A Conversation with Troscan Design + Furnishings

"I think there is a real appetite for things really made still in America by truly skilled craftspeople and sadly this is a dwindling trade. It is harder and harder to find skilled makers who can work to a high level. We make our own pieces because so few workrooms can really achieve the goals we set out for the pieces.  We are now working with musical instrument makers because it is one of the last places makers devote years of practice to acquiring skills in making. " - Deirdre Jordan of Troscan

Shadow rises and you are here  
And then you cut, You cut it out, 
And everything goes back to the beginning"  (Hollow Talk)
(photo by Jim Warych)

Troscan Design + Furnishings is husband and wife team, Deirdre Jordan and Bob Robinson, who together over the past 12 years have created a stunning collection of modernist furniture from elemental materials of wood, stone, bronze, and clay. South of Ukranian Village in Chicago, a 19th-century building houses their workshop on the first floor, and on the second floor is the concept gallery and showroom, simply called "Room406." In late 2012, Dierdre and Bob created Room406 to highlight the work of American and international makers, designer vintage furniture, handcrafted accessories and rare artifacts. Currently at Room406, the galley is hosting  “Transcendent Objects,” an exhibition that explores how "vessels, textiles and designed objects become communicators of ritual and meaning," which includes ceramic artist Ryota Aoki, Portland-based ceramicist Lilith Rockett, photography by Scott Fortino, and textiles by artist Sarah Nishiura. A huge thank you to Deirdre and Bob for this conversation on their work, their backgrounds, and their personal reflections on American furniture making. - David John

Tell me more about Deirdre Jordan and Bob Robinson, and why did you decide to start Troscan? 

Deirdre Jordan: I began my career as an interior architect but found that I enjoyed architecture on a smaller scale – the scale of furniture and product design where I could realize a design much quicker than the large projects I worked on. Before starting Troscan I was design director at Holly Hunt in Chicago. Bob is a master craftsman and luthier. In addition to his work for Troscan, he has a passion for making guitars. We are very different in our work talents and focus and yet perfectly complement each other in what we each bring to the collaboration.

I think there is a real appetite for things really made still in America by truly skilled craftspeople and sadly this is a dwindling trade. It is harder and harder to find skilled makers who can work to a high level. We make our own pieces because so few workrooms can really achieve the goals we set out for the pieces.  We are now working with musical instrument makers because it is one of the last places makers devote years of practice to acquiring skills in making. We are also focusing on working with some craftspeople regionally in rural areas to fill in our production gaps...we can't make everything and so we look to support craft manufacturing where we can.

The Gus stool and barstool, design by Deirdre Jordan

Your approach of "discovering luxury in simplicity."  Can you explain this further, and define what is luxury to you? What elements of luxury are you interested in  (materials, comfort, finishes, etc.).

It is pretty easy to use luxurious materials (fancy finishes and surfaces like Macassar) to convey a kind of style people understand as luxury. That is not what I am talking about. To do really refined work that has simple lines, like the work of Mies van der Rohe for example, requires such a high level of skill  to realize or else you see all the flaws. To realize super high craftsmanship with simple lines is it's own kind a kind of luxury. We also spend a lot of time on where surfaces join, change, marry. They get a kind of focus on how that is resolved. Sometimes those details take time to emerge for the person looking at it...they are not apparent at first glance. Sometimes it is the way a thing feels in your hand or the surface touch.  We know it intimately and labor and fuss over those quiet details. An example I use is a limited-edition bronze cocktail table called the Granada. It has a deep returning bevel that is actually a different patina surface texture than its polished face, which exaggerates the line where it recedes. It is actually really hard to cast bronze large and get a great surface polish without pits...so this takes a time commitment and skill level by the maker.  It is kind of like when a painter uses certain painting techniques to convey space or surface ...we care about that stuff and that is a luxury.

Bob Robinson at work in the studio 
photo by Janet Moran

What do you see the reasons for your success? 

We have maintained a kind of authenticity to our goals, our quality and our aesthetic. Hopefully the designs evolve over time and we continue to challenge ourselves with new materials, processes etc. Our work is a natural extension of who we are and so hopefully that translate into what others see as success. We just do what we seem to have been born to do.

I am interesting in hearing you talk about materials further. Any materials that just get you beyond excited to work with? Or a material you thought you could not work with but eventually found a way to work with?  Any materials that are local to the Mid West that you are proud to have in your work? The most sublime material?

We have worked in a lot of materials that sometime initially excited us but proved difficult to maintain quality over time. We respond often to our clients’ needs but love to work in new processes and combine materials. For example we had a request from a great client to do a large reception desk for a 5 star hotel project in Shanghai using real tortoise. We could not ethically agree so we proposed the material used by luthiers on guitars called "pic guard" which is a cast resin to look like tortoise that we used as tiles. It was beautiful but challenging. We did explore using on some limited-edition pieces, but it never really had enough response for us to get into major production. Clients love the beautiful natural wood surfaces, the hand and feel of a thing with soul. I think all our work that has been most successful has been with pieces were you can see the texture, the surface with a hand rubbed or burnished surface.

