It’s a Tuesday morning, early enough that 42nd Ave still hums with SUVs tightly-packed with the year’s first carpools. Friends are beginning to gather at the patio chairs outside of Miss Zumstein Bakery, and I watch as several customers rush out with a coffee and pastry in hand, having made a breakfast on the go their morning routine. A select few commuters join me by bike, attuned to the absence of a lane distinguishing them from the cars that hug the curb. Compared to the traffic concentrated in Portland’s more well-developed neighborhoods, 42nd is still quiet enough to allow for bikers to take such a chance. But with every corner of Portland seeming to take on the “up-and-coming” label, such intimacy is likely to change.
Reed LaPlant’s studio sits behind DASH, a commissary kitchen welcoming food professionals to its well-equipped space, providing the resources necessary for creating businesses of their own. This communal, collaborative mentality is palpable in the shops and storefronts surrounding Reed, carrying up the street to Portland Bloem, a florist shop abundant with locally-grown finds, and further north to Hey Studio, a ceramic space for potters of varying skill. There are an affection and a familiarity particular to this part of 42nd, a confidence fostered by the unspoken agreement that everyone offers a skillset to share, a knowledge that everyone contributes to some degree. But it’s not saccharine, never cloying with sentimentality. Rather, it’s the purest desire to build, and to create together, that I’ve ever felt.
Reed eagerly welcomes me to his workspace, showing energetic eyes and offering a smile that’s unexpected so early in the morning.With this look, I imagine he’s been thinking about his work since waking up, thoughts of measurement, material, and design crowding his mind. His creative accomplishment and innovative brilliance are immediately discernible, suddenly distinct. The first of the morning’s many epiphanies: An artist is someone who sees the possibility of art in everything.
But such warmth isn’t limited to me. Reed loves when customers stop in for conversation, looking for updates on a piece, lingering then over the discussion of architecture, art, form, and function that results. Like myself, there’s many as well who, simply curious about his work, stop in for conversation, all of us becoming the lucky recipients of a knowledge and experience we may have hoped for, but never imagined possible to obtain.
The majority of Reed’s work is commissioned-based, creating a significant, inextricable tie between himself and his clients, adding to this the constraints of space, as well as questions of application and use. Design arrives from these separate conceptions, the building process fostering partnership, the back-and-forth that inevitably comes when a vision is applied, becoming matched to the reality of what is concrete, of the material that forms a function in our lives. This continues, developing until what was once an abstract vision is consistent with the final product: A piece that Reed has grown to love in creating, and a piece that will be loved in the home.
But this isn’t a conclusion I arrived at myself. Working previously as an architect, Reed has the most carefully-developed understanding of space that I’ve ever confronted, joining with his obvious empathy for people in search of purposeful lives constructed within. The way he discusses his work is expressed with surprising articulation, and I’m struck by another phrase:
“There are some people who experience their architecture, sure, but most just exist within it.”
I wonder more about this interest people have for what Reed does, this eagerness to watch someone work, completing the process of conception to completion. I ask Reed, the question driving at his own emotion tied to what he does, and to his external perception of his work, what it is that draws people to its seeming simplicity, trying to unearth the profundity we know it must hold.
“I think it’s the immediacy of what you’re doing, the reality that nothing matters beyond the very tangible object in front of you. It’s time that we don’t have, time that, with our lifestyles today, we don’t allow ourselves.”
Reed confirms the certainty of his response with only a moment of reflection. So much work, so much interaction with people outside of what he does, has allowed for continuous observation, meriting a knowledge and perceptiveness of our hunger for simplicity, a turn away from the complications of our lives driven by a reliance upon technology, the machines responsible for the organization of our work and lifestyles, and enabling our connection to others.
Within the last five years or so, the movement of culture has shifted in two seemingly-opposite directions. As the realms of technology continue to develop, growing into an expanse of information and accessibility, there appears to be parallel growth in the direction of simpler, more intimate craftsmanship. The continuing rise of automated industry, to us, suggests a certain separation, a disconnect between the materials supporting and dictating our lives, and our understanding of their own creation. We’re alienated from what we consume, estranged so that use bares no question of the item’s past life, the history that brought the object into our possession. And without this information, goods remain just that: products without a story, items without context to give them any significant role in the structuring of our lives.
So our response has been to pull back, retreating into an appreciation of craft. The phenomenon explains the appearance of Apple Watches strapped to the wrists of workshop attendees, students winding stems into floral arrangements or pouring wax into candle molds while simultaneously questioning the buzz of social notifications. More easily seen is the exposure of weaving, of knitting and sewn goods, of ceramics and letterpress productions on Instagram, the visual beauty of these crafts gaining traction in hashtag trending and the visuals platform users hope to see. A certain mediatization of the crafting sphere.
And this interest has contributed to our ability and desire to recognize the worth and value in the intensity of a person’s ability to create, directing us to products we know hold this seal of artistry. An easy enough conclusion: this is why so many people come to Reed.
This brings us into discussion of his aesthetic, of how he builds pieces in tune with the unique demands of his clients’ lives. Reed emphasizes the utility-driven component to his work, remaining conscious of how what he creates will be applied. Coupled with his background in architecture, this mindset toward function shifts to space, giving attention not only to how something will be used, but how it will inhabit a bedroom, kitchen, or living room, grounding the movement of human activity.
“Clean lines and structure help the pieces ease into the space. I try to create thinking not only of how my designs will fit into homes, but how they’ll change and grow with the people who use them. There’s a consciousness of the client in every part of the process. I try to stay in tune with their design choices, but more importantly, I’m interested in how they’ll live with what I make.”
Reed’s observation underlines the possibility of an object’s ability to evolve, changing so that the shift in need is always addressed. Whether it’s a desk providing workspace, a bed giving a place of rest, or a table serving the purpose of gathering family, as people’s lives change, what they ask of their homes, and what exists within, changes in response.
All of this lends a certain cultural adroitness to his work. From our conversation, I’m witness to the thought, care, and consideration given to everything he creates, reaching across a spectrum of application. Reed understands how people live, what they ask of their homes, and how the two separate desires are brought together in architecture and design.
We talk about the cohesion among his collections, and how I pick up on a pattern of minimalist structure. The possibility that Reed’s pieces can fit into a range of homes goes without question, playing well with eclectic arrangements or more streamlined compositions.
“Working so closely with clients, I’m always confronting new spaces and new ways of living within them. When what you do is so demanding, you become very emotionally connected to your work. It pushes me, stretches me, drives me. It’s a constant challenge, and sure, it’s exhausting, but it’s invigorating too.”
But despite this attention to modern living and this understanding of universal human demands, the idiosyncrasies of each piece gain seamless communication. There’s a piece in process next to where we sit in the studio. Immediately, I see only the table’s massiveness, becoming aware at the white accents set against a natural, lighter wood finish. I’m told that it’s for a client in southern California, a 10-person table meant to seat the members of a large family. It’s a piece communicating congregation, set to assemble individuals in a moment of convergence and collection. The piece returns us to a bit of humanness, fostering that connection that tells us we’re not alone.
Our conversation becomes quiet, with each of looking at and considering the piece, its physical presence and all the potential it holds. Reed breaks the silence with a thought that appears born from this reflection:
“I look back sometimes, and I say, ‘Wow, I made that.’ And that realization happens in all ways, in all parts of the process. It varies from piece to piece, but I really am always amazed that I do this. Really, I feel lucky that I can.”