John Vugrin is the most famous designer you may not have heard of. Educated as a painter, he moved into making furniture and caught the eye of the legendary Kendrick Bangs Kellogg, a proponent of organic architecture and disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. Kellogg used Vugrin’s multiple skills on a number of iconic buildings including the world-famous Hoshino Wedding Chapel. From 1994-2014 Vugrin worked almost exclusively on Bev and Jay Doolittle’s Desert House in California, described by the New York Times as the “most unsung great residence in America by one of architecture’s least-known major talents.” Vugrin stayed after Kellogg moved on, finishing doors and windows and creating all the furniture and fittings from a jaw-dropping spiraling table via sculptural taps to spacecraft-like lamps. It is a phenomenal showcase of the unassuming craftsman’s rare talent with just about any material, from marble to bronze via semi-precious stones – to even plumbing.
You studied painting at college but ended up doing furniture, how did that come about?
I studied at San Diego State University then at Virginia, but when I saw people building their own furniture I was fascinated. I completed my degree but for the last two years I was far more focused on furniture. I found it compelling, and I now enjoy designing all kinds of things, using them as a jumping off point and solving problems. I love creating in 3-D.
You started as a woodworker then branched out into other materials…
I started making furniture, hooked up with Ken Kellogg, started to design homes, doors, windows and so on, but because wood wasn’t suitable for everything, I got into different materials because they filled a function. Out in the desert it’s such a harsh environment – boiling during the day, freezing at night – that metal and stone were a better fit. I like materials that are totally stable and will last, like stone and steel.
How did you come to work with Kendrick Kellogg?
Aged about 22 I had furniture in a gallery, he saw it and liked it and I started working with him. It was during Ken’s heyday, he had a bunch of buildings going on and I worked on many of them. I went to Japan to work on the Hoshino Wedding Chapel – I did the benches and laid all the stone. Ken’s technique was take a steel rod weld it to the high points, bottom and top to create radical curves, then we laid the stone.
You must have enormous engineering skill – are you self-taught?
I’ve learned it all purely on the job! There are certain things, like for example the copper and bronze doors where I talked to experts and learned from them. I spent 12 years in Europe: near Bordeaux then near Carrara, learning how to work marble from the masters. Ultimately if you want to do something you just have to try it. For example the dining room table [which comes down from the roof of the Desert House in a spiral spar] was almost 60ft long if you uncurled it. We originally tried to cantilever it, but with each piece being about 10 feet long it was no way it could work. Ken wasn’t too happy but it just wasn’t possible. That house is filled with engineering feats – the concrete wings [on the roof] are up to 70ft long and they don’t touch each other – if you go out on the tips they flex!
Did you bring your own sense of design to the Desert House or were you following Ken’s direction?
We worked together a lot, but he had other things to do, so towards the end he’d say, “I need doors here, a window there” and leave me to get on with it. I worked on the house for 20 years with only a few other projects here and there. It’s interesting, there are all these companies doing fantastic work but they have no design element – they are told what to make by an architect or interior designer, who in turn don’t have the knowledge to make the pieces themselves which can be a mechanical disaster. I guess I’m in a pretty small niche in that I do both – that’s pretty rare!
The Desert House was your Sistine Chapel. Was it strange seeing it sold in 2014?
It was strange. I’d worked on that house so long I was out of the loop. Design had changed. I started in 2001 and hadn’t entirely finished in 2014.
Your furniture is incredibly sinuous and at the same time has a real echo of a skeleton – backbones, ribs. Does nature inspire you?
I’m inspired far more by art and music than nature – I love the mathematical precision of music – though of course that ties into the design aspects of nature with Pi and fractals. The furniture in the Desert House is an echo of what the Doolittles were into and the desert environment: the colours and shapes are very ‘Joshua Tree’, those skeletal shapes suggest themselves.
What does the interior of your own home look like?
Nothing special – but I’m very proud of my garden! It goes out in rings from manicured gardens to wild boulders then Joshua Tree itself. My wife has a studio in the garden that I built for her myself.
What will 2016 bring?
I’ve done some very Japanese rooms made of wood. I’m doing the metalwork for a huge house in Palm Springs creating its gates and fence, they’re very Brutalist. I’m also trying to get a studio together. I’d love to do another Desert House-style project.