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Material Lust

After cutting through Chinatown on a brutally hot September afternoon, I find myself at 195 Chrystie Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For decades, this building has been a haven for New York City artists, flourishing and creating within the confines of its walls. It once served as an illegal residence to Talking Heads, where the then unknown rock band wrote and practiced songs in the mid-1970s.

I have a noon appointment with Lauren Larson and Christian Swafford, the owners and designers behind Material Lust, a growing line of high quality furniture, home goods, and a soon-to-be-launched home scent, not to mention interior design services. We’re meeting at the recently opened Annex on the top floor of 195 Chrystie. I blame this heat wave and a summer cold for being a few minutes late. Christian sips an iced coffee, while Lauren and I decidedly agree the midday’s high temperature commands a glass of water instead of a cup of joe.

The space is found after some twists and turns along a stark, concrete hallway. But, one step into the cozy Annex, and it’s easy to forget this is actually a quasi showroom rather than someone’s residential studio. Specifically created to exude a genuine living room feel, Material Lust’s Annex originated as one part a reflection of their work, one part a welcoming space for artists.

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Lauren: It’s a place for conversations. We wanted a more residential setting so we could sit down, talk and stay awhile. People who usually come to the Annex stay for a minimum of an hour, which is great. It’s what we wanted.

At only 250 square feet, the Annex surprisingly fits much of the line’s furniture. There is a grandiose velvet couch in oxblood red surrounded by a three drastically different chairs (from all three furniture collections) as the central focus point. Around the room, several items from the Geometry is God collection are strategically placed. A multi-textured rug from its Derma collection is draped from the ceiling, breaking the limitations of rugs. Needless to say, everything in the room is a Material Lust design.

The tiny room is so embracing that I casually take my seat on the Peak Chair, a modern beauty stunningly dressed in bone-coloured, pleated suede.

I am suddenly uncomfortably conscious of my black gel pen’s every movement.

As gorgeous as it would look in my own living room, I am simply not in the market for this $8,000 chair if I drop said pen.

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The talent behind Material Lust couldn’t look more at home in their surroundings. Although the couple (dually business and romantic partners) shares a residential loft with workspace on the edge of Gramercy Park, Christian and Lauren take their spot on the velvet couch, comfortably, without effort, as one does when slipping into their favourite piece of furniture.

Both are dressed all in black, not unlike much of their designed pieces. Christian is clad in a plain cotton T-shirt and Nike high top sneakers, with his exposed arms covered in tattoos (including a sketch done by his mother, also an artist) and his face covered in a full, trimmed beard. Lauren sports a pair of fashionable, relaxed pants with a more fitted, sleeveless top. Her pretty, fair features contrast and soften her dark clothes. Her blonde hair is loosely pulled back into a ponytail, which she haphazardly twists. Despite both having worked for corporate design companies, they seem anything but pretentious.

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Lauren: We wanted to create an environment that was completely us. In here, we have a soundtrack – which Christian tells me is a sort of Goth Light – and at the end of the month, we’re launching a scent.

Christian: And that was really born from installing the room, and we said, What is missing? Oh, a scent. So we were using other people’s scents, and we said, let’s make our own scent.

This musky room spray embodies notes of leather, sandalwood and rose while still evoking a sense of freshness. It was named Apostate, defined as a person who abandons a religious or political belief or principle. Christian and Lauren felt it accurately reflected the path of Material Lust.

Christian: We have this ethos where we are really trying to go our own path, so we don’t show our work in other galleries; we don’t show our work as much in showrooms. We’re just trying to do our own thing. I hate having a boss! And, it’s very much like they’re in control, and they want to present you a certain way.

Lauren: It’s just like in the ’70s. It was more free, and now there are all these systems in place. If you want to be an artist, you have to be represented by a gallery, and a, b, c, d. And you can’t call yourself an artist if you’re a designer, and you can’t call yourself a designer if you’re an artist. There are just all these rules.

Christian: As soon as something’s an establishment, we run.

Lauren: We don’t want to associate with it.

Christian: But we have to be so commercially minded in a way, though. Yes, we’re still against all these systems, but we’re still selling work. It’s high end. It ends up being on the luxury market because of the way it’s made and the quality. It feels weird being like, yeah, we’re anti-establishment, but here’s an $8,000 piece of furniture.

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I find this contrasting duality perhaps the most fascinating characteristic of the duo. Here are two genuine artists making painstakingly thoughtful art to be representative of this era for decades to come. Here are two rebels ignoring the suffocating restrictions of dealing with galleries and bypassing them by introducing their own space on their own terms. Here are two business partners delicately balancing deeply rooted personal beliefs with the company’s growing success among a market filled with – if not comprised of – establishment.

