Chicago-based designer Michael Yurkovic combines two of Curbed’s favorite things: Midcentury modern furniture, and tiny things. Yurkovic handcrafts 1/12-scale replicas of iconic designs like Charles and Ray Eames’ shell chair and Eero Saarinen’s tulip chair—as well as staged room boxes—that are so detailed and faithful to the original that it’s hard to believe, at least when seen in photographs, that they’re miniature.
Yurkovic, like many children, got his start building model airplanes and cars with his father. This led him to a career in industrial design, where he worked on consumer electronic products like telephones, then a stint in toy consultancy, both of which required a lot of model-making.
Then about two and a half years ago, after having dabbled in restoring midcentury modern furniture and further developing his hand skills, he walked into his first miniature show and noticed that there was an incredible void in the market for midcentury modern design. Everything was Victorian or otherwise traditional. “I didn't quite know exactly how I would do it, but I knew I could,” Yurkovic recalled. “So I walked out of that show and dove straight into miniature, just full time midcentury modeling.”
We spoke to Yurkovic, who is represented by D. Thomas Fine Miniatures in New York, about his design process, why he thinks people are gaga for everything tiny (and midcentury modern), and how it all might fit within the context of the tiny house movement.
Why were you drawn to midcentury modern design?
I naturally gravitated towards the midcentury modern era because I thought it was all so exciting. There was new technology and new materials and processes, and just a whole new optimistic culture was going on then, bringing a whole fresh perspective to what furniture, as well as other things, could be. The furniture also really made it's way into pop culture in a big way. I like the clean lines, the purity of form. And because it's non decorative and so minimal, usually, the real devil is in the details. There's not all this spare ornamentation, so you can see how an arm is attached to a side of a chair, or the exact curvature of a molded shell. All those things were really carefully considered and that really appealed to me, and I think really challenged designers at the time.
What is your technique when you're creating these models?
From the very beginning, because of the skills I've acquired, I've tried to execute everything I do to the highest level, to do quality work. I wanted to set the bar high and really introduce that whole culture to a different point of view. It all starts out with research because I'm out to create an absolutely faithful replica of whatever it is that I choose to make. Gosh, there’s so much available online in terms of original drawings and incredible photographs. I will dive in and do the research about the designer and about the particular piece of furniture and the era that it was made, what the inspirations and materials were, and start there. And then I'll start figuring out how I'm going to make it. It's a real organic process so I try different things. There's almost really no beginning and no end. It's not really about the finished product so much as it's really process-oriented, and paying attention to all the little nuances all the way through the process. By the time the thing the object is quote-unquote done, I know it's done, there's no question of that in my mind because of the process, study, the attention to detail and understanding the form and everything. When it's done, it's done, and I just intuitively know it and there's no going back because it's well-conceived.
Do you find that working in miniature is very different from the design you did before? Or is it shrinking the scale, or is there more to it than that?
A lot of times there is more to it than just shrinking the scale, because maybe I'll be developing architectural elements as vignettes to show off my work and give it a context, or if I'm working on a room box. Sometimes it’s not all that direct of a process. There’s some intuition and judgments made where things can be exaggerated a little bit or altered so that they read better in small scale. I'll highlight some shadows that occur on the object to be pumped up or exaggerated—not to the level where they appear that way, but to the level where they read well in small scale, because it is different. It's a different way of perceiving objects. You look at it from different angles and so there are some considerations. It's not a direct translation all the time.
Do you mostly make midcentury modern furniture, or does it run the gamut? Do you have one type of furniture or style that you like to work with in particular?
I think my focus is definitely in midcentury modern era, but I don't feel limited to that, because in real life, as well as in miniature, good design can coexist with good design. You can have midcentury modern pieces in an environment with some appropriately done Arts and Crafts work, or Scandinavian models, or contemporary. I do a replica of a contemporary Wolf stove for people who are doing modern kitchens in their dollhouses, but that piece can exist beautifully with Saarinen tulip chairs and Saarinen dinettes right along side it.
Good design can exist well together so I don’t feel too bound by a period. But I'm known for midcentury modern design and I'm trying to carve this niche in a world that sort of, I wouldn’t say is resistant to it, but hasn't been able to visualize it. When I do the shows, a lot of people love my work but they can't wrap their heads around how they can incorporate it in their miniature world. But a lot of younger clientele, they get it immediately. They see all the new midcentury modern now that's in the design magazines and that they're advertising everywhere. They light up and start to think of the possibilities. So I think some of it is a demographic issue too.
Why do you think young people are drawn so much to midcentury design?
I think they appreciate the design aesthetic. I think they’re a lot more sophisticated. I think they see it in so many places around them and how it's withstood the test of time. Pieces from Eames and Saarinen and all those people—they'll see them in department store displays, on television and in media. I think it's reaching out to a new audience.
What draws you to tiny design and miniatures and that world? And why do you think people are so obsessed with the tiny house movement?
I think there's a good parallel between the tiny house movement and miniatures. I think it's about learning to exist with less, and really considering the things that are around you. Not just consuming for the sake of consuming. And then being driven by space considerations sometimes. People are looking to maybe recreate something from their past or maybe a fantasy environment. Or maybe they want to engage in design, and miniatures can offer a great gateway to do that, to not only imagine it, but to create a vignette—not necessarily of a whole house, but a little vignette that reflects your personal taste. And at some level too I think it's about control and personalization. Tiny houses and miniature environments are all about a controlled—that's kind of a strong word—but a considered environment. And one that you’ve created yourself. I think it's about people wanting to take responsibility and feeling empowered to do that as well.
I’m still trying to understand that myself, this obsession with going small. Not just tiny home living but getting rid of items that you don’t need. I think that's very interesting that it's about control and feeling empowered.
And unencumbered as well. That's part of it too. I think younger people are hip to that earlier on in their lives than a lot of older people that I know. I think they got a head start on that kind of consciousness. I don't have to explain to younger people when they walk up to my table. They're like, This is so cool! and they call their friends over. I don't have to tell them, which I don’t want to. If you like it, that's awesome. If you don't, thats okay. But there’s an incredible continuity in the reactions by the younger audience. I think there's universal things, like people just like miniatures and like trying to figure out, Wow! How did they do that? Sometimes it's just as basic as that. And some people just don’t get it all and go, Why would anyone do that? I think that's a legitimate point of view as well. But most people are genuinely charmed. Miniatures tap into a part in their psyche that's a little hard for people to put in to words.