This interview is part of an ongoing series of conversations with the Areaware designers. We asked our Fall 2016 designers to select someone to conduct an interview with them about their practice. Pete Oyler sat down recently with Crystal Ellis, a principal at Egg Collective to discuss his love of plants and how that love has influenced his most recent designs for Areaware.

Crystal Ellis: Hey PETE! I know you well, so I know you love plants. But, I’ve never asked where that love stems from—Has it always been there? Or did it develop over time?

Pete Oyler: I do love plants! I know you love plants too, and we’ve shared so many plants with each other—It’s funny that we’ve never really talked about ‘why’ either of us enjoys them so much.

P (cont.): My Dad is an avid gardener and I would imagine my original interest in cultivating plant life is rooted in watching him create these amazingly vibrant landscapes in our yard. I also think my interest in plants – and I guess more specifically my interest in growing them/having them around – intensified once I was living in New York City. In such a dense space that is so marked by hard, industrial materials, I found having plant life around me comforting and peaceful, meditative even.

C: When you told me you were working on the design for a set of planters/vessel I thought it was a perfect project for you. Did the Radial Vessels originate because of your own desire for better/different planters in your home?

P: Kind of. I had designed the Plant Pedestals for Areaware’s Fall 2015 collection and the more I lived with the prototypes from that project the more I began to think of them and use them as plant stands. In many ways, designing a planter/vessel seemed like a natural expansion of my work for Areaware though I do admit I was partially motivated by wanting to diversify my own planter collection. Most of my plants are currently in terra cotta planters – those ubiquitous industrially produced pots were a definitive point of departure for the Radial Vessels. Much like the terra cotta planter archetype, the Radial Vessels share common geometries and proportions.

C: Can you talk more about the “common geometries” you mentioned. I know that you often give yourself a set of rules when designing. What sort of parameters did you set for yourself when creating these forms?

P: It is true that I tend to establish rules for myself when designing, especially for larger volume production. I find that it helps me establish a visual and formal rhythm. In this instance, I wanted to create a series of forms that were diverse but related. For the Radial Vessels, I established that the angles at the top and bottom of the forms as well as the circumferences would have a mathematically logical relationship. From largest to smallest the Radial Collection’s measurements are 9 x 6 with 30º angles, 6 x 3 with 30º angles, and 2 x 4.5 with 60º angles. These restrained geometries lead to different formal and functional results while still creating an overarching sense of unity.

C: Can you elaborate on the functional diversity in the collection?

P: Sure. The largest vessel is a planter–it has a 6” diameter opening as well as a drainage hole and tray. The medium sized vessel functions as a vase–it has a 3” diameter opening and is watertight. The smallest sized vessel functions as a catch­all dish and provides space for rocks, air plants, shallow rooted succulents. The overall collection supports a wide range of plant life.

C: You mentioned earlier that the ubiquitous terra cotta planter was a jumping off point for you. How did you land on a material choice for this collection of vessels?

P: Part of what is so smart about the basic terra cotta planter is the material application. Clay is porous which, in the context of planters allows for both the absorption of excess water (this deters overwatering) and also helps regulate soil temperature (this deters extreme shifts in temperature which plants do not tend to like.) From the onset of the project I was sure I wanted to use clay, ultimately because it is the most logical functionally but also because it made sense in terms of production. The Radial Vessels are slip cast (a process by which a liquid clay body called slip is poured into a plaster mold)​ which is an incredibly efficient method for mass production. ​

C: What is the role, if any, of “wildness” or “nature” in your design process?

P: My approach to design and to the design process shifts depending on project, inspiration, etc. For the work I’ve designed for Areaware, and especially with the Radial Vessels, I put a lot of thought into how to create objects that are quiet, that anticipate and create space for something else, something that might be wild.

C: I think the idea of an object that is “quiet” is really interesting. I wouldn’t describe all of your work as “quiet” but I definitely felt that openness in this body of work. Part of why I love plants so much is that I am still shocked by how vastly different they can be in their forms. Were you considering that when you were designing? If so, did that play into your desire for a quiet object?

P: I love evolving variations in plants, too. I’m always so excited when one of my plants blooms or has new growth–it always feels like this amazing surprise.

P (cont.): So, yes, the formal diversity of plant life did have a large influence on the design direction for the planters–I wanted the vessels to call attention to and highlight their contents, to be bold in their subtlety.

C: You also, obviously, love design. Why did you choose product design as your focus?

P: I do love design! I am very curious about the world around me, the objects that surround all of us, and how our material world influences our experiences, our culture. I pursued furniture/product design in part because I love learning with and thinking through my hands and in part because I enjoy creating things that rethink, challenge, or expand ideas of function and utility.

C: Did you collaborate with Nora, your partner and collaborator at Assembly Design, on this project?

P: Nora and I co­-founded and operate Assembly Design together. In 2015 I began producing client based design work eponymously. I really enjoy working with Nora in the context of Assembly – the nature of our collaboration always yields something that is unique to both of our imaginations. I also really enjoy working independently–it allows me the opportunity to work through specific concepts in a way that is distinctly my own. These vessels are very much a solo project, as is the task of watering all of our house plants.

C: You two just moved to Chicago where you’ve accepted a position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I gave you a clipping of the Fiddlehead Fern from our showroom just before you left. How is it doing?

P: You did! It’s growing! Slowly but surely, it has five leaves now…which is four more than it had when you gave it to me.

C: This makes me really happy, I love our plant exchanges! How incredible is it that plants can regenerate!?

P: It is incredible.

Shop Radial Vessels

Pete Oyler’s work has been recognized and showcased internationally. A versatile designer and thinker, Oyler is particularly interested in design semiotics and in the potential of three-dimensional objects to incite imaginative curiosity. Oyler holds a BA in American Studies and an MFA in Furniture Design from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2012 Oyler was named one of Forbes Magazine’s Top 30 Under 30 for Art & Design. Oyler’s work has been featured in numerous publications including the New York Times, Elle Décor, Ideat, and Wallpaper. He is the co-founder and lead designer of Assembly Design and is an Assistant Professor in Designed Objects at the School of Art Institute of Chicago.

Egg Collective is a New York-based design company established in 2011 by three female designers — Stephanie Beamer, Crystal Ellis, and Hillary Petrie. Pulling from its founders’ backgrounds in architecture, art, and woodworking, the company creates exquisitely engineered furniture and lighting. All of Egg Collective’s work is made in its own wood shop and in collaboration with a community of small-scale fabricators. The company maintains a wood shop and showroom in New York City.