Jan Jander

Jan Jander

Formed and worked.

by Brett Levine     Photo by Jerry Siegel

Jan Jander artist Birmingham alabamaFor Jan Jander, timing is everything. On the floor of his Birmingham studio, he is meticulously mixing the materials that will become an impression of the “seat,” shall we say, of restaurateur Frank Stitt. “It is all about timing,” Jander explains, “as he folds a custom combination of sand, cement, and water together. “If it is too liquid, it won’t hold the cast,” he laughs, “so consistency is the key.”

This is evident as Jander works to complete a major commission of eight benches to be installed in the radically redesigned, soon to be opened, Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. “Gail Andrews of the Birmingham Museum of Art, who is a member of the committee working to enhance the Airport through art, discussed the possibility of this commission. I was excited by the opportunity to blend function, history and contemporary furniture somewhere it wouldn’t be expected.” Now, Jander, working with curator Graham Boettcher, has created a dream list of Alabamians who will add their own personal element to this unique series of benches. “Essentially it is about the intersection of ergonomics and aesthetics, even when you are working in cement,” Jander remarks.

Custom concrete furniture has been a consistent focus for Jander since completing architecture school. “I came to it in a really unexpected way,” he laughs. “At graduate school we were given the challenge of creating a cube that could only use a twenty percent volume of concrete.” For my first cube I tried something none of us thought would work. I made a wire form, and dipped the top ten percent and bottom ten percent in the concrete. We all thought the structure could not possibly hold, but somehow it actually made the cube incredibly light and unexpectedly strong.” Jander used this learning process as the foundation for a series of pieces he designed. He continues to refine and expand his line today.

“Concrete can be an unforgiving material,” Jander muses. “At large scales, it is incredibly heavy, but in some ways it is also incredibly fragile. It chips, it cracks, and it even cures in unpredictable ways. Recreating a finish, for example, can be a seemingly impossible process.”

Jander now divides his time between his studio in Birmingham and a home and studio in Chicago where his primary practice is based. “In Chicago I work on a wide range of projects, including architecture and interior design, but furniture is always my first and foremost passion. I can’t imagine not doing it myself, every step of the process, from designing to pouring, is so connected and personally challenging. That is what makes me passionate about creating each piece.”

His current line includes a console table that has become a signature piece. “I built my first console table simply because I had a loft with an unusual configuration.  I envisioned the table for a long wall, but I couldn’t find precisely the piece I wanted. I decided it might be better to make the work myself, and with some persistence the console table was born.” Jander also produces dining tables in a range of sizes and scales, outdoor seating, and custom pieces for clients, some returning again and again. “One of my biggest challenges, apart from wanting every piece to be perfect, is that I am so committed to making each one myself I simply can’t make as many pieces as I might like.” Jander has refrained from licensing out his designs, predominantly because he wants to maintain a level of quality control he can only achieve in his own studio. “I know that beautiful furniture can be manufactured,” he remarks, “because all you have to do is look at a piece by [Ludwig] Mies [van der Rohe] to see how consistency can be maintained.  For me,” he continues, “concrete’s potential for variation in each casting drives me to continuously explore the material and refine my approach in my quest to reveal the infinite range of fractal beauty that I see in concrete.”

Sitting in the sun room of his parents’ house, which Jander decorated with a diverse range of pieces from various periods and styles, including a surprising range of pieces with what can only be described as character, he explains his thinking on the existence of his works.  “Even though I have an almost obsessive attention to detail,” he smiles, “I am fascinated by the life of individual works—how they are affected in and by nature, how they change in their specific environments. While I think of every piece of furniture as a work of art, I also expect it to function, to be comfortable, and to have a life of its own.  Sometimes,” he comments, “I’ll leave a piece outside until it is weathered, and then bring it in to interact with the more formal, historical pieces, and antiques.”

In the end, opportunity and ingenuity drive Jander to make furniture.  “Part of my motivation is simply that I want to create something modern, something beautiful, something I haven’t seen before, and something that, apart from anything else, I have made with my own hands.”

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