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Photography by Christopher Churchill

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Colin Westeinde: The Furniture Designer With an Ikea Alternative

The soon-to-be-graduate of Rhode Island School of Design creates heirloom-quality pieces fit for mobile millennials

Furniture designer Colin Westeinde is no stranger to tricky balancing acts. The Vancouver, British Columbia native was a competitive slopestyle stunt biker in high school, juggling event travel with school work and jobs in construction and bike repair.


But it took the demands of course work at the Rhode Island School of Design for Westeinde to develop the single-minded focus that’s getting him through his current balancing act: finishing up school, preparing to exhibit his work for the first time at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (he was chosen to be part of ICFF's 11th annual Studio Class), and launching a studio—Co*Ca—with design partner Caroline Bagley.

The RISD senior likes to say that he’s not doing anything groundbreaking—just designing chairs, tables, and lamps like everyone else. But a closer look at Westeinde’s small body of work reveals an intriguing tightrope walk between concept and craft, and mechanical manufacturing and the handmade.

Courtesy of Colin Westeinde

Such equilibrium was clearly at play in Westeinde’s breakout design—a set of parametric pendant lamps combining computer-created copper frames and hand-blown glass globes—which went viral in the design media last year, earning him international attention. The unique bulbous lamps with their cage-like metal straps blur the line between mechanized manufacturing and the handmade, Westeinde explains. "Machines are good at replicating but hands make little errors, little mistakes. Each one is unique," he says.

Courtesy of Co*Ca

Westeinde’s interest in parametric design (the use of parameters and scripted rules to generate an object’s form) was ignited by a classroom encounter with Joris Laarman’s Bone Chair—a strange and sinewy form designed through a computer program mirroring the growth pattern of bone.

Entranced by the Laarman’s high-concept designs and high-tech methods, Westeinde interned in the designer’s Amsterdam lab for the summer after his second year at RISD. There, he helped develop a bookshelf inspired by computational vortex models and honed his CAD skills by reverse-engineering another Laarman creation, the Ivy climbing wall, to make it modular and scalable.

The forthcoming collection reimagines common furniture types optimized for young, semi-nomadic apartment dwellers.

"[Laarman’s] work is fantastic, but operates in a decadent space," Westeinde said of his mentor’s experimental designs. "It’s furniture design, but not furniture design for people."

By the following summer, Westeinde was ready to experience the opposite end of the furniture spectrum, working as an intern at the Brooklyn furniture studio Fort Standard. Where Laarman’s work favors story and technological processes, Fort Standard venerates handcraft, utility, and the creation of pure, archetypal furniture forms.

"When you imagine an ideal table or chair, that’s what they were aiming for," Westeinde explained. "Like a line drawing of just a plane with four legs."

At Fort Standard, Westeinde designed a trio of pared-down wall-mounted items and fabricated simple furniture pieces including the firm's Range Table.

Handcrafted utility and high-tech decadence. It’s these experiences at the extremes of form and function that have most powerfully influenced Westeinde’s current work—his collaboration on the millennial-minded furniture collection for Co*Ca.

"It’s completely related to where I find myself in life," Westeinde said of the forthcoming collection, which reimagines common furniture types optimized for young, semi-nomadic apartment dwellers. It's high-aesthetic, high-performance furniture, if you will.

The young designer’s Safari Chair is perhaps the work that most embodies his aspirations for the collection. Made with tapered wooden dowels held together by the tension of the fabric seat and back, the chair has a dash of Danish-modern style with a quick-disassembly feature more often found in camping gear than heirloom furniture.

But Westeinde likes the camping comparison, wanting his work to be infused with the practicality and mobility of high-performance gear. Young people are moving more frequently, he says. And living in smaller and smaller apartments. He thinks there's a market for having a good-looking chair that can be quickly taken apart and tossed in a tote bag.

Westeinde and Bagley will be working this summer to develop a core kit of transformable pieces—a chair, table, shelves, clock, textiles, and other items—with the hopes of offering an alternative to the disposable starter furniture produced by a certain Swedish furniture giant.

"Ikea has incredibly good design, but its goal is different," Westeinde explained. "When the screw strips out of your bookcase because you’ve moved it the fifth time, [Ikea wants you to] buy it again."

But Co*Ca is banking on furniture-buyers who’ll appreciate durable pieces designed to be moved and stand the test of time. The collapsable items won't disintegrate with disassembly, and they'll take up less packing space than typical furnishings. But even this aspiration is balanced with an awareness of reality.

Courtesy of Co*Ca

"The people who can afford this furniture can probably afford to hire movers," Westeinde admits with a smile. He knows that some buyers won’t necessarily maximize the utility of his pieces, but will appreciate their functionality all the same.

We value the idea of an ultimate object, something born through the highest degree of technical craftsmanship and research. It's like the guy who buys a high-performance bike but just rides it down the road, Westeinde explains. But he doesn't see this perfection-oriented impulse as a waste.

Rather, it's a kind of ethical balancing point, the place where functional design swings back over into the decadent, Westeinde says. "It’s a place to start."

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