Like many creatives, Stephen Kenn is, at first blush, a man of contemplation.
Unlike many creatives, however, the LA-based designer has channeled that contemplative energy into a collection of items that are as commercially successful as they are creatively unique.
Dressed in black and a familial smirk, Stephen guides us through his studio, which he and his wife, Beks, also call home. It’s a lengthy box of a room, divided into four sections by drywall that reaches halfway up the lofted, 18-foot ceilings.
Room one, home to the Kenns’ kitchen, includes a dense library of books, covering the majority of the far wall. In front of the wall of books is a row of wheeled shelves, which Stephen refers to as a design-in-progress.
But the most notable piece of the Kenns’ showroom, aside from the furniture of course, is a large, wooden bar. Centered under a row of multi-pane windows, it anchors the space. A sink of empty mugs and dark stains on the concrete below evidence the bar has seen a lot of use.
While it’s unsurprising that the living space and studio for a renown designer would feel like part showroom, living room, and museum, the warmth of Stephen and Beks makes us feel right at home.
LA has been home to Stephen since 2004, when he and friend Steve Dubbeldam moved from Canada to start a jean company called Iron Army. “I would go to thrift stores, take jeans, rip them apart, lower the waistbands, add patches, all that kind of stuff,” says Stephen. “I’d literally put the jeans on and take sandpaper and hand sand them all over. And then when they’d blow through, we would patch and resell them.”
Despite the creative nature and relatively receptive market, the project wasn’t sustainable. After folding the company, Kenn and Dubbeldam partnered to start another brand, City of Others, with Hudson Jeans. Launching right before the recession of 2008, their second venture wouldn’t last long either.
When the pair determined they wouldn’t be moving forward with City of Others, Kenn faced the decision of whether he should stay in LA or go back to Canada.
“You know when you’re sitting on the couch, submitting some job applications and you’re waiting around? It’s basically like you’re not doing anything – you feel so useless. So I started reading and journaling a lot. And at some point, I got this idea for a bag company that would use repurposed military materials. The idea was to take that which was, in effect dead, and to breathe new life into it. I had a vision that this long forgotten item would become home to someone’s most valuable objects.”
And so, Kenn would wake up, have breakfast, journal, and then start cutting fabric. “By about, 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, I would have finished a bag.” After photographing the bag and posting to his blog, he would call it a day. “Then I would wake up the next morning and, inevitably, someone would have emailed me and asked ‘Can I buy that bag?’” Stephen smiles. “I never got another job after that.”
After 9 months of making bags, which paid for rent – along with an engagement ring for his now wife, Beks – he began ruminating on another idea.
“I saw a hole in the market for more masculine furniture.” Inspired by the military materials he had used when making bags, the furniture concept began to grow.
“I loved the act of making jeans, but after a while, it became kind of the same. With jeans, you can mess with the proportions a bit, but it still has a relatively standard shape and function,” says Stephen. “With bags, there was so much more creative expression for me. While it’s a structural object that serves a function, you can put a zipper straight down the middle or over the side. The options felt endless.”
Consequently, he thought, furniture offered a similar creative flexibility, but with a new challenge: he had never made furniture before.
So Stephen started by taking apart a sofa to see how it was constructed. Beyond the crayons and Army men that had slipped inside over time, Kenn discovered that, in fact, a typical couch was simply a wooden frame with foam and staples. “It was pretty simple and almost beautiful. I didn’t like the idea of the upholstery making it a covered form. The idea of exposing the structure came pretty quickly after that.”
Armed with a pencil and little knowledge of upholstery or furniture fabrication, Stephen drew out the first version of what would become the signature exposed frame of his now-iconic design. “The first one was a little too high and way too shallow, and then the second one a little too low and too deep.”
Stephen leans back and brushes his hands across the surface of the cushions on which he sits. “And then, like the story of the three bears… the third one – this one was just right.”
Since launching the eponymous brand officially in 2011, Kenn has gotten more than a few things just right. His furniture can be found in studios and offices around the world, including the living rooms of J.Crew menswear director, Frank Muytjens, and style icon Nick Wooster.
And while his exposed-frame design has already reached a level of instant recognizability unheard of for such a young designer, Kenn’s curiosity continues to push him forward.
“I’ve kind of moved beyond the military materials initially inspired by the collection of bags,” says Stephen. “I didn’t want to be known as just ‘the dude who uses Army fabric.’ Not that there’s anything wrong with that if that’s someone’s sole focus and passion. It’s just not mine. It initially gripped me four or five years ago, but I think it’s important to really listen to what you’re curious about. Because that’ll lead you to your next thing that you’re going to be fully passionate about. Curiosity for me is kind of like my guiding force of what I should be pursuing creatively. If something is really challenging or interesting to me, I know I need to pursue it.”
Curiosity for me is kind of like my guiding force of what I should be pursuing creatively. If something is really challenging or interesting to me, I know I need to pursue it.
One of Stephen’s pursuits of interest is to create furniture that facilitates interaction between people in new ways. To make a space more conducive to community and togetherness, simply by the furniture that inhabits it.
Stephen explains the idea. “We have this little tea room upstairs. It has really low ceilings because it’s a storage unit, so we put tatami mats on the floor and these big indigo throw pillows around. And as soon as I take people up there, I don’t change anything about what I’m doing….but everyone, without instruction, just gets down on the mats and people start whispering. It’s incredible.”
And while it wasn’t intentional with the tea room, the power of space to influence interaction is now a purposeful part of what Stephen is after when he creates – products that promote new and unique interactions.
He points around the room. “This sofa, that table – these products don’t make interaction happen. But if we were all standing here and there was no furniture, it would be a little awkward. Less natural. Less communal. The way you change the environment changes the way that people interact with one another.”
Upon beginning research and development of new ideas, therefore, Kenn puts excessive care into the way each object facilitates some type of interaction. When designing rolling racks and shelving units for a new retail space, Kenn developed a design idea that would provide multi-purpose use of the displays. “I was thinking that if a store has shelves that they merchandise on, how cool would it be if they could take them apart and use them as bench seating when they throw an event. Simply having the ability to do that might even encourage them to host more events. The inclusion of that feature might, quite literally, bring community around the brand.”
The afternoon sun begins to set, casting a warm glow through the room. Dappled light reflects off the bartop against the wall behind us. We ask Stephen if, like his furniture, the bar is exists to draw in community – to impact the way people interact.
“Well…yes,” he says. “We do hold a weekly coffee event on Monday and invite people in. But I think it might have less to do with the bar itself and more to do with the coffee,” Stephen says with a smile. “Speaking of which, you guys want some pourover?”
Stephen fires up the kettle and begins cleaning out several mugs. “Coffee is part of my creative fuel. Can’t do much without it.”
In that case, pour yourself another cup, Mr. Kenn. We can’t wait to see what’s next.