“Do you want to see our Japanese Tea Room?”
Thirty-one-year-old furniture designer Stephen Kenn is exhilarated as he leads the way up a narrow black staircase in the downtown Los Angeles apartment he shares with his wife and business partner, Beks Opperman. Bearded, bright-eyed, and wearing a scarf fastened with a giant safety pin, he is all at once a counter-cultural archetype and a breath of fresh air—despite his L.A. vibe, I’m instantly aware that he can’t be a native (he’s far too nice). At the top he pulls back a curtain to reveal a small, dimly lit room outfitted with two hunter green chaise cushions, a teapot and two cups, and a hanging glass terrarium. There are two bibles on the floor. “It’s pretty awesome, right?” he asks with a grin.
A fully stocked Tea Room is one of many unconventional flourishes in the loft, which could easily be mistaken for a warehouse. (To be fair, it was a warehouse once—for furniture, no less—in the 1930s.) In lieu of a traditional entryway is a rolling overhead metal door; just inside are two motorcycles parked in what one might describe as a foyer, except that it’s not. Snake lights wrapped in grey felt under flooring meander up one wall like teslapunk ivy, and a custom-built bar protrudes from another. And then, of course, there’s the furniture: A chair and a couch handcrafted by Kenn make up a small living area at the front of the loft, each piece a steel, streamlined behemoth that commands attention without overpowering the small space. There’s a second chair upholstered in inky black Mongolian sheepskin, but it’s only a temporary fixture. “That’s for a guy named Joel Chen,” Kenn explains. “He’s a vintage furniture collector with the largest independent collection of Eames furniture in the world.”
No big deal.
For all intents and purposes, Kenn’s design career began in 2004 while he was riding a lawn mower in his hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Though his mother was an art teacher, he claims he wasn’t particularly creative in his youth. Inspiration struck, however, one summer day: he had the idea to sew fabric on the underside of a t-shirt and then cut a design out of the top layer of material. It’s a common technique called reverse applique, but to a 20-year-old Kenn, it was groundbreaking territory. That evening he commandeered (and subsequently broke) his mother’s sewing machine trying to realize his vision. In the end it was a success. “That’s when I started to get this itch,” he says. “If I spent an hour working on something, I’d have a physical product to show for it. It was a very tangible way to express myself.”
Kenn capitalized on his new avocation by starting a denim company with his friend Steven Dubbeldam. (“We knew so many people in bands who were silk screening t-shirts in their garages,” Kenn says. “We wanted to do something a little harder.”) Using a $10,000 loan from Dubbeldam’s uncle, they bought 300 pairs of jeans from a supplier in Montreal and put their own spin on them: ripping them up with sandpaper, patching them, re-sewing them for a tighter fit. And so it was that Iron Army was born, the company’s moniker a nod to Proverbs 27:17: As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. “We really had no invitation to be doing what we were doing,” Kenn says. “We just decided: Why not?”
It was that overwhelming sense of naivete coupled with an indisputable knack for the trade that helped the duo find favor in the eyes of Rick Crane, the president of sales for Seven Jeans. Crane encouraged them to move the operation from Canada to L.A. (often referred to as the denim capital of the world) where, under his tutelage, Iron Army was a name on the lips of industry giants like Adriano Goldschmied and Renzo Rosso of Diesel. In the company’s three-year run, their products were sold in 80 stores across eight countries, but production came to a halt in 2007 when poor management on an investor’s part left them bankrupt. Hudson jeans stepped in with an offer to take over, but the new concept, dubbed City of Others, never got off the ground. It was then that Kenn walked away from denim and sought God’s will for what to do next.
During a period of self-reflection, Kenn happened upon a warehouse in east L.A. housing old military fabric. “I’d sit on these big piles and journal, and I came across a verse in Corinthians that talks about our bodies being a temple for the Holy Spirit,” he says. “I began to envision these old military duffel bags that could be taken apart and reformed to hold something of value, and I loved the analogy. So I started sewing bags.”
