Raised in rural, industrial Ohio and with a degree in painting from Ohio Wesleyian, the renowned designer Jim Zivic is a true renaissance man. With one foot in the art world and the other in fashion, he nonetheless retains his love of industrial design and an ability to find beauty in the oddest of places, incorporating them into extraordinarily raw yet elegant furniture. Zivic is perhaps best known for his coal table/sculptures, but his pieces, from a table made from a found piano lid, to the Link Leather hammock, have found their way into A-list homes from Lou Reed to Tom Ford via Yohji Yamamoto – and current stars of film and music.
You grew up in a very rural, mining part of Ohio. Did having a very outdoorsy childhood inspire you?
Oh yes. I lived in a small town surrounded by farms and I spent a lot of time on them. I had connections to the Amish and I was really attracted to their way of life: no electricity or modern amenities, mend and make do. It was very stark but it had a huge influence. We would go out and help them bring in the hay or whatever, and with no industrial materials, discovering how they used leather, for example, definitely had an influence. And they had a great sense of humour!
You seem very hands on – do you work everything yourself?
Oh yeah, I’m the expert! I like to weld, work leather, country boy stuff. I’m really obsessive about digging deep into the use and history of materials like leather and steel. It’s the same with coal – the whole reason I started using it was because it was so unlikely. It’s as dark as you can get, both visually and historically. Its existence is surrounded by controversy and greed, but it’s also gorgeous stuff.
Your work is often described as industrial – what does that mean to you?
I guess industrial is making stuff happen without too much fanfare, plus the materials we use, for example our leather floors or using felt. I take inspiration from working items you might find in a flea market, they way people were so industrious, they made do, makeshift. I love to poke around in old factories, I love the overlooked and strange. And I am obsessive about finding the exact right materials to recreate that sense in my work.
And you’ve also been really big in the fashion world…
It’s ironic as I care very little about fashion but that world has been very good to me! One of my first clients was Donna Karan. Lou Reed was my best client, and he was important in the industry. He bought my piano table in 1995 and came back again and again. He was friends with Yohji Yamamoto, Yohji loved my work and having exposure to him and Manhattan was huge for me – he was very respected by the art world. I really enjoyed all that, it was good for the ego! The other big thing was working with coal for Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci. My work was shipped all over the world for YSL.
Coal has become a Zivic material – is it still integral to your work?
I could work with it for the rest of my life. I love shaping and wet polishing it! It’s brittle but soft, when honed it looks a lot like graphite…silvery and gorgeous. It’s so weird and wonderful – what the hell are we burning it for?! I’m a very tactile, sensual person so it works for me, but it’s also the history which makes it such a great material, it really digs into our industrial heritage.
Do you reuse?
I try to be careful but everything I create is from new. I reuse in a philosophical way: I make sure everything I create will last. And old things are much more exciting than new. For example the leather floor here has been trampled, gouged, heel marks, but it just gets better and better. You wipe it with water, oil, soap, and it picks up the dye and redistributes it and it looks both brand new and 1,000 years old. Even in 100 years it won’t disintegrate. In 1994 I did table tops for Pravda. Keith McNally was worried about how they were wearing… but 25 years later they’re still there, looking gorgeous.
Your tables are like sculptures or works of art. Do you define yourself as an artist or designer? Or is there a false definition between the two?
A lot of what I produce is one of a kind which pushes me towards the art world, particularly as a great deal of brain has gone into it – I think deeply about the material and the associations of what I choose. But you can use it practically and that has ramifications in art – it’s not ‘pure’. Fashion and design go well together but I don’t like the retail mentality, people asking how you can charge so much, whether you can do it cheaper – they don’t ask that about art! Design never gets the billing it should get. You can get, say, Kiki Smith designing things for Tiffany & Co. but apparently it’s too intellectual for designers to do sculpture! The Art World is a little full of itself. I think the shock of say Jeff Koons’ and Damien Hirst’s work is temporary, yet people can’t seem to exalt it enough. I think art has become so ‘pop cultural’ as to be far too much about consumerism itself than what I think art should be about… quirky, personal, quieter ideas that have a longer, more subtle view.
What inspires you?
My work is all about finding things I love and reinterpreting them, and I’m lucky as the materials I love are universally loved. Leather is extraordinary: it’s perfect for so many things. It can be upholstery, a belt, a football… I order and order and surround myself with materials – that’s the fun part – and go from there. I’m interested in a myriad things – I bought some 17th century children’s shoes the other day – corn-husking tools, all different. I’ll look at those then design a chair! For example the East Bay Chair was based on a pair of work goggles. I found a way of making the screen, put leather on it, made it a luxury item but it’s a goggle underneath itself.
What other materials are you playing with at the moment?
My big thing at the moment is porcelain enamel on steel. You have to fire it as it’s porcelain, yet it’s like working with oil paint when I’m applying it. I’m currently working on a conical barn lamp which hangs on a leather cord. And I’m painting them by hand – it’s great to be painting again. I never thought I’d be interested in colour but the material is so gooey and sensual. It’s an incredible medium as you can paint it, fire it, burn it out, paint it again, experimenting and overlapping. I’m launching a whole line of lamps and I’m also doing porcelain furniture. I’m working with a cabinet maker to do dressers covered in leather with push pads in enamel, and also reversed: drawer fronts in enamel with push pad handles in leather. It’s going to be a really interesting project: interchangeable details.
You seem to love taking something soft and making it in hard materials, then soft again with luxurious materials like the Link Leather hammock.
That will always be part of my work and people really respond to it, like the day bed and sofa I have with Ralph Pucci. The sofa has all these little leather details – it’s fun. I’m thinking of enamel and shearling now – I have a white shearling with black skin, what can I make to incorporate it?
What will 2016 bring?
I am doing more sculpture and it’s really liberating not to have constraint. The funny thing is, I’m always sad when I have to make a table because with sculpture you’re not limited or burdened by utilitarian notions. Your mind wanders, your head goes deeper. You improvise with the form.