Interview: Nico Yektai

Nico Yektai at work
Nico Yektai at work in his studio in the Hamptons

Designer Nico Yektai has been on my radar for a long time now and I really love all the unique and quirky pieces that he makes. His work is unlike anybody else’s I have come across and I have long wanted to find out more about him, his inspiration, design philosophy and manufacturing processes. I had the pleasure of running into him at The Architectural Digest Home Design Show in New York as part of BlogTourNYC. Here, I was not only able to meet him in person, but also to get a good look at, and feel of, his beautiful creations. He really was the nicest person and I was in awe of the fantastic skill and craftsmanship that goes into every one of his sculptural pieces. Lucky for us, he agreed to answer some questions for us so we can get a little bit of an insight into the man behind these stunning designs.

Curved Dovetail Console Table by Nico Yektai
Curved Dovetail Console Table

Your father is a noted abstract expressionist painter and poet. How did his career influence you as you were growing up?

NY. My father is one of those painters who is very serious about his work and his pursuit of originality. Everything in our household revolved around art. I got to see on a daily basis how all-consuming a career in art is. My father works all the time writing, painting, thinking and then doing. The lesson that I learnt was that a life in the arts was a hard life if you embraced the challenge. But I also got to see the reward of that commitment. I got to see how the public and his peers reacted to his work.

Bench #12 by Nico Yektai
Bench #12

When did you first know that you wanted to follow in his footsteps and become an artist yourself?

NY. My parents discouraged me and my siblings from becoming artists. This was due to the fact that they knew how hard life as an artist can be.  I don’t want to say that I fought the urge to become an artist, but I tried to do other things. For example, I majored in art history in college as an attempt to keep the door open to a life in which I could be something other than an artist. It did not work and I started to think about finding a medium to express what I had learnt about art.

I had always been interested in making things; furniture in particular. I went to the Rochester Institute of Technology because they had the most technically rigorous programme in terms of craftsmanship and design. I became completely free artistically as I began to gain confidence as a craftsman and everything in my life fell into place. It was in that moment that I realised that I could become an artist and that I had something valid to say.  More importantly, I understood how to organise a life around it via hard work and commitment, just as I had seen my father do.

Chair #4 by Nico Yektai
Chair #4

Your studio is in the Hamptons and you have said that settling there was one the best moves of your early career. Why is this?

NY. My father came out to the Hamptons in the 50s with the first wave of artists from New York City. As a result, he has deep connections in the art world out here. I had lots of options in terms of galleries to talk to when I was trying to find a good place to show my work. One of the very first I spoke with, Elaine Benson, offered to include me in one of her shows. That’s how it began for me. My work has been exposed to world-class artists, collectors and a general public that was interested in art. These interactions gave me the confidence to continue on the path as an artist.

Bench #13 by Nico Yektai
Bench #13

Your work blurs the boundaries between art and design and you have referred to it as functional art. How do you ensure that your products have the right balance between aesthetics and functionality?

NY. Interesting  question. The balance between aesthetics and function is the line that I walk. Sometimes I push a little further. Sometimes I reel it back and work within a lesser known piece of furniture from history. The bottom line is that the archetype of furniture and the expectations that people have of it being useful are the parameters that organise me. I have found a style that allows me to be endlessly creative within that structure. They are intimately entwined for me and I can’t separate them. If I were to stray too far in either direction, the piece would never leave my studio. I think the thing that I like best about my subject is that people who claim no understanding of art see something in my work that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I have always credited my subject, functional furniture, for broadening the audience for my creative expressions.

Dovetail Shelf by Nico Yektai
Dovetail Shelf

You have a very unique style. What are the main influences that have affected the development of your style?

NY. My style evolved as a response to the way other people woodwork. Often there is an emphasis on matching grain when putting two boards together so that they blend into one. That’s not my approach. I mismatch grain and separate the boards by shifting the joint. I use these structural elements as the point where I can introduce spontaneity. The result is that I have something to keep me engaged as I am  building the piece. I think of the components in my furniture as brushstrokes in the painting. I learned this from the way my father paints. He builds up a canvass with gestural strokes with pallet knives and brushes.

