Eric Trine believes that furniture should be forgettable—though not in the way one might assume. “You’re not supposed to be paying attention to it,” he says. “It shouldn’t be shouting, ‘Hey, I’m here!’ when you should be focused on your dinner, or your cup of coffee, or your book instead.”
Trine, a furniture and product designer known for his energetic take on a style he calls California modern, launched his Long Beach studio in 2013. Since then,he’s turned out a color-splashed line of steel tables, woven leather chairs, wall-mounted planters, and more, producing everything within a close-knit 30 miles. Despite a commitment to high quality, Trine’s creations remain low-cost (only the leather chairs exceed $1,000). What’s more, they’re playful, but never pointless—even the phallic curiosity dubbed “Wall Willy” functions as a bathroom hook. Above all, each piece is made to be used, and used with joyful abandon—before it’s promptly forgotten, of course.
“A family came by to see my work once and the two kids immediately hopped in the chairs,” Trine recalls. “The parents told them, ‘No, no, no!’ And I said, ‘It’s okay. They can sit in the chairs. That’s what they’re for.’ If a kid looks at a piece and immediately knows how to use it, you know you’re doing something right.”
You’ve been pursuing an artistic path since high school. Tell us a little bit about your creative trajectory.
I grew up in Orange County, where I went to an arts high school to study set design. I joined the program because I saw these guys using power tools all day long instead of doing sports, and I thought, I want to do that. After I graduated, I went to a city college and took every art class I could. I got my BFA in Sculpture in 2007, and later, an MFA in Applied Craft and Design from the Oregon College of Art in Craft in Portland in 2013. I skipped my graduation to launch my studio in New York for Design Week. But even then, I didn’t have any products—I was just showing ideas and prototypes. So officially, I only launched last spring. It’s really fresh. Because I’ve had a social media and Instagram presence from the start, it seems like I’ve been around longer. But really, all of this is still very, very new.
You call your style California modern. What would you say makes your work distinctly Californian?
I didn’t realize that I was a California designer until I went to school in Portland and started showing my work in New York. People would ask where I lived, and when I told them, they’d say, “Oh, that makes so much sense.” There’s this mythology about California that things there are just lighter and airier and more casual. I think I hit on those touchstones. I wear jeans and a t-shirt every day. That’s my thing. I don’t want to make things that are overly precious—I just want to make good stuff that gets used. And I don’t want to be over-the-top in telling my story, either. Some people love talking about how American-made they are. For me, it’s just, “We make it all here in LA. End of story. Why wouldn’t we?” In that way, I guess even my storytelling is laidback.
Expand on the “why wouldn’t we?” aspect of your philosophy. Every item you make is manufactured locally. Why is that important?
My dad owns a company that manufactures power equipment, and I spent my whole life watching him go to China all the time. Now, I have a two-year-old, and I don’t want to be gone for weeks at a time.
But then there’s also the ease of it. Today I went to my leather supplier, my powder coater, and my metal manufacturer—and I was back in my studio by the afternoon. That’s a typical day for me, and it’s all very manageable, simple, and direct. I’m not going through chains of people to get things done. And I know everyone I work with. My powder coater and his wife are expecting a baby, and today he was talking to me about being a dad. It’s things like that—those extra little things that take the abstractness of running a business out of the equation. At this scale and this size, it’s really just enjoyable.
Did you start with any sort of underlying philosophy? What’s your primary goal when you develop a piece?
I take a sort of mid-century approach to modernism, which is really about the middle class. There’s that Eames mantra: “We wanted to make the best for the most for the least.” My challenge is to make stuff domestically and to hit a middle class price point. I want my peers to be able to buy and use my things.
In an earlier interview with WorkOf, you quoted Paul Wackers when asked why you use color so liberally. Wackers would answer similar questions by saying, “Because I wanted to see it.” Is that generally how your process starts? Are you making things that you’d like to use yourself?
Absolutely. I have a hard time with creative briefs that say, “We need a side table that fits this price point, manufactured with these materials, at this particular size.” I’m more, “I made a weird thing, and if I changed the scale of it, it could function as a side table.” That’s how many of my pieces develop. I take a more improvisational approach. My chair developed because I just decided to make a chair one day. I didn’t think, I want to design a chair. I thought, I’m going to make a chair in an hour. Then I got out of my head and made it. I refined it from there.
If I start with a concept, I’ll talk myself out of it. There’s a direct, act-now-don’t-wait thing that happens with me. If it doesn’t work, I’ll move on. I’ve been trying to design another chair for two years now, and I can’t do it. At some point, it’ll come together, but I’m not going to force it. And the nice thing is, I don’t have to.
On your website, you say you strive to have all of your work look good and feel great. What else is important in a well-designed piece?
Approachability. Exhibition furniture makes me uncomfortable. I don’t ever want someone to look at my work and think, Can I touch that? It’s not that I don’t like art, I just like things to be very clear—that’s a chair, that’s a table. The things I make already have names. They just look a little different.
Do you have a favorite material to work with?I like metal because of its speed. I can build something up really quickly and get to a form fast. It doesn’t require a lot of extra work. And I really love leather. I didn’t start working with it until grad school, and I’m just at the tip of the iceberg with it. The stuff I’m working on next year will include a lot more of it. It’s a magical material.
What else can we expect from you in the year ahead and beyond?
I’d like to get to a place where I don’t have to have that many retail partners. That feels like a weird move in a way, but everyone I know who’s in that position are just the managers and administrators of their companies. They’re not pushing stuff out there—it’s being pulled out. I’d also like to work on making my online shop way tighter, and the customer experience way better. Now that I know we can produce and sell stuff, it’s going to be about refining the experience for customers. And, of course, I’m always designing new things. I want to bring more organic materials into my work. And I want to develop an outdoor line. I’ve got a lot of goals.
As you mentioned earlier, you’re just getting started.
Things are still so new and so fresh for me, and I have a lot of momentum. I want to maintain that. I want to get away from the image of a guy just scrapping things together. We’re a real business. We’re a real design studio. We get our manufacturing and production done, and you can have our products in under two weeks. And not only that, but they’re amazing quality, too. I want big retailers to be intimidated by what independent American designers are able to do. I want them to say, “Wait a second. These kids are actually figuring out sourcing and production and scalability. We need to either partner with them, or step up our game.” That’s the real challenge.
Lastly, we have to ask the master of California modern: could you ever leave the Golden State?
No. I miss Portland—the weather, the people, the culture, the Democrats. But my family’s here. What I’ve been able to set up production-wise is here. My wife and I both grew up here. We’re beach babies. We need to be here.