I was first drawn to KHEM Studios’ quilts, they reminded me of Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings that I saw during a visit to the Dia:Beacon. Their studio, located not too far away in the Hudson Valley, produces beautiful, simplistic designs from high-quality materials with impeccable craftsmanship.
From the outside, starting a business based in creative work appears elusive. Through Form and Space, Ellen and I want to break down the barriers around this somewhat intimidating subject and provide a better understanding for artists starting out. I wanted to hear from Kari and Erik, the artists behind KHEM, about their desire to create pieces for their lifestyle and aesthetic, which eventually led them to start KHEM Studios and sell their products. I would like to thank Kari and Erik for sharing their struggles and how they work together to balance their work/life.
About KHEM Studios
KHEM Studios produces furniture, quilts, and home accessories made to bring exceptional craftsmanship to everyday life. Kari and Erik both received their Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Their studio is the result of decades of experience designing and making everything from sculpture to custom, one-of-a-kind textiles and furniture. Exceptional levels of detail and craftsmanship are embedded at the heart of what they make. It’s in all the fine features of their products that you find the individuality and unique originality that is KHEM Studios.
Their company was created to solve their own problems. After moving out of Brooklyn and apartment living, the search for contemporary furniture and items for their new home was proving difficult. They wanted items that were not the commercial modern home staples.
The arrival of their daughter, Hanna, and the daily grind of wear and tear between them, a toddler, and their large dog, Maple, called for practicality, durability, and elegance. KHEM Studios creates signature pieces that are built to last and are intended to solve problems or provide an alternative to more traditional approaches. Their approach has led them to materials like the colorful Swiss manufactured linoleum laminate found on their Lofted Collection, made from linseed that is eco-friendly and durable, perfect for toddler teething and tableware percussion performances. Follow along to see their process on Instagram.
When did you start KHEM Studios?
We started KHEM Studios in 2017. There were a variety of realizations and life-changing events—like our daughter being born—that helped crystallize what we optimally want to do. This made clear what we wanted to change about how our knowledge base was being used and to what end.
What did you do before you founded KHEM Studios?
We are both from a sculpture background which has always brought a strong focus on process to everything we do. We both, in our own way, committed a long time ago to understanding digital fabrication technology, especially as it concerns 3D forms. My focus has always been in 3D and textiles. Basically, an important backbone question for us has been, “How do manufacturing companies do it?” Especially with KHEM Studios as we have tried to figure out the best way to design and manufacture our own products. Prior to KHEM Studios, we were always immersed in creative projects for artists and designers that integrated our knowledge of sculptural processes for 3D applications or textiles and technology.
Did you have your full product line put together when you launched? Was there a certain object or design that led you to really want to launch your business?
It’s somewhat humorous on many levels, because when we first launched KHEM Studios, we had very few products and even today we feel a constant desire to make an idea into a new product, but really try to be practical about production. Erik made the Butcher Block Chair out of maple wood. It was a design he was quietly working on for a little while and then he found a break in his schedule to make it. That was a really defining moment for us both. It was a special time and we wanted something we couldn’t quite put our finger on. We had this little baby, our daughter, who was in the studio with me everyday and Erik was working away in his studio on various custom jobs. Then he made this large table with a linoleum top that paired with these beautifully machine-sculpted legs that came together with metal plates. I had never seen anything like it. The chair was so comfortable and had such a presence that then I made a quilt or two. Of course, during this time our conversations about KHEM Studios grew in momentum. So with a chair, a table, and two quilts, we thought we were ready, and boy oh boy, we were not even out of the gates! We did the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in 2018 and that was also an eye-opening experience. The response was very positive and it really helped us see all the different levels, industries, and professions funneling into furniture and textiles.
Are you primarily selling your production-line pieces or creating one-of-a-kind commissions?
We have a blend of the two, which is exciting and keeps us delving in new directions.
How do you design the products for KHEM Studios? Is this a collaborative effort between the two of you or do you work independently and come together with finished products?
There is an ebb and flow to the way we design products for KHEM Studios. More recently we are trying to combine forces, integrating textiles and furniture more directly with some new products in the pipeline, but in general we spend a lot of time talking about design and process. At the end of the day, a design cannot lead to a production time that is unrealistic for the market value of the item. We design and often make prototypes and then discuss the potential of the idea. The Ultimate Stool is a great example because at first Erik made a small, very simple stool and he brought it up to the house. We talked about it and it was not what the Ultimate Stool was meant to be. He had made a small stool that was fast to produce but not the kind of special that we want. At the end of the day, if what we are making is not what we would optimally want in our home, then how can we expect anyone else to want it in theirs? One of the driving forces in making furniture and textiles is that there is not a lot on the market at a decent price that is not Ikea and is a good design. Our lens is always as artists wanting something beautiful and special in our home.
Many of your objects are made with digital tools. Did you learn the processes of CNC and digital embroidery when you were in school for sculpture?
Both Erik and I were not taught these tools. It was a learn-by-doing experience with major challenging projects that drove us to a level of expertise. Erik especially was at the forefront of digital fabrication technology in relation to sculpture and there was not a model to follow. These machines are made for manufacturing and the software is geared toward a real logic. You have to know materials, processes, and budgets, even when it is being applied to contemporary art.
What has been the biggest struggle managing KHEM?
Other than money, supplies, taxes, marketing, shipping logistics, machine maintenance, cleaning, storage, and other completely non-romantic aspects to running your own design studio? We are always very conscious of not letting creativity supersede practically and realistic scales of production and what people want.
Did you have any idea about the business side of things when you started out or has it just been a learn-as-you-go situation?
We have previous experience starting and running a business as art fabricators. The minute you start running a business seriously, there are certain realities that translate to any business. There are definitely aspects to KHEM Studios that introduced us to a different mode of business. Necessity forces you in a weird way to be more creative than when you’re just trying to be creative. If something is not selling, you have some serious questions to answer based on necessity.
I know that having a studio in your home can be difficult to find work/life balance, not to mention, KHEM is also a family affair. How do you find balance and separate from your work?
I smile at reading this question because in all the chaos, mess, struggle for organization, and progress, at the end of the day, yes, KHEM Studios is a family affair. KHEM stands for me (Kari), Hanna (our daughter), Erik, and Maple (our giant schnauzer). Everything is intertwined and it often feels like an ecosystem constantly seeking equilibrium, but it is the imbalance and pace that is the heartbeat of KHEM Studios. Our own experiences definitely inform what we do and how we do it. When you’re trying to build a business, there isn’t balance, or at least you really have to understand the way you tick a little more. Scheduling out and planning your day so that there are some defined non-work related experiences is key. Getting in the car and going somewhere new, going for a long walk, watching a movie, or seeing an exhibit is all food for life and ideas.
What are you looking to do next or better in 2019?
Reach a broader audience.
Who are the artists and designers that have inspired you most? Where do you look for inspiration?
We are driven by what causes that connection between what we make and the people that want it in their home. We are inspired by high-brow and low-brow art, design, and architecture. There isn’t really a hierarchy to one specific fuel that makes us run. Finding and connecting with people who like and want to be part of the aesthetic we are building, through our vocabulary of furniture and textiles, inspires us.
I think that is what we all hope to achieve with our work: objects that connect to others, that inspire, and belong to our aesthetic.