Stephen Kenn :: When Art & Carry Collide
Stephen Kenn is a man who lives and breathes design. The materials and areas he works in are as diverse as they are fascinating, from furniture to carry and the likes of denim, leather and repurposed military fabrics. We recently caught up with him to find out more about his design inspirations and philosophies as well as his commitment to creating pieces that tell a story…
When did you know you wanted to be an artist/designer? Was there a moment or a profound influence that nudged you on your path?
I didn’t have an epiphany or anything, I just slowly kept gravitating towards creativity. The act of making something was so rewarding. It’s only been in the more recent years that I have attached more meaning to why I make the things I do. I believe that objects have the ability to tell stories that connect with us on a deeper level.
What was the first thing you remember designing?
I was riding a lawn mower and daydreaming and somehow arrived at the concept of reverse appliqué and went home that day to try it out on my mom’s sewing machine. After making that first t-shirt, I was hooked.
You began working in denim and bag design, can you tell us who for and what kind of product you worked on?
I started a denim brand called Iron Army with my friend up in Canada which led us down to LA. After Iron Army we teamed up with Hudson Jeans and started a brand called City of Others. After a short year on City of Others the economy crashed and I turned back to my first love of making things by hand; this time it was bags and I started a brand called Temple Bags.
You then moved into furniture. How does the craft cross over with designing carry?
The only crossovers were designing something that holds form and function. Bags need to both have a desirable shape as well as serve a function. Furniture needs to be aesthetically pleasing while maintaining a level of comfort.
What drives you to design the things you do? Where do your passions lie?
I love making objects that people use on a daily basis. I’m passionate about these everyday objects because they have the ability to bring people together. I’m really after authentic community and great stories.
Are there any key insights that guide your stuff? What do you know that most others haven’t realized?
This question is difficult to answer because I don’t know what others know. Things that I value are simple solutions. When approaching design I try to think of the simplest possible way to make something and then use materials that tell stories from the past or will wear well into the future.
You’re a big believer in making local. What are the perks and drawbacks?
Drawbacks are the cost of materials and labor, perks are being present every step of the way. I learn so much from every project and am almost always given a new idea in the process.
You’ve made one of the most epic carry ads (Encounter Video) I’ve ever seen. Why do you produce such beautiful visuals to accompany your collections? And who is the person behind them?
I wanted to communicate the powerful experience that an object can have when passed along from one generation to the next. My friends at Process Creative were the brilliant company that produced the film and my friend James Watson wrote the letter.
Do you believe that the incorporation of ‘art’ is something that carry marketing is lacking? Why is it important to make these connections?
I believe that art is one of the most powerful tools we have to communicate with on a global level. I would love to see branding in general take more risks by telling stories that are personal in order to convey their perspective.
Tell me about your Encounter collection. What inspired it?
My first bag company (Temple Bags) was primarily canvas and leather. I always wanted to design an all-leather bag collection because of how well leather wears. After releasing our seating collection (The Inheritance Collection) I was traveling with my wife in Copenhagen and loved all the natural vegetable-tanned leather which was used on furniture made by Kaare Klint and Finn Juhl. When we got back I stared experimenting with boiling leather and sun-tanning it and finally decided to stain the back olive and oil and wax the grain side. I then got together with my team and we designed and produced the samples in about two weeks.
What were the main channels for your creative inspiration?
I was committed to creating a collection that was timeless and would never wear out but only wear in.
Who do you look to in the bags world?
I was in Paris and stopped in on the Hermès flagship and was instantly a fan. I also admire Isaac Reina.
What is the best mistake you ever made (design or otherwise) and why (or put a slightly different way – what mistake did you learn from the most)?
I make mistakes all the time, I often roll with them and always try to learn from them. I think waiting as long as I did before bringing on help was a mistake. Having a team, even if it’s a small team, allows you to dream that much bigger and accomplish so much more.
Biggest design regret?
Fully funding and then delivering a project and not ever getting paid for it. Still hurts to think about. It was a good learning experience though. We now understand why it’s important to get payment up front in custom projects. : )
What bags do you run with daily?
I love this black leather backpack that I made in collaboration with Chapter as well as the lanyard wallet. Oh and look out for our Parallel Collection which will be for sale this fall.
What would you tell a younger version of yourself (say five years ago) taking into account the experience/wisdom that present-day you has acquired?
Don’t sell yourself short. Your ideas matter and yet they will only be worth anything if you act upon them. GO MAKE STUFF!
*Feature photography by Robbie Jeffers. Check out his Visual Compositions on Tumblr.