For the business, opening the Annex was an opportunity to present Material Lust’s vision on its own terms sans the limitations set by a gallery.

For the two artists, it opened a channel for connecting and sharing with other artists.

Christian: It was born out of necessity, because we were having trouble finding a gallery that would vibe with our work. A lot of these galleries carry 50 artists, and it’s all crammed into one thing. It’s just not cohesive at all because there’s just so much going on, so we didn’t want to be a part of that. So we decided to make our own space. We always knew we wanted to do it, even from the beginning, but it just kind of forced us to.

Lauren: Relationships are so important to us. We would install something like this at a collective design fair, and it’s up for three days. But this has been up for 6 months, and so there’s not this rush, Oh, I have to go see this before it ends right now. Come on your own time when it works for you and stay longer. That’s what we wanted.

In just two years, Material Lust has launched four collections, all timeless and handmade pieces ranging in materials from metal to wood to various textiles. The latter is a joint collaboration with Brooklyn-based textile company, To Dødsfall. Material Lust also utilises furniture makers in Florence, Italy, often a three generational family with decades of experience handcrafting furniture. Because so much goes into the creation, there is constant reigning in when designing for the next collection.

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Christian: We put a lot of pressure on ourselves with our work. Does the world need five of these?

This stuff is made out of precious materials and is going to be around a very long time, so we want to make sure it’s something that deserves to exist, especially now because there is so much stuff being made constantly. It really needs to be something that comes from a special place, or else you’re not really taking responsibility for the shit you’re putting out there. It’s actually a lot of pressure.

Although having no children, the duo explains that the Fictional Furniture collection was born out of a noticeable lack of heirloom-worthy, weighty pieces that command respect from children as opposed to plastic chairs that are easy to toss around. It was this collection that birthed Material Lust’s first hand-carved piece, the Crawl Chair. That same collection included the Amalgam Stand, a coat rack made of interchangeable pieces influenced by Dali’s Exquisite Corpse game. It was recently purchased by the Brooklyn Museum.

Lauren: We all remember that piece in our room that was really important to us; why aren’t high-end designers thinking of children?

Yes, I know the Crawl Chair is $2,000, but it’s in the living room, it’s going to last a lifetime, the child can grow with it and pass it on to their children. It’s a defining piece of their childhood.

Christian: It’s heavy, about 30 pounds. We felt if a kid can just kick it around, they’re going to treat it like it’s trash.

Lauren: When kids sit in it, they are calm. There’s something respectful that happens.

I think that two grand might be worth it to tame a child.

The Annex will be a platform reflecting wherever Material Lust is at creatively. The vision is to have room installations, with the premiered living room currently on display. The following will be the line’s next designed collection, a bedroom inspired by the Crawl Chair.

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Christian: It’s going to be all hand-carved, kind of surreal, softer.

Sitting and chatting with Lauren and Christian, it’s clear how these two are so deeply connected on every level, interpersonally and professionally. It’s evident in how they constantly finish each other’s sentences, in how their art of compromising flows through their physical creations.

Lauren: I was telling somebody recently we’re about to start our next collection, and she asked, Do you have drawings? Can I see what it looks like? I said, no, it’s in our heads, and once the two of us start putting it down on paper, it’s going to be a battle. When you don’t put it down on paper and you have so many ideas in your head for so many months, you become attached to it. Then, Christian has his own, and I have my own, and you put it down and they look nothing alike.

They openly admit that, in the beginning stages of the business, the fighting part of the artistic process produced problems until they learned to embrace those differing opinions and let them work for the betterment of the designs.

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Christian: Yes, we’re going to disagree, and there’s going to be some heated debates. But, it makes a better piece and is part of the process.

One of the best examples is the iconic Pagan Chair. As part of Material Lust’s first collection, Geometry is God, the Pagan Chair was one of Christian’s first designs. Lauren initially voiced reservations about it, citing it was too harsh.

Christian: We sat on the design for six months. But when we went back to it, we said, Wow, this is actually really a good idea.

Lauren: He believed in this, so I said let’s do this, and then everyone freaked out over it. Now when he believes in something like that again, I let him do it.

Lauren realises the time and excuses herself; she is meeting a client for an interior design job. Ironically, Material Lust was partly born out of the interior design business that both Lauren and Christian were doing. Both were frustrated by not finding the pieces that matched their vision, so they created their own.

And this is the mantra that runs through the heart of Material Lust: Where there doesn’t seem to be something already in existence – whether it be a specific item or method or format – the company forges it. And it not only paves the way for others to follow suit, but inspires us too.

Photography by Anne Nicolajsen
Web: annenicolajsen.com
Instagram: @annenicolajsen