My recent Perry Chief article, "Paradoxical style shows tensions in birth of Hotel Pattee," looked at how the Hotel Pattee’s Arts and Crafts style stands in beautiful contrast to the industrial beginnings of Perry.
I’ve been thinking further about the goals of William Morris and his belief that consumers should know how products are made – and I agree wholeheartedly.
I recently contacted Rachel Eubank, the current president of the art company Sticks, to ask specifically how their art in the Hotel Pattee was made and learn more about their production techniques. She was kind enough to speak with me and tell me more about the art and its origins.
KS: Could you speak a little bit about Sarah Grant’s original inspiration and influences in creating Sticks?
RE: Sure. When we were approached to do the Hotel Pattee project about 18 years ago, Sticks was just starting to gain national traction, and our work had just begun to diversify to be more than just sculptural art.
What we were debuting here at our studio in Des Moines and at art shows around the country began to include furniture. Roberta Ahmanson contacted us, and she was a collector and appreciator of Sticks, and came to Sarah and said, "You know, I’ve got this huge project, and we want to do themed rooms." It was one of our original forays into interior design and installation.
Around the same period, we were in the process of working on and finishing up a very large installation in Blank Children’s Hospital. These were two of our first projects that now comprise a large part of what we do in our business.
KS: I didn’t know you were at that juncture when you received the hotel commission. I know you were asked to design the David Ahmanson Suite for Kids and the Travel Suite. Could you tell me about your joint design goals with Roberta?
RE: I can speak to the broader picture. One of the ways Sarah approaches a project like this is to look at it as a whole and to come up with a storyline. The Travel Suite, in particular, is a really cool example of what Sticks does.
Our work is folk art, and the main concept of folk art is storytelling. When you look at that room in particular, Sticks was able to use imagery and word combined to put a story into functional art. We were able to depict regional images and specific themes that give the overall, conclusive feel of the space.
Sarah was also very adamant about having input in choosing other design elements in the room, like the wall color or the fabrics used for the window treatments. All of that was part of one, comprehensive plan, and the Sticks work was what tied it all together.
KS: Could you talk about the construction and making process of Sticks pieces, more generally?
RE: The Hotel Pattee pieces would have been done in the same production veins that we still use today. One-hundred percent of what we make is made in Des Moines at our studio warehouse.
Everything is built in our custom woodworking shop and is all hand-drawn, hand wood-burned, hand-painted, finished with all the final details and sent out the door. The one cool thing that we can do because we have a custom shop is that we can build to "spec."
For this project, we were working with a specific space and customers who had specific ideas and directions. When you’re looking at the furniture in the rooms, most of that was done here in our studio. Since Perry is just down the road from us, we were able to take the final pieces and custom fit them into the space with the finishing done on-site.
KS: When you say the finishing touches were completed in Perry, are you referring to a wood finish or some of the painting?
RE: I’m talking more about jointing, trim work, and molding - those types of things. That’s how you get that finished, built-in look that the pieces have.
KS: When doing an installation like the hotel, approximately how long does that take?
RE: The actual production phase can take anywhere from four to twelve weeks, but the whole creative process for a project like this is usually done over the span of months. You sit down and hear what a client wants and you start putting your ideas on paper, making sketches here and paint boards there until finally, you come up with a finished product.
What’s unique about Sticks is that we never know what our final product is going to be until it’s done. Usually, we’re working with really creative people who are willing to take that jump and trust that the end product is going to be cooler than they ever imagined.
KS: Could you tell me a bit more about the beginnings of the company? I read in "Lit by the Sun: The Art and Artists of the Hotel Pattee" by Lela Gilbert that Sarah had started by making a nativity set.
RE: Yes, the first nativity would have been made back in the mid- to late 80s. Sarah was teaching at Iowa State University and was an abstract fine painter working in Des Moines. She had a friend who owned a magazine that needed a nativity set, and after some convincing, Sarah agreed that she’d give it a shot. Literally off of that piece we’ve grown to where we are today.
KS: I also read that she has her master’s degree in Italian printmaking. How has that influenced Sticks and the way in which you design?
RE: The term is actually "intaglio." The main concept of intaglio print making is relief, so black and white, negative and positive space. When you look at the first elements of a Sticks piece, it’s where we burn the lines into the wood. That does a couple things: it creates depth, and it also creates that dark look that is one of our signatures. Early on, we decided that this was a defining characteristic of our product, so we’ve copyrighted this technique.
KS: Finally, how do you see Sticks, as a company that’s based in craft, relating to the larger goals of the Arts and Crafts movement and the 19th century ideas of William Morris?
RE: Our application of the Arts and Crafts movement is definitely the most modern that you’ll see. The roots of our company were built on the concept of handmade American craft – really, American folk art, drawing on who we are in the state of Iowa. The concept of wood-burning furniture can be traced back to Norwegian traditions, and Sarah spent her graduate years studying those different techniques and varieties of folk art.
In terms of how it relates to who we are today, if you came to our studio, you’d pick up on two things right off the bat: first, everything is unique and hand-touched. The other half to that is we are a manufacturing facility, complete with the modern-day elements and production capabilities. For example, we have computers that track our efficiency and man-hours.
Those two elements somehow come together in a way that works. I’ve had a hard time finding this combination elsewhere in the world. You either find that it’s a one man, mom-and-pop shop or it’s an artist or designer outsourcing their designs for mass-production. We bridge those two things.