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Get to Know NewMade LA Designer Simon St. James LeComte

This weekend we stopped by the WestEdge Design Fair in Santa Monica to chat with Simon St. James LeComte, designer of NewMade LA, a vintage-inspired furniture company. With roots in Dutch culture and having grown up in his mom’s mid-century furniture house (Amsterdam Modern), LeComte strives to create designs that are timeless, functional, and simple. Less is more! In addition to NewMade, he also focuses on custom designs and lighting for different spaces across LA.

Your dad is from Amsterdam and your mom?

Yeah. My mom is from Boston and I grew up in LA.

I am going to assume that Dutch design inspires you—but what other countries inspire you to design?

I guess I’m a little bit biased because there’s this saying “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much”. Which is neither here nor there—but I also think the Dutch are extremely intelligent people and I think that they hold on to really good values—as you can see, just walking through their cities. I think Dutch design is a little more timeless and classic because it’s also about simplicity and function and less about all these excess features of a product—if that makes sense. There aren’t a whole lot of other countries that do that. But I don’t necessarily think design is really tethered to one place—it’s about an idea.

So simplicity and aesthetic. How would you describe Dutch design in a sentence?

I think you kind of said it—simple, but aesthetically pleasing. And functional. I think less is more. It’s hard to put into words.

When you’re in different countries is furniture one of the first things you notice?

I mean I think I’m always sort of looking around at that. I think being in different countries and around different cultures heavily inspires me—the real lifestyle, the people that live there; You know, going to Spain, they are a little more tethered to the ocean so it’s more outdoor, social vibes and then Holland is more dark and dreary, so it’s a little bit more about the interior. I’m inspired by what I see happening.

What other types of art do you pull from—I’m sure you don’t see a chair and think “Ah I’m so inspired by that chair, I’m going to make one exactly like it”?

Right. I always strive for originality and I think in a world where you can be anybody, be yourself.  I pull inspiration from everything. I reside heavily in the mid-century era—like I said that whole era is really designed with the whole mentality of simplicity and function and it’s reemerging. It’s been around, but it’s coming back with an even greater force. It’s all cyclical, we always go back in time for a little bit. I think that era has a really large appearance now.

You’re super familiar with Mid-century design because your mom has a furniture house, right?

She owns Amsterdam Modern, so she imports mid-century furniture from Amsterdam and it’s pulled from all over Europe, but most of it’s Dutch. For me to walk through her warehouse and to see these pieces—I have this unique mindset where I can see something and kind of break it down. For me to go see a vintage chair, it’s like “Oh well that’s simple  because it was made with this, this and this. Or it was constructed like that.” It sort of helps me create a piece as well. There are a lot of great people out there with smart design. I think that’s also what inspires me—it’s either like a process or style, and how I can reinterpret that to make it into my own. She has probably been one of my biggest influences. I was always making shit, blowing shit up, potato guns, catapults— But she was the one who really helped mature my design sense, I don’t want to say she gave me a purpose, but she definitely led me in the right direction. Now I have NewMade LA and my own design studio where I do custom lighting and design for restaurants and stuff.

How would you describe Mid-century furniture to someone who might not know too much about it? What’s the first thing that catches your eye.

I think the form. It’s simple, but it almost like this art form—which is also what I love about it. It is art but it has to live in reality and has to be functional as a piece. You could see this incredible sculpture but it’s actually a chair.

Is there a piece that you have in mind?

The Eames chair, it’s just a classic. It’s a very Californian design, but that’s the classic mid-century chair right there—probably the most famous one.

Is there someone you’d like to collaborate with—or do you take more of a solo approach?

I kind of take a solo approach, but I think nowadays collaboration is key—it didn’t always used to be like that. People used to be too bougie about their ideas; the “this is mine” mindset. I think now we are getting into this great era where people actually want to work together. For my custom pieces I work heavily with interior designers and they have their ideas. For my own personal products, I do like to take a solo approach because the more I can make it mine, the less somebody says that it’s theirs.