We are exploring a range of cast porcelain to combine with bronze and wood for lighting and  bronze with large wood turnings. I also super interested in formed leather and combining that with wood and bronze. I am very in love with opaque white glass at the moment but it is another material with its own hurdles because not many people work with it and sourcing workrooms is a challenge.

I think bronze is a material that particularly resonates with us because of its longevity and it's tactility. We work with an art foundry and the learning curve on producing the desired results has been really exciting. We see its use for so many different forms combined with our wood processes as a growing part of our collection.

Basi Table

In regards to wood, Bob has a very deep knowledge of this material as a master craftsman and maker of fine guitars. We always find a way to try to push this fundamental material – for example we were interested in developing large-scale wood turned tables that could translate into a more refined and less rustic spaces. Since it’s physically impossible to dry solid-turned wood without cracking, we invented a proprietary technique for hollowing the core of the table. After the initial turning, the wood is dried over time in a custom-built kiln and drying room. It can take up to six months to dry each piece depending on the wood species and inherent humidity. Each piece needs to have multiple turnings to keep the table round. Our hollowing out makes the piece inherently more stable and holds the form without the cracks becoming a surface detraction. It’s a very sculptural final form, which we call the Basi. We love rustic turned pieces, too, but a lot of folks do that and we wanted to remain true to our personal history and aesthetic

Another great thing about the Basi, which is representative of what we do, is that is that we are able to source wood that is typically overlooked. For this piece, we like highly figured pieces like tree crotches because we believe it gives more character - this is the stuff typically rejected by loggers and turned into firewood or pulp. So our interest in materials often results in a more sustainable solution. We source the wood directly form the logger locally and so have a truly green process...not just the appearance of a sustainable product.

If you are interested in learning more about how we source our wood and how it impacts our design we wrote a blog post about it. We always support small sawmills and go to the source as we find this makes a huge impact on the heirloom quality of our product. (more here)

Another thing I would add is that we seem to be moving away from some of the more exotic woods to rediscover some of the beautiful native woods. Our customers are requesting this as well. And this is exciting for us as it means that we can go to the forests and sawmills where our wood comes from and truly be a part of the very origin of the design process.

As far as Midwestern sourcing goes, we also source from a family-owned tannery in Chicago. It might be fun to go there when you come! When Chicago was the meat-packing capital back in the day, there were lots and lots of tanneries. Sadly our tannery is one of the last in the country. All that industry has gone to Asia in a rush for lowest possible price. Our local tannery is a great source for us and has beautiful, old, hand-applied and secret processes that make them the coveted source for real cordovan leather for premium men's shoes.  We have them make leather for some of our chairs since the type we want is not really commercially available for upholstery.

Ferros Table designed by Deirdre Jordan

What were the early days of Troscan like, and how quickly were you able to find success? 

We were represented right away by Holly Hunt and within the first year Tiffany & Co. became a primary client for their stores worldwide...so we were off and running from the very first day.

At what point were you picked up by Holly Hunt, and how has they helped their business?

We introduced our first pieces at a show called Chicago Design, which was intended to compete with ICFF. It only lasted two or three years but it was a great platform for us to present a collection. Holly came to us at the show and offered us Chicago representation, and it grew from there. It was a natural extension of my work I did with Holly and she was very supportive of us. She has been a recognized force in our industry and helped us to define a client base for the level we wanted to work at. We were very fortunate to have her support and she has been an advocate of ours for many years

Were there any specific growing pains, and stumbles that felt too big to tackle?

We opened our doors right before 9-11 and those were scary times only because the world didn't seem to be focused on design, and our sort of industry seemed not that much a part of the zeitgeist, which was totally what we expected. Luckily things picked up and we stayed very busy ...really too busy at times when we grew faster than we wanted. We had to learn how to manage a large group of woodworkers and that wasn't always easy.

the interior of Room406
photos by Brian Guido and Julia Stoltz

What is the concept of Room406, the Chicago design gallery you opened up in late 2012? 

Room406 is a new concept venue and gallery for furniture and accessories. We highlight the work of American and international makers, designer vintage furniture, handcrafted accessories and rare artifacts.  We also showcase the Troscan Design furniture line. The gallery is our home base and is located just south of the city's Ukrainian Village. We are next door to a boxing studio and across the street from a maker of pierogies and borscht... So the true Chicago experience!  Our 19th-century building houses our workshop on the first floor. On the second floor is Room406. The gallery space has high ceilings and natural skylights and exposed brick walls. The feeling is intended to be very residential with a fireplace and open kitchen – most often people come in and think it is our home!

What is the goal of this space?  

There are several goals but probably the overarching theme is to be able to interact with people in a way that we haven’t been able to through the traditional showroom model. We are able to truly show who we are and our vision for how our spaces can reflect our interests, passions and personalities. Also, we are also able to offer support to other makers in this space and create a community. I also think the model for aspirational spaces that typical showrooms present isn't necessarily how people live and I wanted to show how one might truly live with design where things with texture and patina mix with new materials and forms.

