21 October 2012

Singular, Organic, Illuminated: Conversations With Anzfer Farms

interview by Elka Karl 
photo: Jonpaul Douglass

While Anzfer Farms, the experimental design workshop founded by Jonathan Anzalone and Joseph Ferriso, now calls the Outer Richmond district of San Francisco home, its original location was a bit more rural. Bucolic, one might even say. Back in 2009, the workshop was located in a tumbling-down cattle barn on a ranch near Port Costa, CA.

“We were basically squatting in a barn where the roof had somewhat collapsed, and the farmer had to keep it boarded up to keep the cows out. I lifted up the roof but kept the boards as they were,” explains John.

“We had a straw floor,” Joe says.

Adding the word Farms to Anzfer — a mashup of the duo’s last names — seemed fitting, given the workshop’s original location and its mission. “We didn’t know what we’d be making. It wasn’t lighting so much then as it was experimental furniture. We liked the idea of being able to go in any direction,” Jon notes.

“And ‘Farms‘ has that quality to it,” interjects Joe.

“The idea of ‘something’s going to grow here.’” finishes Jon.

That the duo finishes each other’s sentences, helping to shape and grow the trajectory of a conversation, should come as no surprise, given Jon and Joe’s design process. In no small part are Anzfer Farms’s lighting designs a direct reflection of Jon and Joe’s personal relationship. Each light is a bespoke testament to Anzfer Farms’s dedication to slow design, to listening to what each piece has to say, and how it needs to be sculpted and transformed.

“People are excited about the lamps, but it doesn’t seem like something we could scale huge. Each work is an intimate work, there’s no real production,” Joe explains. “Even for the show [at Shibumi], we were busy making each lamp over a process of weeks, months, of gathering material. We’re excited the attention is there, but it’s not something we could duplicate. Every one is unique. We’re still making one-of-a-kind sculptural pieces.”

“We can’t hire someone to make them,” says Jon. “Drilling is such a big part of it. Proportions, balance, it’s quite sensitive. I could say, ‘Joe, I found this branch, wire it,’ and I know I’d be satisfied. But there’s no one else I could have do that.”

“We’re trusting each other,” Joe says. “Rarely are we making a lamp on our own.”

The two have a long personal history, having grown up together in the same small town in Long Island. They’ve been collaborating on and off over the years since middle school, and are both painters by training. Anzfer Farms was founded on less-than-a-shoestring budget after the two separately moved to San Francisco. In fact, the lack of budget was the genesis for the organic, sculptural lamps the two have become known for.

“When Joe and I started working together we had no budget to buy materials. In this area there’s an abundance of high quality materials, redwood for example. A lot of this old growth material is very stable, it behaves really well, it’s acclimated to this environment, so it’s a pleasure to work with,” explains Jon. “It doesn’t warp, twist, crack . . . all of the things that could be problems with new materials. It also has an inherent previous life that comes through and I think all of that just adds to the starting point.”

Reclaimed timber led naturally to the use of driftwood, which the two would find washed up on the beaches near their home. Limiting the idea of reclaimed materials to something that had been already milled was counterintuitive to Anzfer Farms’s mission of discovery and experimentation. They were attracted to the driftwood’s naturally weathered look, its patina, texture, and patterning.

“We’d bring it into the studio and look at it for its sculptural qualities and the gestures and really try to listen closely to what the driftwood was saying,” notes Joe.

Make no mistake, however, this is no throwback to a hippie decorating moment. Instead, it is a very modern interpretation of the use of driftwood and reclaimed timber. Of special note is the way Anzfer Farms simultaneously complement and contrast the organic nature of the driftwood by pairing it with materials such as oversized bulbs and geometrically cut walnut bases — materials with a very high degree of regularity.

Some of the taller floor pieces, which reach upwards of eight feet tall, may strike the casual observer as nearly impossible to wire, but Joe and Jon assert that this part of the design process is the most fun for them, reminiscent of a good game of pool. Using a long drill bit, the pair work together to aim, triangulate, drill, and weave wiring through the length of branch.

“We’re not hiding anything,” says Jon. “It’s a formula that works that’s very organic. It doesn’t disrespect the branch at all; it’s more in collaboration with it. That’s a big part of our process, listening to the branch and collaborating with it, listening to each other and stepping back and saying, ‘What does this branch want, and what do we want to see in it?’”

Indeed, so much of Anzfer Farms’s work is about a conversation. Whether these conversations occur between designer and designer, designer and branch, or light and painting, it is one they listen to and learn from. The two have noted that their work as painters, furniture makers, and lighting designers inform and influence each part of their lives and each work they collaborate upon. It’s an overlapping conversation that has led to undeniably singular and beautiful works, and a conversation we hope will be added to for decades to come.

Anzfer Farms’s show, Light Fiction, which also features the jewelry of Llisa Hashimoto, runs through November 30th at Shibumi Gallery.

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