Welcome to Meaningful-Objects, a blog hosted by Base Modern about west coast design and the designers that create it.
The first installment of the blog is a conversation with Portland designer Kari Merkl of Merkled Studio.
Kari is many things from designer to fabricator, teacher and business owner. She designs and builds her work in Portland both in-house, and with a small group of local vendors.
Her varied line of products include furniture, hooks, shelves, and more. Her wall hooks and shelves are highly functional and also playful. Her furniture combines steel that she forms and welds in her shop with unconventional materials like paracord and sunbrella.
MO: What is Merkled Studio and what do you do?
KM: Merkled Studio is a design and manufacturing company based in Portland. We design and create contemporary furniture, fixtures, and products for residential and commercial spaces.
Originally when Merkled Studio began in 2009 we did 100% custom but in the past 6 years I have tried to grow the product line more and now its about 20% custom, 80% product line.
All of our products are made in Portland. Some vendors we have been working with for 15 years. We outsource all our waterjet, laser cutting, polishing and powder coating. All welding, forming, upholstery and assembly is done in house.
MO: You are a designer (but I believe have also been a teacher) What do you see as your place in the design community?
KM: I do wear the teaching and mentoring hat from time to time both for design and for welding. I have been adjunct teaching in University design programs for about 7 years and teaching welding on and off for about 8 years. Both skillsets I love to teach for different reasons. It is honestly hard for me to teach regularly and run a business but I always seem to forget that. I like being part of curious excited energy students have when learning new things. Teaching creative design thinking while making is a super passion of mine and when I can teach a person who has never welded before to be a pro in 6 hours and leave excited I am very happy.
MO: You are the founder of the League of Women Designers. Can you tell me about that and why you started it?
KM: I am and something I am pretty proud of. LWD is a member-led professional forum that exists to elevate women in interdisciplinary design. In 2009 when I first started Merkled Studio I was on a panel of furniture designers and realized there were very few women in the audience. I was starting to wonder where the women were in my field. I am personally inspired by lots of different art and design disciplines so in the beginning I started asking awesome women I was meeting if they would like to come and talk about their work, from the sound art show they created in Marfa, the architecture project they were working on etc. We started casually and have grown very organically. In 2018 we received 501c3 status and have chapters in Portland, Chicago, New York and Denver. In the past 9 years we have curated some wonderful, educational, inspiring member meetings and public events.
MO: What skill or process has best served you in your work and what do you see as your biggest hurdle?
KM: Funny, I would say my skillset may actually be my biggest hurdle. I have always been a designer who can also make, specifically in realms of metalwork and soft-goods. Although I love the freedom of being able to actually make the ideas that I have in my mind, when products get to a point where they have larger productions runs I really have to make strategic assessments if it can be made out of house. Just because I can make it doesn’t always mean my time is best served doing so, working with another manufacturer or hiring someone who could fabricate the large production runs is a hurdle on my mind.
MO: I think the West Coast (and Portland) is producing a lot of good design right now. Why do you think that is and how does this community and location inform your process?
KM: When I first I moved to Portland in 2002 I didn’t know I was about to move to such an inspiring, existing design and manufacturing hub. It was encouraging landing in a place that had a welcoming, unapologetic risk taking, and entrepreneurial spirit. There is a lot of creative energy that blurs and pushes the boundaries of craft, materials and industry in the Northwest.
MO: If you had unlimited resources what would you be doing or designing?
KM: I would like to be designing more and giving more space to that side of my brain. If I had unlimited resources I would hire more people to handle the business side of my business so I could just do the fun stuff.
I also have some lofty ideas that I can’t really afford to prototype right now and unlimited resources would be pretty sweet to make and play with whatever came into my mind.
MO:Who do you design for?
KM: I design for clients who appreciate simplicity, modern, quality and functional pieces. Some of the things I design are too simple for some people or too weird and I can completely understand that.
MO: What forms, materials, and colors inspire you the most right now and even more so who?
KM: As boring and “NW” as its sounds nature is the biggest inspiration for me because it opens up space in my brain so it can breath. The colors that pop through the Pacific NW grey have historically captured my brain and inspired. I often find myself craving art. On a recent trip to NY I saw a large exhibit of Constantin Brancusi sculptures and there was something so calming about them. I get really excited about risk takers like experimental textile company Byborre and the amazing Patricia Urquiola, she has such a strong material curiosity that is playful and experimental.
MO: What do you see as the best work you have done to date and why?
KM: I think it is pretty amazing that customers still order and want the Merkled Coat Rack after 9 years. There must be something that makes it still stand strong on its own. Recently though I took a big risk on the Net Wrap Chair because I followed a curiosity and even though it is a bit weird it has been a successful launch and gives me some confidence that’s its ok to follow my folly once in a while.
Mo: What is your least favorite design trend and why?
KM: I would actually say the early 90’s coming back is something I am fascinated by but from a safe distance. I know my work can be at times seen as trendy but I try and stay a bit askew from the trends when possible. I am really into the matte and grey trend happening right now though.