Stephen Kenn is a company Stephen Kenn founded with his wife Beks Opperman in 2011. All his design projects begin with a personal curiosity about a material, a process, or a story. Whether he is creating furniture, leather goods, or art, he believes that good design should embody the simplest and most functional form and the materials used should wear well with use. Stephen designs and manufactures in downtown Los Angeles.
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Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. My name is Stephen Kenn, I live in downtown Los Angeles with my wife Beks and together we run a design business. I do most of the design, and she handles most of the business. We make whatever we are curious about, which so far has been furniture, leather bags, and a travel cocktail kit. I have been designing and making things since I was about 18 years old, first doing jean companies with my best friend, then canvas travel bags, and now this latest company with Beks. I love the freedom I find in design, and the gratification that comes from having an idea and then getting to see it become a physical object.
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What are some recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on? We are currently developing a furniture collection for a company called Colony 2139, which is based in Japan. We are also working on a few new additions to our Encounter Collection bag line. The newest member of our collection is called The Travel Cocktail Kit. It’s a leather case that holds everything you need to make a few cocktails while traveling. I got to work with the guys behind my favorite bar (Death & Co. in New York) to make the recipe booklet. That’s one of my favorite things about design — you get to meet and work with new people because of it.
What is one of the bigger challenges you and/or other designers are struggling with these days and how do you see it developing? There is very little that I see as opposition. The projects that we work on are either well received or they are not. Design for me is problem solving and the act of making is just a really good reason to work with people in my city, to hear their stories and tell stories of my own. I think my biggest problem, and possibly the problem with some other designers, is greed. Or maybe it’s just wanting to grow too fast or too big. I am constantly trying to remind myself to enjoy the process and take care of those around me.
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How did your interest in art or design begin? While I was in school studying psychology, I had an idea to sew a patch under my t-shirt and cut the shirt away to reveal the patch. I didn’t know it yet, but this process is called reverse appliqué. To me, it was just brilliant and I couldn’t wait to go home and try to do it. After a few months of playing around with the sewing machine, making t shirts and altering jeans for friends, my friend and I started our own denim company. We were only 20 years old and had no idea how hard the design and fashion business was, we were just full of enthusiasm and a happy naiveté. That first denim company was called Iron Army, and it led us on a wild ride down to Los Angeles and around the world. I have been pursuing creativity and design ever since.
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How has living in Los Angeles affected your design practice? Los Angeles has been a very challenging city for me, but it is also full of resources that you can’t find in very many places. Challenging because there is a lot of competition and distraction, but also full of opportunity because of the manufacturing infrastructure that had been built over the years. I benefit largely from the boom of the 80’s and all the skilled labor here that is now struggling because of all the industry moving overseas.
What products or companies are you interested in right now? I am increasingly drawn towards space design, so I have been studying a bit more architecture and interior design. I love feeling as if an environment was thoughtfully created to give me the gift of an experience. I lean towards product design, especially in categories where I don’t need to worry about size runs. So I tend to admire others who are designing in this same category of furniture and leather accessories.
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What materials do you use in your work and what is your process like? I love using reclaimed materials. This shows itself most prominently with our vintage military upholstery on The Inheritance Collection furniture. I also love thinking about new processes. I am fascinated right now with sandblasting wood. I’m making a series of coffee tables for Colony 2139 that I’m so excited about.
What artists or designers are you interested in right now? Daniel Arsham, Isaac Reina, YOHJI YAMAMOTO, Matter Made, Axel Vervoordt, Siki Im
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What’s your favorite thing about your city? The weather (I can ride my motorcycle everyday if I want)
What was the last show you saw that stuck out to you? Ai Weiwei’s show at Alcatraz was absolutely incredible to me. I love his dedication to his cause, but I also love that he can create beautiful and interesting art that speaks to the soul as well as the mind.
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What is your snack/beverage of choice when working in your studio? Oh man, I am terrible! When I am actually deep in the design mindset, or working on developing something new I have a tendency to forget to eat and drink. Then I come home and I feel terrible and I am grouchy, and my wife says to me “well, what did you eat today?.”
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What are you really excited about right now? Sailing and sailing culture are fascinating to me right now. I am drawing a lot of inspiration from the materials and hardware used on sailing craft.
What are you listening to right now? War on Drugs is on repeat for me.
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