Risky Business

Furniture designer Stefan Rurak plays with process and performance in his avant-garde work.

In a few weeks, this large commission will be installed in the home of a Park Avenue client, and Rurak will likely never see it again. “That’s okay,” he explains. “I’m always chasing the dragon of the new.”
Rurak mixing concrete; the artist likes to work with “common” materials, saying anyone can gild a piece with gold, but it takes more thought to elevate concrete and steel.
This 3-inch-thick walnut slab is going to become a table completed with blackened steel butterfly keys and inlays; while much of Rurak’s work is sold through a gallery, he does offer select pieces through Stefan Rurak Studio.
An assistant applies a layer of finish to a concrete and cement table base.

The artist stands on a piece of plywood in the middle of the frame. It’s night, and the lighting is fluorescent, turning the walls of the gallery a sickly yellow. Shadows on the wall reveal the presence of a crowd: onlookers, partygoers, witnesses—it’s not clear. Then the artist moves to pull a lever (or cut a string?) and, for one strange moment, it rains knives.

I’m watching a grainy video of Stefan Rurak’s performance art, which he sent to me in a file titled “early work.” Rurak has recently relocated to Maine after spending over a decade in Brooklyn. A graduate of Oberlin College, Rurak spent his 20s working odd jobs and making art. He also spent time in France, in a study-abroad program at the Beaux-Arts School. One day, he took a hike on Mont Sainte-Victoire, a famous mountain overlooking Aix-en-Provence (“the mountain was a favorite subject of Cezanne to paint,” he says), where he was struck with a particular type of inspiration. “You know the feeling when you’re on top of a mountain and you want to jump, but you aren’t suicidal?” he asks. “I wanted to feel that—the release of oblivion without the end result.” He decided to embrace the call of the abyss and begin creating works that center around risk. The knife piece was one manifestation of this drive; in another video clip, Rurak stands in front of a two-by-four that hangs from chains and swings back and forth perilously close to his chest. The idea was to put his body inches away from serious harm, a hair’s breadth from death.

“I was more extreme back then,” he says. “I was more hard-core. I thought performance was the purest form of art because it wasn’t a commodity. It couldn’t be bought or sold.” At that point in his life, he was able to do risky work because he had few other responsibilities tugging on his sleeve. Like most of us, though, Rurak got older, got married, and had a child, which changed his relationship to art. However, he says, “I still think, in all honesty, that those videos were some of my favorite works to make.”

It’s interesting to contrast Rurak’s performance pieces with his current output. In some ways, they’re opposites. Rurak sells custom-made furniture (built to last) both through Todd Merrill Studio and directly through his own studio (price available upon request) to high-end clients including at least one celebrity (he can’t say who). Yet it’s also clear that these aren’t really two different bodies of work—one ephemeral, one static; one early, one later; one low-fi, one exclusive—they’re part of a practice that always seeks to elevate tension. Rurak’s work, no matter the genre, is confrontational and bold. It’s (excuse the knife pun) edgy.

You may be wondering how furniture design can be confrontational or tense. Rurak explains that the edginess is not so much in the experience of living with his work, but in his process of making it. When asked what he thinks it’s like to live with one of his concrete-painted tables or steel lamps, he admits that question doesn’t really concern him. “I make a high-quality piece of art that functions. It’s crafted to outlive you.” But the risk, the tension, the temptation to jump—that happens in the studio. After working for hundreds of hours to build a bureau or a table, Rurak sits and looks at it. He examines this thing he’s made. Then, when he’s ready, he picks up a hand grinder and begins to draw. “I don’t know if deface is the right word,” he admits. “But a lot of my pieces have drawings and glyphs. I’m taking a risk at the end. The marks don’t lie. If you make a mistake, if your line wavers, if you slip, you can’t erase it. You can’t hide it. It could destroy the whole piece.” That moment, when he finishes a work with a drawing or a painted splash of concrete, is where Rurak finds focus and catharsis. “Every time, I have a tense moment. Don’t [expletive] this up.” His pieces are reminiscent of the work of Basquiat mixed with that of beloved designer Paul Evans.

Most furniture, especially fine furniture, is all about conventions. A bureau or a desk is generally supposed to last a long time, fit a recognizable format, and “match” with other items in one’s house. As Rurak points out, his chairs and lamps and tables can do these things, but he wants each piece to do something else, too. He wants his work to hold his emotions for him and project them outward in visible ways. “Sometimes, I don’t do a good job of expressing my feelings in a rational way,” he admits. In the studio, he is able to act and perform, to give in to anger or oblivion or joy. He can let himself be moved and then to move: cutting, grinding, painting, marking, elevating.

Although Rurak doesn’t like to call himself an artist, he recognizes that his recent move north is part of a longstanding tradition, one in which painters and sculptors from New York relocate to Maine and find new inspiration in the landscape, or new focus in the comparative solitude. When he first told his gallerist that he was moving, Todd Merrill balked. What would happen when Rurak moved away from the grime and grit of Brooklyn, Merrill wondered. Would something be lost? Would he go soft?

It hasn’t happened. For the past few weeks, Rurak has been experimenting with inflating steel using pressurized air. He’s created a couple of strange pillowlike shapes that he hopes to incorporate into his furniture. “Yesterday, I inflated the biggest piece of steel I’ve worked with so far, and today I put a beautiful piece of walnut on it to make a coffee table,” he says. “This idea has been kicking around in my head for while, and now I’m seeing how I can do it.” His life, he says, is all about “chasing the dragon of the new.”

Or, to put it another way, it’s an “endless hamster wheel” of problem and solution. “I don’t use a lot of expensive tools, because I like to create problems for myself. I create problems, struggle to overcome them, then I make a new problem.” It may not be quite as exciting as dodging knives, but his process is certainly working.