Interview by David Kenji Chang
Photographs by Justin Chung

Stephen Kenn, Stephen Kenn Studio

Los Angeles, CA


December 3, 2020
Interview by David Kenji Chang
Los Angeles, CA

Back in March, as pandemic panic ground the globe’s gears to a halt, LA designer Stephen Kenn made a swift decision. “We started making masks immediately - like, so quickly,” he recalls from his home in Downtown LA. It wasn’t that Stephen didn’t have more immediate concerns. To the contrary, his business, as with many others, was rapidly slipping into uncertainty. Orders for his furniture designs completely dried up. His team was also in the midst of trying to downsize their two production studios to one, everything now chaotically jammed into half the space just as descending lockdowns restricted anyone from helping sort through it. 
Then there’s The Loft (capital), the grandly ambitious showroom Stephen opened last year next door to the loft (lower case) where he lives with his wife Beks and their moppy Sheepadoodle Obi. It was a massive undertaking that expanded his limits as a designer. The result is arrestingly beautiful with striking fixtures – like the heavy iron and wood staircase leading to a meditation room and the rotating, slab concrete room-dividers – which share the same balanced contradictions of Stephen’s best furniture designs: minimalist aesthetics projected to maximalist dimensions, industrial textures hammered into refined shapes, old made new. It is also, importantly, a livable, functional home intended to host overnight stays, experiential events, and dinner parties. Stephen and Beks envisioned it as a bold progression of the regular morning coffee and evening cocktail parties they’ve hosted out of the rear landing of their home for years – a space to meet, be met, and create. In short, a tidy summation of his creative ethos. “To me, making stuff and being able to connect with people, that’s kind of it.”
But all that was very suddenly, very urgently, in the rearview – a social space in a world without socializing. Stephen soldiered on with the masks. “It felt like this weird apocalyptic thing where I was like, ‘I have to get masks on people's faces. It's what the world needs.’ And for me, I think it was a way of dealing with something that was really hard to deal with and doing it through a lens of positive contribution,” he tells me. “It gave me a sense of purpose.”

He spirited through suddenly deserted East LA streets to fabric suppliers and contractors, fulfilling shipments alone next to teetering piles of equipment, production spilling into hallways and out onto the sidewalk. “It felt like it was back to the early days,” he says.

4–5 A closer look at the design process with Stephen at his studio

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly which “early days” Stephen is referencing because his path to now has been one of repeated and iterative reinvention. This is at least partially due to being an entirely self-taught, self-starting designer, willingly captive to his own fascinations. As an aimless 20-year old university dropout in his native Edmonton, Alberta (his shoulder has myriad chips in regard to formal education), he was struck with a sudden urge to try textile design while mowing the lawn. Though Stephen immediately broke his mom’s sewing machine attempting a makeshift reverse applique, he was hooked. Soon he and a friend, also named Steve, started a denim brand and decamped to LA on a lark. The Steves’ couch-surfing pluckiness – they pulled cheeky stunts like creating wash standards from jeans worn every day for seven months and from a bolt of denim used as a Slip’n’Slide - endeared them to the gatekeepers of the early-aughts denim boom here, like Rick Crane, Renzo Rosso, and Adriano Goldschmied. They went from selling out of a garbage bag in their trunk to taking huge orders from American Rag Cie and Fred Segal. When the boom went bust, Stephen shifted his focus to bags, making nearly one a day for a year from vintage military canvas and cut leather. “I sold nearly everything I made,” he says. “It was fun – and I made probably 200 bags that year.”

Stephen was also a repeated victim of circumstance. His first denim company, Iron Army, collapsed after their investor mismanaged them into bankruptcy, news they received while putting on a runway show in London. They were scooped up by another denim entrepreneur, starting a new brand, City of Others, that shipped a 40,000 unit order to Nordstrom right into the teeth of the financial crisis. Temple, his bag business, was taken from him when that investor, a friend, essentially staged a coup d’etat on him. “It ended in a way that was really hurtful for me.”

