of wood really celebrate the material.
Yes, thats the word. The reason the material is able to do that and retain a huge amount of strength is having a joint there- is because of all those layers.
That’s unbelievable. There’s an aesthetic effect of looking at your pieces and then when you start dissecting them there is more to learn… Like with Eames, its like that right height no more no less and I think thats whats so characteristic of your design: from a novice to a true, design, the enthusiast will be able to appreciate it on some level.
Thats nice to hear, I know that you’re not a novice, but I like it alot when uninitiated or whatever you want to call it, just instinctively like it. I’m really thrilled. Even more than an architect or a designer- I love it when the uninitiated, it just resonates with them.
That’s what makes your brand so distinctive. For me, with design, I like what I like. For me it’s just about the integrity of the lines, it’s about the material. I may not look at a design with a completely informed perspective, but there is an emotional resonance. It’s very much like a gallery space in that way. There’s no– there’s an ease about it, it’s meditative in some way. The space feels like every element has been taken into consideration. It is relaxing here– street slows down, sound disappears, and it’s just quiet.
That’s been one of the real, rich pleasures of being involved in this business, is that I’ve interacted with people like her, thats like a real, important life enrichment.
Featured image: Cigar Lotus Lamps
All images courtesy of Modernica