The other influence on my style is the realisation that over time furniture changes from the way it looked when it was first made. Time wears away edges. Time breaks apart glue joints. Time causes boards to warp and move to a slightly different place than the original maker intended. These things are often described as character. My style has evolved to emulate the effects of time from the start.

Curved Dovetail Console Table by Nico Yektai - Close up
Close up of Curved Dovetail Console Table

What are your favourite materials to work with and why?

NY. Wood will always be my main material. I have an understanding for how to work it, but more importantly an understanding of how to do something unique with it. Over the years I have introduced other materials that compliment the wood in my pieces. Concrete is the other material that I have developed the greatest vocabulary with. I have found that it has enhanced my woodwork and the combination has proved very interesting and intriguing to me. Glass and metal also make appearances in my work. I have the ability to do some intricate metal work in my studio so I can see metal developing into a more prominent role in future pieces.

Corner Piece #3 by Nico Yektai
Corner Piece #3

You have said that your work has evolved to satisfy function but that you also seek to challenge viewers’ expectations along the way. Can you explain this?

NY. Nothing explains this better than drawers in my work. Drawers are functional and we are conditioned to expect that they open straight out towards us. My work is all about movement so it’s natural that the drawers would follow that movement. My drawers don’t usually open straight out. I love to watch people try to open one of these drawers.  The drawer will not open when pulled in the expected direction. The person usually relaxes and lets the drawer guide them and then it slides out a little bit at the left or the right as it glides open. The viewer had to let go of their preconceptions in order to open the drawer.  The fun part for me is that this discovery is usually accompanied by a smile! I want to challenge people. I want them to become conscious of interacting with my work, but never annoyed by it.

Wall Hung Console #1 by Nico Yektai
Wall Hung Console #1

Can you take us through the design and making process of one of your pieces? How does it all start and how do you get to the final piece?

I do not draw well enough to present ideas to clients, but I do sketch to help get to the point where I’m ready to build a little model. Model making is easy for me and I have found them to be a great tool for communicating my intentions to the public. I don’t do it for every piece, especially when I am building a piece for myself.  I used to need technical drawings or a full-scale drawing to build the piece. I no longer require them though, due to the vast experience I have making my work. When I do need to work out a detail I now draft on the computer. The bonus of this method of designing is that I have a wonderful collection of models. The construction of the piece takes place in my studio where I have a complete collection of woodworking tools and machines. I have not yet included any CNC parts in my work but I could envision doing so in the future.

Nico Yektai at work in his studio in the Hamptons
Nico Yektai at work in his studio in the Hamptons

Do you work on your own or do you have a team that helps you produce your designs?

NY. I do all the design work myself. Of course, I also do commissions and work with clients reflecting the specifics of their needs. I pride myself on being a good listener and in the end my designs always reflect what the client has asked for. I consider their requirements as parameters that I can work within. The result is that the process ends up as a collaboration, but that’s the extent of other people being involved in my work. I build all the pieces myself. Part of this is a result of my style, which mandates that I make decisions as I build the piece. The pieces are built as a sculpture, recording evidence of my thought process, knowledge, limitations, successes and failures. I sign all of my pieces because of the nature of the way that the pieces are made.

I can’t always envision how to bring someone else into the mix in my studio. I wouldn’t mind at some point though having some help with some of the more mundane tasks, such as sanding.

Desk #1 by Nico Yektai
Desk #1

 What are your plans for the future? What can we expect to see next from Nico Yektai?

Interesting question! I always try to demonstrate something new with each piece that I build. Sometimes that means a change of scale or exploring a new piece of furniture. I was very pleased by the reception that Wall Hung Console #1 had at the shows this year and I plan on adding to the series in the coming year. I would also like to add some seating to my outdoor collection. I have a few ideas for pieces with cushions that can be used around a low outdoor table.

I would like to thank Nico for taking the time to answer my questions as I know he is a busy man. If you have time, please do pop on over to Nico’s site and explore his beautiful work further and don’t forget to leave a comment if you love his work as much as I do!

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