As the owner of North North, a locally based high-end furniture and design business, Ben Manheimer is consistently tasked with constructing objects that slot seamlessly into whatever space they are intended to fill. And every step of his process, from ideating to sanding, is conducted with a significant degree of both technical prowess and intellectual dexterity--a combination that is, ultimately, the culmination of nearly all of Ben’s past pursuits.
As far as the material side of Ben’s work is concerned, his ability as a carpenter is the result of a life-long affinity for manual work. Growing up, “summer jobs were always contracting, pouring concrete, painting, things like that,” he says. This same attraction to tactility eventually compelled him to pursue a degree from the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, a non-profit program in Maine that offers a comprehensive, furniture based-education rooted in everything from the intricacies of interlocking planks of oak to marketing and business administration skills.
And, while the aforementioned experiences have ensured Ben’s work is technically proficient, a pair of past, more theoretical pursuits have added a high degree of philosophical value to it, as well. Namely, a degree in English Literature and a lengthy stint as a merchandise-based marketer for Vans, both of which render Ben uniquely equipped to create end-results that resonate, emotionally and aesthetically, with his clients. In fact, his background in English is indispensable to his creative approach. In his own words, “[Custom furniture] is like storytelling or dialogue writing.
"It's thinking from someone else’s perspective and creating something that aligns with that.”
Ben's capacity to tap into the mind of his clients has become an integral aspect of his work, and his adherence to this ability has yielded a series of pieces and projects that are adeptly tailored to their respective spaces. And, while residential and commercial work is still his focus, Ben is also slowly and pragmatically developing his own line of high-quality, progressively-designed furniture and home accessories. “As an individual who wants to be exposed to as much different, weird, inspiration as possible I would like to push the artistic, sculptural angle of my furniture as much as possible, because the weird, uncomfortable angles are what's exciting”, he says. However, as much as he values the artistry of furniture design, he is also incredibly attuned to the importance of functionality, and all of his work, from retail fixtures to custom record cabinets, assuredly strikes a smart balance between the two.
We sat down to coffee with Ben to chat about his work, his take on SLC, and why custom craftsmanship ultimately matters, both physically and philosophically…
Why Salt Lake? What about the city makes it an exciting place to grow a business and explore design? For me, Salt Lake just checks all the boxes in terms of quality of life and commercial business opportunity. I mean it really is this exciting, growing, vibrant, mid-sized city. There's a lot of action but it’s still very accessible. It's still a size and moves at a pace that you can really wrap your hands around, while still offering and only continuing to offer metropolitan opportunities that cities like LA, Chicago, New York offer…Having lived in a number of places like Southern California, Denver, the East Coast - seeing these places - I really don't think there are many cities that can offer so much on both sides. You know, you might have slightly better accessibility, visibility in a place like LA, and you might have a little less competition or a little more room in a place like St. Paul, but I feel like you're getting the best of a lot [here]. We're sort of in the middle of the Venn diagram, which is rare.
So, it's been 18 months since you started North North here. What are the projects you have completed or are currently in the midst of that most excite you? Certainly the first commercial project I took on when I moved back to Salt Lake - designing and building out the better part of Hathenbruck - has been a high point, for a number of reasons. It was the first project back in the city, it was a project with a really close friend of mine, it was for a brand and an individual who wanted to push the envelope and get super weird. What better sort of aspirational client or project to kick things off with is there?
Talk to us a little bit about the differences between residential and commercial work. It seems that with residential pieces you are designing an object to fit into an environment in a specific way, but when you're building tables for an entire coffee shop you have more of an impact on how a space is going to function and how it’s going to feel. To be entrusted to build something entirely custom for someone's personal space, that, in all likelihood, is going to be with them for some considerable length of time, there’s a ton of honor, pride, responsibility - you know - flattery in that. So it really becomes a question of how I can tap into that brand, client, individual design ethos and create something that is in line with it. And it's fun!…On the flip side, when working in a commercial space or a public space, I really enjoy thinking a little bit more theoretically about how humans are going to interact with their surroundings and how you can best cater to the most individuals the most effectively. And figuring out that human aspect of commercial or public space is equally exciting as the physical or tactile satisfaction of creating something that might get handed down to somebody's grandkids.
Can you speak a little bit about the value of custom furniture in a world where IKEA-esque, ready-made products are so prevalent? I'll start by saying I'm not an IKEA hater…It feels like more and more things are going to one of two ends of the spectrum. You have the absolutely monstrous, ubiquitous, Amazon approach to retail or the completely bespoke, individual approach to retail and it feels like people want to align themselves with one or the other. So almost more significant than distinguishing my brand’s design from the mass producers like Ikea is driving the culture of what I'm doing and letting people see the shop, see the materials, see the action, know whats involved, and be more present in the process, have a deeper understanding and connection to that process, and feel something about the individual or entity that they're buying from. I think that’s really important. That’s the difference in seeking out bespoke furniture instead of mass-produced furniture, aside from the design… [it’s] the story behind the piece.
You talk about the convenience of the Amazon approach to retail, but how does easy, ubiquitous access relate to products that we have longer lasting, more significant, more substantial relationships to? Do you think we are less inclined to seek out ease when the commodity in question is less ephemeral? Well, there's a physical nature to it. This is a thing that you are walking around or over or sitting on and physically, fundamentally interacting with day to day. This is something affecting you in a real way every single day. If you're going to attach some sort of deeper, philosophical value to a thing in general then - you know - furniture is a reasonable thing to do so with.
Shifting directions a little bit. The relationship between form and function with furniture design appears to be a lot different than other artistic disciplines. Furniture has a very concrete, well-defined purpose, so how do you stay within the bounds of that definition while still playing with form and artistic license? Certainly going back to the conversation about different spaces and adaptability. Some of that is going to be dictated by the space. If you're creating a product - you know - if you're building tables for a restaurant it’s got to function. It needs to perform its function and it needs to do so every single time first…that definitely gets a little looser when you get into residential pieces or high-end commercial pieces…then you're taking the form into consideration more, and I think you get to consider a few more of the philosophical variables that go into creating something for somebody’s space. How [a piece] is going to physically fit [into a space] but also how seeing or sitting in it in a specific place coupled with another piece in a home is going to affect someone emotionally. I feel like a much broader set of considerations come into play.
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