Kenn ran Temple Bags out of his home for a year starting in 2009, stitching one bag per day and selling it for as much as $300 on his blog. His work got noticed by Barney’s, but he lacked the manufacturing bandwidth to create product en masse. Seemingly by Divine Providence, in stepped Kenn’s friend Erwin McManus, lead pastor of the L.A.-based Mosaic Church, who provided the funds that allowed the company to grow. But in 2011, when Temple Bags suddenly became McManus Bags, Opperman—whom Kenn married in 2009—asked him a simple question: What did he want the next season of his life to look like?
An old wooden chair frame peeking out of a dumpster held the answer.
Kenn is making me a cup of coffee. He fits a paper filter into the top of a glass coffeemaker and moistens the inside of the cone. Using a small beaker placed atop an electric scale, he measures out enough Stumptown beans for three cups before milling them into a fine grind. Brewing the perfect pour-over is no small feat, but it’s not on the level of fabricating, say, a sofa. Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the exactitude and assuredness with which Kenn attacks his pursuits, be they recently acquired hobbies or familiar pastimes. His initial foray into furniture design was no different: despite being a neophyte, Kenn resolved to figure it out.
Of that landfill-bound chair frame, Kenn says, “I sanded it down and oiled it a little bit, bought batting from Michael Levine’s, found an old military blanket, and staple gunned it all together.” Indeed, staples are plainly visible in the fabric of the chair, which is prominently placed in another sitting area. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he says with a laugh.
Take one journalist’s word for it: That is no longer the case.
The furniture Kenn has come to be known for, all part of his Inheritance Collection, is a stripped down, minimalist masterwork made with military fabrics from that same east L.A. warehouse. And every piece is as handsome as it is functional: In creating a vision for the line, Kenn sought to expose the way in which furniture works, likening his pieces to the anatomy of a body: the “bones,” or the frame; the “muscles,” or the springs; and the “skin,” or the fabric. Each part of the “body” serves a purpose: locally- and custom-made webbing is latticed onto a tube steel frame, both of which support the cushions and pillows. From behind, all pieces of the puzzle are visible. “I liked the idea of it being beautiful from every angle,” Kenn says.
Since officially launching Stephen Kenn furniture 2011, Kenn has sold upwards of 450 pieces, which run for anything from $650 (a tentpole rack) to $8,000 (a calfskin leather sofa). His work can be seen in locations as diverse as Deus Ex Machina coffee shop in Venice (and soon to be in Japan), the Todd Snyder x Champion City Gym store in New York (the result of a collab with Snyder himself), and various J. Crew stores across the country. In the fall of 2013, he partnered with Los Angeles-based denim company Simon Miller to forge a sofa inspired by a pair of jeans, featuring an oxidized copper-dipped frame, natural cotton canvas and webbing hand-dipped in indigo dye, and antique brass buckles. “I’ve been an admirer of Stephen’s creative endeavors for some time,” Daniel Corrigan, Co-Creative Director at Simon Miller, told me over email. “He’s able to inherently break a design down and strip away the unnecessary components. Creating pieces with integrity and still retaining the passion is not an easy thing to do, and Stephen does it wonderfully.” The project landed them a mention in GQ.
And while Stephen Kenn (the furniture) has brought Stephen Kenn (the man) ample success, Kenn would hope that his works are more than physical objects taking up precious space. “[At one point], I had decided that the world doesn’t need more stuff—furniture or jeans or bags,” he says. “What I found rest in, though, is that the world needs more stories. If we can create things that inspire people or encourage them to live their life with more intentionality, then it’s worth making those things.” He takes a sip of his coffee and shrugs his shoulders. “We’re not changing the world. We’re just trying to build authentic community. If we can do that on a micro level, then maybe there will be a macro effect.”
That’s an aspiration that will likely sit well with everyone.