It ricocheted like that, up and down through glasses half-full and half-empty, even Stephen, until 2011. By then, he and Beks were married – they met in 2006 at LA haunt Spaceland, incidentally a recent pandemic casualty – and she encouraged him to break out on his own, pledging her support. “She told me, ‘I believe in you. I’ll help you – let’s do this together.’”
Stephen let his creative instincts guide him. He fixated on furniture – “Furniture is a category where the ceiling is really, really high,” he says – tearing vintage pieces apart to understand their anatomy and how to build them anew. He also decided this time, if he named the brand after himself, he wouldn’t ever have anyone to answer to but himself. The pressure was novel and real – at his first trade show, the nerves made him physically ill. “That was a kind of one defining moment: Nobody is behind you. If you fail, this is on you, buddy,” he recalls. But he succeeded, his work almost instantly attracting orders from the celebrity menswear set, with names like Tommy Hilfiger, Nick Wooster, and Frank Muytjens among his early clients. From the start, Stephen’s most lusted-after pieces have always been his formidable sofas and chairs - hefty down cushions wrapped in well-worn fabrics (an army tent, or an indigo boro blanket, or a Persian rug) resting on canvas-belted steel frames. Their sharp, unadorned lines and rough textures have an industrial masculinity while also suggesting the quiet drama of an art installation, like monochromatic Mondrians extruded into homeware. They are couches aspiring for more.  Success in a category as involved as furniture also brought an ever-expanding network of local creatives and blue-collar artisans - welders, upholsterers, glassblowers, seamstresses, woodworkers, fabric suppliers – into his orbit. LA is a city that the intrepid can make their own, and Stephen has carved his own path through its Eastern and Southern corridors. “I feel like part of my job as a designer is just to stoke the fire in all these different artisans,” he says, adding, “I feel like those are the dudes who are the gatekeepers of creativity in my mind.”
In the intervening years, he’s expanded incrementally. “The trajectory has been kind of ‘bigger and harder,’” he says. The Loft was certainly symptomatic of that trend. “I like the idea of designing property and kind of like the flow of say, a ranch or a space,” he says. “That is super fun and interesting. That captivates my attention.”

It’s also been a lesson in the travails of creative growth. “Now, under my name we’ve been doing the brand for 10 years, and I’ve had to actually grow and develop without walking away from it. The brand has to mature, and sometimes people are like, ‘I don’t like that new thing that you’re doing,’ And you say, ‘Yeah, but it’s from me. The through line is me,’ you know?” he says, “It’s kind of through language and time and sharing that you bring people along on that journey.”

He has also grown in the conviction behind his purest creative intentions. “I feel like some of the worst decisions I’ve made have been when I tried to use design to make money,” he notes. “I think when I do things that I feel are very true to who I am and what excites me I find it connects me with the people who I should be in a relationship with in general.”

“The money will come.” 


The masks, a gut decision in the face of crisis, certainly proved this thesis. Cut from the same vintage military canvas that upholsters his furniture, they slammed headlong into a market of new and seemingly infinite demand. They sold. A lot. 

“That actually was able to stabilize our company for two to three months,” he says. “We were able to actually hire a person full-time now who just handles masks. And we’re moving into a space that is over double the amount of square footage that our two other units were.”

Fortunately, months of shelter-in-place seemed to inspire people to reconsider their furniture choices because orders for the big stuff also started to roll back in. Some normalcy returned. In the absence of social contact, Stephen and Beks focused inward. They stayed committed to their schedule, waking up daily at 6 AM to exercise, meditate, and share coffee. They worked on their marriage. They slept in the showroom, a small escape in their own home, and dreamt of buying a cabin in the mountains to spend weekends to steady the cadence of their weeks. “I think I would be even more effective if I was really focused with my team Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and I was with Beks Friday, Saturday, Sunday –full days,” he says. “I think it would be a way healthier rhythm.”

Stephen was also able to refocus on other obsessions of his own invention. Recently, it’s been rocks. Not precious gems or unrefined ore. Not geodes crammed full of healing crystals. Just … rocks. Before the pandemic, he found himself surrounded by piles of them at a landscape supply shop in Santa Monica. “I popped in, and I'm looking around at all these rocks and immediately, I was like, ‘I just want to do something with these,’” he tells me with a smile. “And so I'm sitting there, and I have no concept in mind, but I was just really taken by the natural beauty of rocks and feeling like I want to see rocks in the home more often.” For months, rocks bought and hoarded accumulated in his studio. “I think some ideas maybe aren’t right for that moment. They’re for later – you have to kind of unearth them a little bit.”

