Meet the Designer Turning Old Jeans Into Furniture
Elise McMahon is rethinking home decor.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:56 AM
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In New Voices, we shine a spotlight on inspiring up-and-coming talent shaping the future of their respective industries. Consider this the new class of creatives.
“I’m 32 going on 13,” says artist and designer Elise McMahon, founder of design studio LikeMindedObjects. Raised in Lake Forest, Illinois, McMahon is one of many talented creatives currently residing in Hudson, New York, and fostering a thriving community for local craftspeople like herself. In addition to her own practice—making abstract mirrors, lighting, jewelry, and seating and designing interiors for companies such as Artsy and Eckhaus Latta—she also co-owns a Hudson-based studio and store with fellow designer Enky Bayarsaikhan called Enkyu LikeMindedObjects.
“I love to create objects that add energy to our daily lives through playful visuals alongside perfectly functional structures,” she explains. At the heart of everything she does is the desire to make normal, daily activities “feel beautiful and elevated.” By using playful hues, patterns, and shapes, she succeeds in doing just that.
One of her most recent projects is a series of chairs made from old jeans that are bleached and transformed into cushions for chairs and pillows (currently on view at A/D/O in Brooklyn). “These came out of explorations I’ve been pursuing around fast-fashion waste and the reuse of secondhand textiles for new product development,” McMahon says. Working with the Kokrobitey Institute, an organization based in Ghana, she designs these products as a way to recycle excess goods.
“Bleaching fabric is one way I want to reimagine and add value to otherwise discarded materials,” she says. McMahon’s upholstery is a creative solution for the massive amount of thrown-out clothing today—just one of the things she’s passionate about. Here, she shares what’s inspiring her now.
What did you want to be when you grew up? What inspired you as a child?
I think it was always pretty clear I would be a mix of an artist and entrepreneur. I was the kid insisting on having a lemonade stand at the end of my driveway, although I would sell obscure things that never did too well—like my collection of Pogs or rocks.
After noticing my fervor for business, my mother helped spearhead a kids’ section of our annual local artists market, at which my father always had a booth. Each year I would come up with new products, like handmade candles that looked like cave formations or splatter paintings like Jackson Pollock’s. Mostly, I was inspired by my parents, who were both self-employed artists and had diverse practices within their home studios.
What did you study in school? How straight was your path?
I earned a B.F.A. in furniture design from Rhode Island School of Design. While in school, I often collaborated with friends in painting and textiles to create objects, installations, and events. It’s almost funny how clearly this has carried over into my present-day practice.
Was there something that was a catalyst for your career?
Having graduated in 2009 during the recession caused me and my community to quickly adapt to being self-motivated and self-employed. I began teaching DIY skills like woodworking and upholstery at studios throughout New York while also taking on commissioned furniture design projects and growing my client list via word of mouth.
What excites you the most about your job every day?
I love discovering new materials. I often hunt for things that commonly find their way into landfills after their original use is complete, and I search out the people who most commonly dispose of them to intercept and incorporate them into new products.
What’s something about your job that you don’t love or would want to do less of?
Email can be a real roadblock for me, but I am trying to negotiate with myself on this one. If I just get up a little earlier each day and take a half hour with my coffee to answer yesterday’s emails, I’m good. I don’t want it to take over my day or stop production in the studio.
If you could start your career over and money was no object, what would you want to be?
I would still want to do what I am doing—being a self-employed designer allows me to be curious, explore the world, and engage with my community, but maybe if I had a pot of money I could be pickier about what I say yes to, or just give money to other small businesses I want to help. Or I could just relax and geek out in my garden and become a better cook.
So how do you like to procrastinate?
One big reason I live where I live is the easy access to swimming holes, so if I am in the studio and can’t make headway, I leave and take a swim break. Not forcing myself to do anything productive is the most productive thing to do. I return to the studio refreshed and ready to work.
What excites you right now in design?
I’m excited by how different artists manufacture their work, especially when it involves the harnessing of chaos or imperfection of a material. I love seeing different uses of trash, like Misha Kahn’s large, irregular structures of woven trash.
What is your dream project?
I would love to design a hotel and all of its elements—including the plates, beds, pool, robes, and even the toilet paper holders—with the local resources and skilled craftspeople of the area. How can we respect the traditions of a region with a contemporary design sensibility? A hotel is such an amazing opportunity to create spaces for all different human experiences and interactions. How can like-minded materials and shapes and playful elements transfer through every moment within this dream hotel to suggest a worldview of joy and thoughtfulness?
What’s next for you in 2019?
I’m launching a new collection of seating, bags, and children’s toys made almost completely from recycled materials. From fabric to upholstery stuffing and structural elements, I’ve made a point to source these materials so they are both ethical and aesthetically joyful.
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