Is there a designer that, not necessarily inspires you, but someone whose designs you think are good?

One very famous Dutch designer, his name is Friso Kramer. He’s a family friend of ours. He was the first one to really create bent sheet metal goods. Typically, all stacking chairs used to be tubular frames—but what he did is he took a piece of metal and by bending it certain ways, he made it into a rigid structure. He sort of revolutionized the way that people made and manufactured.

With simple design, the mastery is more about what you can take out.

It’s like gutting a car—take out all that unnecessary bullshit and make it simple and fast. Like I said, less is more. The more you can make it into an ultra-simplified piece that actually works and that’s aesthetically pleasing—then you’re good.

What’s your design process like? You work at a shop, right?

Yeah. I’m gonna say it goes straight from sketchbook, prototype to production.

What’s your shop like?

I have a really great shop. I fully built it so everything is customized, like all the boxes and tools are on wheels so I just bring it all out. I pretty much have a wood shop, and then I have my welding area and my metal shop. It’s all great. I have all the amenities that I’ll ever need. But it’s also like—I don’t need all of that just to create something beautiful. My ideal place is just a quiet place with a couple tools that I can just go to town with. My whole process is that if I have an idea, I pretty much always have my sketchbook on me and I just have to get that idea out there. If I like it I’ll go straight into making the prototype layers and get my gloves and goggles on.

What design are you most proud of?

I mean I’d like to say that I stand by all my designs, but I think my first custom project was Cafe Birdie in Highland Park—and that was super cool because I think even thinking back on it now, it was ahead of my time for where I was as a designer and it all totally worked out. There were these huge acrylic and copper hanging pendants that were like 7ft long and these long tubes that kind of looked like lightsabers.

When did you do this one?

Probably a year-year and a half ago. That one to me was a big achievement. It was my first large project. I totally underestimated the cost on all of that, so that’s my own little bummer. But,  I’m proud of all my designs. Bar Angeles was another one. I love that light. It’s got a chrome tip on it so it kind of looks like a booby, and when it lights up it has this huge backsplash on the dome and you can see the little bulb. I think for the product line one of my stool is my favorite. It’s genius! Not to toot my own horn, but it’s genius. 

In terms of creativity, what motivates you? What can get you out of a creative rut?

You know—I really like your questions.

I think whenever I’m in a rut, and I was the other day, just trying to fucking figure out this one light that was causing me problems, you really kinda just gotta take a step back; take a breather and shut down the design studio for a day or two. And then come back. I don’t like to be in ruts.

I read in another interview that you’re not very patient—I’m the same way. How long does it take from the conception of the idea—you get your idea, you sketch it out, how long does this process take?

I think being impatient is good, it’s also not great sometimes, because I know that all good things take time and it doesn’t happen yesterday; which I always wanted it to. When I have an idea I go to the shop and pretty much pump out whatever I’m thinking about in a couple of hours. I like to work quick and I also think it’s good when you have something  that you’re thinking heavily about, that you go out and make it—because otherwise if it’s always sitting on the back burner, it just falls off your radar. From conception, to product it could take a week if I’m working with a client. The ideation process is what takes the longest. I make shit really quick because I know how I want to design it. I don’t want to say I make things within my ability because that sounds so limiting, but I know what’s easy to produce. By knowing the manufacturing process, I know how I want to design. 

Are you a night person? What are your most productive hours?

I live in a loft, then there is my studio and Amsterdam Modern all right next to each other. I always try to keep a good schedule. I live and work in the same area so I always try to go in from nine to nine but my most productive hours are really when I am alone, when people aren’t asking me questions—which is really after 5 PM when Amsterdam Modern closes, when I’m the only one around.

Last question—what is your favorite material to work with? And then to follow-up what is your least favorite?

I’m gonna have to say both are probably metal. The best and the worst. I work mostly with sheet steel, because you can bend it, you can form it, you can shape it. It’s heavy, but pretty thin.

Images courtesy of Simon St. James LeComte

Stay tuned to Milk for more west coast art happenings.

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