The break forced by the pandemic gave Stephen the space necessary to find his creative footing. He returned with a flurry of activity. He imagined a leather sling chair stabilized by rocks at its base. Rocks were cut in half and had holes drilled in them. Rocks were ensconced in stitched tan leather. Concept drawings piled up on his iPad, and he showed them to Beks. “She’s usually the keeper of the keys, so if it passes Bek’s approval of, ‘You should totally do that’ then I think, ‘Sweet – the money’s available then,’” he says with a laugh.
The results of his exploration were used for his showcase at the 2020 LA Design Festival where he was awarded a 2020 Edge Award. They are also the centerpiece for a new collection called “Grounded” that will involve stone-anchored housewares smaller than he’s become known for, a direction inspired by the success of his masks. “The masks felt like this kind of open door that I've closed for a long, long time about making smaller and more accessible things. I just kind of forgot that I even had an audience for that,” he explains. “It's like everybody needed this thing, but it allowed me to connect with a lot more people who have messaged me: ‘I've wanted your sofa for years, but I'm starting with the mask, and eventually I'll get the sofa.’”

The physical and financial chasm between mask and sofa is obvious, but with Kenn’s work it feels wider still - his most expensive products have prices that can creep into the five figures. The Grounded collection can help fill that void.
And Stephen is imagining what else can fit in there. “Now my brain is like, maybe I can come up with some other stuff that’s cool, and still special, and more in this kind of home goods category,” he says. He floats the idea of shoe designs, made-to-order from singular buying windows, never to be produced again. “That idea of slow, thoughtful production is really exciting to me.”

The pandemic is actually driving a broader reckoning with his entire business model. “I knew immediately from the very get-go, I need to disconnect myself from the way things have been and think, ‘How are things now?’ and create something new. But I'm not. And I keep thinking like, ‘Dude, you better figure this out quick because we're in a new chapter globally, and you can't keep thinking the same business models. You can't keep thinking the same things. It's adapt or sink-or-swim right now. And yet – I'm not doing anything different. And I'm trying not to beat myself up over it because orders are still coming in,” he laments. “I just keep feeling this thing that I can't shake that’s like, ‘Steve, you better change everything.’ But maybe I'm not supposed to change everything.”

One piece of the way forward is just down the hall. Tok Kise, from Osaka’s Truck Furniture, has a showroom here. Stephen and Tok met at Truck’s headquarters in Japan in 2014 and immediately set out on one of history’s purest distillations of the international bromance – collaborating on furniture for Deus Motorcycles’ Harajuku store, riding vintage bikes up the California coast together, and filling in the blanks with countless wine-fueled dinners. When Tok decided to bring Truck to the US, he waited a full 18 months for the lease to free up down the hall from Stephen. They are starting a joint venture, named The Good Atmosphere after one of Tok’s pet aphorisms, where Stephen believes they can fashion ways to deploy both his skills as a creator and Beks’ skills as a curator.

Back when clients were allowed to visit, they would shuttle them back and forth down the corridor between these two showrooms. Today, he is walking that route alone, his battered leather sneakers shuffling quickly over cracked cement. Along the way, he pauses in an open-air atrium. “this is a pretty fun little room,” he says, gesturing to a planter of startlingly large cactuses reaching toward the sky in a 30-foot, contorted spiral. “Normally where the joints are, they’ll knock off and fall down. But the walls keep them the height that they are,” he explains. “Apparently with water and protection from the wind, they'll all grow to that height.”
It’s an unintentional metaphor as obvious as it is apt, because you get the feeling that behind these walls, Kenn, too, will continue on a trajectory ever upward. He gives Tok credit for giving him perspective. “He's so kind and warm and inviting, but he's also so ‘stay the course.’ I think I always appreciate and admire that about the Japanese culture in general. There's just this slow tortoise pace of just cruising, you know? Whereas I think in the Western world, our culture is so much more, ‘What is the fastest way that we can make as much money so that we can retire?”

“Well, that’s not the goal. I don’t want to retire. If I’m going to do what I love to do, why wouldn’t I want to do it for a long, long time?” ●