Ryota Aoki pottery at Room406

photos above by by Jim Warych

What collections does Room406 carry, and what are the plans in the future? 

Exclusive offerings include merino and cashmere throws by Brooklyn weaver Hiroko Takeda, a former designer for Larsen, hand-thrown luminous white porcelain vessels by Oregon potter Lillith Rockett, gorgeous recycled sari and silk, nettle and wool rugs by Germany’s Jan Kath and colorful handspun twill blankets and textiles by Studio Donegal from Kilcar County, Ireland. We also will soon have a variety of new ceramics  from Tortus Copenhagen, and some new Sophie Cook porcelain. We are working on a collection of new bronze, porcelain and leather objects branded Room406 products that is currently in development including lighting and domestic accessories. I’m extremely excited about the new line that will most likely be launching in spring 2015. We of course also have the great vintage and antique pieces that vary from Japanese iron "Tsubas " which are gorgeous sword handle shields, kashigata cookie molds and vintage axe heads...all sharing a thoughtfulness by the way they were crafted or designed.

Who designed the space, and what was the space before Room406?

It was originally a machine shop and we designed and built out the space to be our home base, design studio and entertainment space. The ground floor is still functioning as a working making space, but the upstairs was a complete renovation resurrecting the skylights, adding light bleached oak floors and restoring what we could of the windows.

How do you find the artists for the gallery shows? 

I look for artists and designers whose work I would (and do!) love enough to have in our own home. These are artists whose work we have personally admired and who in most cases have become our friends through Room406. I also work closely with a few curators we admire and who have introduced to both local and international artists, so we have been lucky really to find great artwork through our network. The artists have all expressed how they love having a chance to step outside of the white box and to have their work seen in context as to how people might live with it. Collectors also love this new context for seeing what I will call "real art" in a domestic sort of environment. Mostly showroom art can tend to toward the kind of work with really broad appeal that is not that interesting and is more decorative...that is not what we are about.

Can you share some advice for beginning furniture designers attempting to grow their business.  A furniture design business  can be extremely difficult to launch, and I would be very interested in hearing your perspective.

1.Though it is hard to do if you are a creative person, establishing a routine and organizational method for capturing and retaining ideas is super important. Simply sketching away in notebooks works for some of us but not all of me! I really need defined design problems and work best when I have parameters. It somehow fuels my creativity more than having ALL the possibilities in front of me. Bob works best as a focused problem solver, so for us that kind of defined design with organization helps us be much more prolific.

2. Create a collection where the scale of the pieces works together. Many designers look at doing only type of thing or working in limited palette of materials, but for us we wanted a certain feel, weight and refinement of details that maybe would not work great with different scale or less refined lines and materials. The pieces don't have to be realized as full working prototypes but can be 3 d modeled to show a complete thought. I think then designers or clients can see how to use the pieces instead of just as isolated moments or ideas.

3. Learn about the market, the business, the industry. Often would-be furniture designers get seduced but the star designer that has that cult  "it " design and then works to emulate that success with their own hoped for rock star moment. It is work to make beautiful pieces with design longevity and staying power and not like a lottery. It sometimes takes a lot of bad ideas to get to a well resolved, thoughtful and beautiful piece...and at is work much like a musician practices their music or a dancer works out...albeit it is pleasurable work for us but it is work.  

4. One more thing....learn from the makers wherever and whenever you can! Design is not an aesthetic concept. Design is the verb of making the thing come to life after the concept and the people who make the pieces can SO bring much to the final outcome.

Furniture designers of the top of your head that you look to for inspiration? 

Poul Kjaerholm, Joaquim Tenreiro, Prouve, and Eero Saarinen. The anonymous vernacular designer is usually the best. Christian Liaigre really figured that out and made it his own aesthetic. The best designers can see the beauty in the simplicity.  That is inspiration in its self.

What has been the most successful piece of Troscan Collection, and is there a signature piece in your collection?  A personal favorite is the Sumo Table. I think this table is such an incredible statement of how rusticity can be in full harmony of modernity, and inform the other.

We are working more in the vein of the Sumo. It is definitely our favorite kind of work we do. We have many more in that collection coming out in the next 4-6 months if we can keep ahead of orders on the Sumo!

Sometimes the most successful pieces are the bread and butter...but they support the other work so it is all good. The Bella chair has been our single most successful piece. It fits all body types and has a sort of classic appeal, I suppose. The Weekend Ottoman too. It is an easy piece to live with and people tell us they love it because its one unusual feature is that you can put your feet on it and the tray top moves. I never imagined that years alter we would still be selling so many of those! I have dogs and a young child so we have one too because it is also family friendly!

Where is your work sold? National and international?  

We are sold nationally through Holly Hunt and Desousa Hughes and Town. Our projects live all over the world and include 5 star hotels, high end retail like Tiffany & Co, restaurants  and private residences . We consider ourselves primarily a residential furniture company but more than 30% of work ends up in commercial projects where the clients require a certain level of design and quality atypical of contract projects.

Visit Troscan Design + Furnishings here. 
Thank you Deirdre Jordan and Bob Robinson!