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The Designer Who’s Trading in Fashion for Furniture

By Alice Newell-Hanson

David Chow
 
Jonathan Saunders

Inside his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment, the designer sits with pieces from his debut furniture collection, Saunders: a steel-tube-and-leather stool stacked upon a sycamore-and-birch bench with red-and-black marquetry and, in the foreground, an ebony and sand-coloured birch block seat. On the wall is his own hand-screen-printed textile.

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David Chow
 
Jonathan Saunders

Three of Saunders’s designs: an étagère with glass shelves suspended between sycamore, ash and white wenge columns; a coffee table made from lacquered steel tubing; and a steel-tubing chair strung with nylon webbing.

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Jonathan Saunders’s new venture, a graphic but spare line of wood, metal and resin furniture, isn’t so much a departure for the Scottish fashion designer as a return. After graduating from the master’s program at London’s Central Saint Martins school in 2003, he designed prints for Alexander McQueen, including the celebrated, psychedelic bird-of-paradise motif from the spring 2003 collection. From there, he consulted for Christian Lacroix at Pucci and simultaneously launched his own namesake line — tailored, vibrantly hued men’s and women’s wear — which he shuttered in 2015. The following year, he took a position as chief creative officer at Diane von Furstenberg, where he brought his knack for unusual colour and print combinations (burnt orange and turquoise florals, for example, paired with azure and caramel check).

But the Glasgow native’s first love was always home furnishings. He recalls painting terra-cotta pots and other objects in off-kilter pastel shades. At 16, he left school to take a carpentry course at a local workshop before winning a scholarship to attend the Glasgow School of Art, where he specialised in textile design. It was that school’s famous medieval- and Japanese-inspired sandstone building — conceived by the Scottish proto-Modernist architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh in the late 1890s — that solidified his fascination with unexpected juxtapositions of materials and pattern. “I was walking up the stairwell going in for my interview and saw that Mackintosh had used an inlay of concrete in a really graphic square format,” he recalls. “I just remember thinking how incredibly modern that felt.”

Since then, Saunders’s work has been an ongoing exploration of the space between strong lines and planes of colour, informed mostly by artists, among them the 20th-century British sculptors Anthony CaroAllen Jones and Rachel Whiteread (images of their work are pinned to the wall of his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn). Much like the jolie laide colour-blocked suiting and shift dresses he became known for, each of the 15 pieces in his debut collection of furniture, called Saunders, are experiments in colour theory and geometry. But if the euphoric, striking effect of his clothes felt in sync with the fervid electronic music scene of London in the early 2000s, the look of his glossy-but-restrained tables and seating is at once more abstract (the minimalist lines recall the Italian postmodernist Ettore Sottsass’s knack for playing with pattern and hue) and down-to-earth (he manufactures all of his wooden marquetry pieces at a third-generation family-owned workshop in Valencia, Spain). Among the first pieces he made, after leaving Diane von Furstenberg in 2018 and taking a two-month-long inspiration trip to Japan and India, was a six-foot-tall étagère composed of long crystal shelves suspended between two rectangular wooden columns made from alternating sections of sycamore, ash and white wenge. The tones shift according to no discernible rule, giving the piece an unexpected rhythm, a word Saunders likes to use to describe the effect of the patterns created by the delicate marquetry, which is abundant in his designs. “It looks slightly off,” he says approvingly, “and not quite right.” That same sort of subtle irregularity is also seen in a coffee table shaped like an upended pyramid made from stacked concentric squares of steel tubing, painted and lacquered in a seemingly improvised sequence of taupe, pine green and scarlet, with a curving transparent resin top. On a chair constructed from four square steel-tubing frames, nylon webbing in various shades (cyan, khaki, optic white, vermilion) creates a seat with a similarly unpredictable checkered design.

Providing a contrast to the angular shapes of the furniture collection — which also includes a lacquered black-and-red sycamore-and-birch bench and a cube-shaped stool with a tomato-red and toffee-coloured steel-tube base — Saunders has also developed his own textiles. He uses an open-screen-printing method, which allows the wet inks (black, oatmeal, sulfuric yellow) to bleed into each other, and maintains the mark of his own hand. “I was trying to do something that would loosen me up a little,” he says.

Making things outside fashion’s relentless schedule has proved liberating as well to the 42-year-old; the slower pace has given Saunders time to think about not only what he creates but how and why he does it. He references the Bauhaus, the early 20th-century avant-garde German school-cum-craft guild, as a model for thoughtful, multidisciplinary production. His fabrics will not only be used in multiple ways in his furniture — he is developing a transparent Perspex coffee table with scraps of the patterned cloth suspended within it, for example — but are also available for other designers to purchase. He may even release the occasional jacket or dress in future collections, if the right idea presents itself. “What I’m trying to do,” he says, “is to make the things I love and enjoy the process.”

Related story: House Tour | Jonathan Saunders