DesignCraft Hero: Lawrence LaBianca

The people we’ve profiled are amazing designers and artisans–master craftspeople at the top of their game. They’ve tended to work in one, maybe two media, and their focus and dedication shows. But once in while, you find someone who works in multiple media, bringing all together (stunningly) in his art and in his custom work (furniture, sculpture, lighting) for clients. And that person is Lawrence LaBianca.

In addition to teaching at California College of the Arts (from which he earned an MFA), he’s a highly-acclaimed sculptor (check out his site to see his body of work). His large -and small-scale sculptures combine woodwork, metal, glass, leather, and found materials (tree limbs)–and a heavy dose of intellect, heart and wit–to make extraordinarily intimate, emotional, moving pieces, often deeply personal. The passage of time seems to be a major theme, as does amplifying the senses (sight, sound). And from installation pieces in the ocean to several pieces that refer metaphorically and literally to Moby Dick, to the fact that he’s going to spend the next day surfing…you know that the ocean is a major fascination of his. (And check out this earlier piece on Lawrence in the Chronicle, detailing how climbing and the mountains have also served as inspiration.)

Lawrence is also a master designer and craftsman. He brings together the same elements to make well-thought out, beautifully crafted, artistic, functional fixtures and furnishings: from doors (some on a curve, even: don’t try this at home, kids) and sliding room dividers, to tables, railings, cabinets, and book cases. He’s even been involved in landscape and set design.

What ties together the art and the furniture? Warmth. Thoughtfulness. Insight.

When you think about it, that’s the thing about creativity and artistry: it shouldn’t know boundaries. And when you combine it with great craft, that’s magic.

We got to take a look at his studio (in a former stable), the homes of some of his clients, and his own home (in the former Allied Box Factory in San Francisco, a live-work complex that also houses his studio) and into the life of an extraordinary artist and designcrafter. (Bonus:  we got to fall in love with his 1 1/2 year old puppy, Zola, another major personality.) In many ways, his loft space reflects who he is better than almost any other living space we’ve seen: it’s filled with photos of family and other reminiscences, surfboards, materials, and of course, his work.

While he’s certainly an artist, he’s also a pretty gregarious creature: he seems to be the heart of his community at the BoxFactory. As we wander through the community (accompanied by Zola) everyone says hi, and most of them are his clients, it seems. Lucky them.

Is art in your blood? Something like that. My grandmother was an artist; my grandfather was a stonemason, and another one was an architect. It’s a really passionate family.

But one of the most important things they taught me is the importance of play–and not putting off doing the things you really want to do. As I get older, I realize there will be limitations to the doing at some point.

How do you balance art and your furniture commissions? Some people are good at splitting their days to work on one thing and then the other but I’m not one of them. I work pretty intensively on my art, and then intensively on custom work. There is, obviously, a difference, but I still look at the custom work as a really creative effort–just more collaborative.  I’m not a fabricator. My most successful commissions have come when I’ve co-designed spaces and solutions with my clients.

How’d you come to work in so many media? You know, nothing is good for everything. Different media have different qualities, or express certain things…it’s about knowing and respecting the essential qualities of the material. The material really shapes the art. I fall in love with the integrity of the materials I work with.

What’s your ideal commission? I’d love to go somewhere for an extended period, maybe a ranch, and be able to really immerse myself in what I’m doing and where I’m doing it. I’d love to have the time and resources to open up all my channels of creativity. It’s also about the people, though: whether I’m doing a commissioned sculpture or a piece of furniture for them, I want to be able to be in a great relationship with them for the rest of my life.

It really is about the people isn’t it? Even though you’re inspired by nature and the materials you work with, we get the sense that what’s important in your art and your life is the people–more so than some of the others we’ve met. Family….friends….relationships. Plus, when I’m working on my art, my world is incredibly insular. I work in my studio. I wear a respirator. I wear a mask (difficult to talk). I like having people around me, a community when I’m done. That’s why I love living in San Francisco. I can go out and find friends, hang out in a cafe, experience life.

What’s got you excited now? I’ve got a couple of upcoming shows. One’s at the Bolinas Museum in May, another at the Fuller Craft Museum and another at Chandra Cerrito Contemporary in Oakland. And I’m going surfing tomorrow!

Inspirations? My dreams, the ocean, Martin PuryearIsamu NoguchiConstantin Brancusi, Joseph Bueys, the drawings of Ernst Haeckel, writings of Italo Calvino, Robert Frost, Herman Melville, John Muir, the climber Warren Harding and Layton Kor.

And what defines you? Well, what about the things I could not live without? A 5/4/3 hooded wetsuit; Andreini single fin; espresso; my dreams; my family; my credit card; iPhone; friends; adventure; making things; teaching; my dog; and clear and free laundry detergent.


Lawrence LaBianca

2169 Folsom Street, San Francisco



Filed under Art + Installations, Furniture + Lighting, Heroes and Heroines, SF Bay Area, Wood

2 responses to “DesignCraft Hero: Lawrence LaBianca

  1. we love lola! nice article – lawrence’s work is immediately a standout experience. It was nice to learn more about him. I’ve only met his dog!

  2. Pingback: Lawrence LaBianca – Icon | Donald Fortescue

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