Rafi Ajl: Design Intelligence
Trestle table, Pin chair, Weststool, vase, and glass tumblers, all by The Long Confidence.
The presence of objects animates the mind of Rafi Ajl. As he crafts an oak table or a bronze candlestick, he endeavors to allow the inner life of its material and the stories of its formation shine through. As Ajl shares in our interview, that inspires not just a more poetic object, but our deeper engagement with it. This ethos of creating a richer interior life of both body and home is rooted in Ajl’s history, which is steeped in the personal, artistic, and theoretical aspects of making. Originally from Brooklyn, he is the son of a physician and an artist. His mother taught him to sew at an early age, and ever after, he would work with his hands. Ajl earned his MFA in Industrial Design from CCA, undertook a year of study in Landscape Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design, and now, in addition to his studio practice, teaches industrial design as an Adjunct Professor at CCA and a Visiting Lecturer at UC Davis. Here, we explore a shared appreciation for the aura of objects and the exquisiteness of understatement.
In your artist’s statement, you note that your “products live gracefully in the home.” I love that you chose the word “gracefully,” and I wondered why.
I think the idea of grace is the closest Western approximation to Japanese wabi-sabi, and is a conceptual framework and aesthetic sensibility that resonates with my work and practice. I think that the idea of grace is like a quiet poetry, it's refined. It doesn't necessarily have to announce itself. I think there's subtlety and softness to it. Some of my work is a little more sensual and materials-driven; it still integrates into its space, but also has a presence that radiates outwards. There's this amazing quote by Simone Weil, “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”
Trestle table, water glasses, candlestick holders and bronze skull all by The Long Confidence
That’s particularly relevant, I think, in your exploration of ideas of presentness. One of the things I'm thinking a lot about right now is material memory, and the way that spaces or objects absorb and retain the energy of activities that take place around them. Does that resonate with you as a maker?
Yeah, totally. I think that all these objects, and all these materials, are imbued with these histories and values. I think at this point, we culturally understand that where things come from, where they're going, who's making them, and the conditions under which they're made are really important. All of these things are imbued in the “object experience,” and I think a lot about how we can make these things legible in the work and how these stories are inscribed, but also without making them the only narrative. It’s one of the reasons I feel really strongly about doing as much as possible in the studio. We work with a lot of different materials and processes, and by integrating as many practices as possible in house, we can be sure they're being done according to our values, the right way.
Elaine’s Rocking Chair, described by Ajl as “an easy sitting chair with a refined gestural nature…” and detail of the Gathering Chair in white oak with a woven rush seat.
You are informing those pieces with your own hand, with your own energy. And I think that is always so evident in a piece of work.
Totally, I think it absolutely comes through. I think of the “object as event” as how you’re preparing yourself for a certain kind of object experience. Like a chair built three different ways, at three different heights, with three different angles—all different ways of informing a certain kind of seating experience that you're trying to engender.
Your background also includes literary and critical theory. Would you mind talking a bit about how you bring narrative to your object design, whether you're drawing on history or bringing your own philosophy to a piece?
Over time, I have had different relationships with the way that critical theory informs the work. And more than the work these days, it informs the process. I'm also a teacher, and one of the things that I tell my students—who can be scared of blank pages, of beginnings, and of making decisions because these seem fraught—is that the work makes more work. That when you are engaged in practice, whatever that might be, the work will offer itself to you once you start engaging with it in a meaningful way. The work asks questions of itself.
Clockwise from top left: A hand-carved stool top and images of the Trestle table in the making.
Would you share a bit more about how process informs your pieces?
Stewart Brand, a super genius of a human being who created the Whole Earth Catalog, wrote, and I paraphrase, “The objects that are most interesting to us are the things that involve us in their creation.” And for me, what I take that to mean is that in some beautiful not hit-you-over-the-head way, is that the process by which something is made is evident in its outcome. So how do I show the mark of the hand, the evidence of its creation, but in a way that's restrained and tasteful? Is it moments of exposed joinery? Is it something that's hand carved? Sometimes I do these textured hand carved surfaces on the top of things, these slight moments of imperfection that let you know that there is an essential humanity.
Drinking glass created in collaboration with Northern California natural winemakers Broc Cellars.
What's collaborating like for you? For LA interior design studio Commune you created brass and walnut tabletop objects, and you’ve done glassware collaborations with March, Broc Cellars, and Leaves and Flowers. Was there a collaboration that was particularly fulfilling because you saw things in a similar way?
I think they're all really special and they all touch on different things. The Commune work, each one of those pieces is a semi-academic, process-oriented moment of design. The walnut napkin rings are about the movement of a circle becoming a triangle, or a triangle becoming a circle. And it's just one gesture, but it's about this movement and progression. Whereas the Broc glass was very much designed around an idea of the casually refined. We wanted to bring an idea of ceremony and ritual into your every day. It's not like this crazy, huge goblet that you're probably going to break as soon as you put it in the sink, or even, like, look at it the wrong way. It’s how we drink wine on a Tuesday night. We have had a long partnership with Alex Abajian and his shop, Glow Glass Studio, in Oakland, and we are always playing with new ideas, and also how to improve our processes.
Pitcher, tumbler, and drinking and sipping glasses. Notes Ajl of the glassware, “We developed a process that yields a slightly different form each time, using a mold and form-making process that we developed with our glassblower.”
And facilitating grace in people's lives, bringing it full circle.
Yes, allowing for moments of quietness and reflection in an otherwise very chaotic world. Ettore Sottsass, one of the Memphis founders, wrote of his work, that they were “tools to slow down the consumption of existence, to curb loneliness and despair.” And I think that's such a beautiful way to think about objects, that they can offer us these things.