Practical Handicraft: Ariele Alasko
Interview by Julie Pointer Photographs by Nicole Franzen
Brooklyn-based artist Ariele Alasko fills her days with sawdust, crafting beautiful, practical things out of wood, such as patterned wall panels, headboards and tables made for small gatherings.
If you have any inclination toward working with your hands, getting a bit dirty, making order out of chaos, your gut reaction to seeing Ariele Alasko’s work might be one of regret that you didn’t think of it first. Just as soon as this envy creeps in, however, the feeling dissipates into genuine admiration for the thoughtful creations that Ariele crafts with her own two hands, guided by her distinct design aesthetics and the considered desires of her clients. Ariele lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she fills her days with sawdust, making beautiful, practical things out of wood—from cheeseboards to tables to complex wall hangings. After only a few years of making objects of nature, Ariele’s style has become easily identifiable, since her handiwork is largely distinguished by geometric patterns fashioned out of lath—and for those who aren’t familiar with timber terms, imagine long, thin strips of wood in varying shades, much like what is used to make a lattice. The use of this humble material reflects the humility with which Ariele fashions these meticulous pieces, making things—not for her own pride and glory—but to be used, celebrated upon and shared by their fortunate owners.
You’ve mentioned in the past that your favorite thing to make is your lath tables, because it means that you’re “building something that people gather around, celebrate on and are constantly using.” How do you see your work as being an integral part of bringing people together?
When I was studying sculpture in college, I was constantly having inner battles with the non-functionality of my art. It was perhaps a sign that the match was not made in heaven, sculpture and I, but I continued to struggle with the relationship my entire college career. My mind was always leaning toward making things that would fit in my own home, not in a gallery setting. The moment I pinpointed the problem, I never looked back. It all came down to function. I was happiest the day I built a standing cabinet for my kitchen and filled it with things that needed somewhere to go. My answer—that cabinet hinted at—was furniture. And furniture could still be sculpture. It didn’t all fall into place as quickly as that, but that was one moment when I realized that I wanted to build things that people will use and everybody needs. When I build furniture for people, tables specifically, I can picture the breakfasts, the dinners, the gatherings they will have around this piece. Most often, a new table is an immediate excuse for a celebratory party, so even right away the table is already doing its part. I love the idea that people can really love a piece of furniture, and it’s made even better when that person has a hand in the design process. Every table I build is a specific pattern chosen by that person through a series of sketches and correspondences. In building a table for someone, I’m bringing something into their homes and lives that they will use every single day. That, to me, is so rewarding.
What is the significance of being able to eat from, chop food on, work at, sleep under, decorate with, etc. things that you have made yourself? And how much does the anticipated end experience of the piece shape the way you make it?
There’s an inherent pride that goes into living with something you build yourself. It’s in our nature to want to fix, build, beautify and assemble our surroundings. We’ve grown so far away from the time when every item we used, and our homes themselves, were something we had to make. As I build a table, it’s simply a lesser version of building a cabin from the trees I felled with the axe I forged. Even though I have power tools, I still had to go out searching for the wood and drag it back. When I’m surrounded by all the things I’ve made in my home, I feel accomplished. I feel like I went outside the normal routine of purchasing-made-easy, and instead, I foraged for materials and worked hard to create whatever it is I need. Obviously I buy plenty of furniture as well (mostly from junk stores) but even then it’s like a hunt: I go out to the areas where I know I’ll have the best shot of finding something, and sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.
As someone who clearly appreciates handmade things and surrounds yourself with meaningful objects, what is something you truly treasure in your home or studio, and why?
Everything in our house has been found or made, for the most part. Our area of Brooklyn was a crazy place for street finds the first five years we lived here, and I would find some treasure on the street at least once a week, ranging from antique oak desk chairs to vintage metal filing cabinets. There are so many pieces we have found over the years that we love even more because we broke our backs hauling them home 20 blocks. We really had to work for it. But perhaps my favorite things in the house are the three metal lamps that my boyfriend and I built together. They are adjustable with bolts and nuts, and are built from found metal that we drilled and cut ourselves. I love them because they are a perfect collaboration between the two of us that we don’t often have time for—using his knowledge of kinetics and functionality, and my love for physically putting things together. I’m especially proud of them because each component of the lamps was intended to serve a different purpose before we turned them into lighting, which seems to be a recurring theme in all my work.
Who or what has most influenced your path toward becoming a maker?
The interesting thing is that even two years after college I still had no thoughts or intentions of building furniture. I had never done it before, nor did I think about it much, if at all. I became a maker through a jumble of little events that slowly led me toward where I am now. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but it was almost two years ago that I stumbled across a bundle of lath on the sidewalk. I was walking with my boyfriend, and I picked it up and we brought it home. There was something about it, this little bundle of wood, the way the colors were light on one side and dark on the other, the long thin strips, all uniform in size and length. That bundle sat in our house for a few months until I spontaneously decided to cut it up into little pieces and lay them in a chevron pattern over a larger plank of wood. I didn’t have any tools at the time other than a handsaw and a hammer (insane!) so I cut all the 45-degree angles by hand and nailed them in place with the same nails I pulled from the wood. The result astounded me. The colors were perfection. I rested the two-foot-by-three-foot panel on our mantelpiece and that was essentially how it all began: a lucky find, a sudden idea, a few moments of trying something new, and then it clicked into place.
But the most important thing was a phone call I got a month after spontaneously quitting a sculptor’s assistant job. It was my dad on the other line, and he was asking me if I would come to California to build and design his restaurant. Restaurant? A surprise for everybody! He had just stumbled across the perfect space, so spontaneity was a driving force behind many of the next few decisions we made. I started my blog, rented a truck, and drove across the country with a dear friend, Amelie, collecting all sorts of wood and materials along the way (including a huge bundle of lath!). The next seven months of my life were spent building the restaurant, Il Vecchio, entirely from scratch—a hugely pivotal event that changed the entire direction of my life. For one, my patterned tabletops were invented there!
What’s been the most surprising thing about this venture you’re on—making your own living by building the things you love?
When I first graduated college I was in a creative slump. I had no idea what I wanted to do exactly, so I went a normal direction of working for other artists. I was making the ideas of other people come to life, and feeling uninspired to create my own work in general. I couldn’t understand how to get inspired and stay that way. When I finally discovered that wonderful thing called lath and began building my furniture, I was stunned at how much inspiration I suddenly had. It came out of nowhere. I was driven, I was excited. I started the blog and people began to find my work and I felt like I was sharing something and connecting with new people. And what has surprised me the most is that I’m able to stay inspired—that I’ve stuck with it even as long as I have and that I keep on going of my own volition. I wasn’t sure if I would be entirely capable of self-motivation when left to making all the decisions on my own. Of course, I have my days just like everybody where I don’t want to go into work, but mostly I’m thrilled to get to my studio every day. My work is so time consuming, but somehow I’m still enjoying sorting through the same heaps of wood again and again, measuring, cutting, and nailing; measuring, cutting and nailing and so on.