Zinser Collection’s footed Hiero chair, photographed at Atelier Viollet in Brooklyn.
- March 10, 2021
The designer Max Zinser, 33, got his start building sets for the fashion industry. After graduating from N.Y.U., where he studied psychology and architecture, he would take unpredictable, often chaotic, freelance jobs sourcing props (for, say, a Dutch masters-themed Valentino photo shoot) and constructing elaborate runway environments for brands including Marc Jacobs. “After a certain point, I wanted to work on projects with more permanence,” he says. But the work helped him identify a path by which he might parlay his passion for design, first nurtured during childhood — he grew up in Washington, D.C., with an architect father and a painter mother — into a profession.
He began designing store interiors, and by 2017 had become a coveted creator of the brick-and-mortar “experience,” responsible for signature spaces such as the beauty brand Glossier’s blush pink and cherry red New York outpost, which he realized with his then-partner Kate McCullough. In 2019, he established his own design studio and embarked on projects including a sophisticated showroom outfitted with vintage furniture for the Row at the Dallas-based boutique Forty Five Ten. And though he would worry, at times, that his portfolio was perhaps a bit too wide-ranging — and lacked the kind of instantly recognizable imprint critical to the success of many young makers in a rapidly shifting visual culture ruled by social media — he now sees this as a strength. “I’ve come to appreciate and be grateful for the breadth of my work,” he says. “It’s a reflection of my ability to find beauty and excitement in so many different worlds.”
This week, Zinser will enter another aesthetic world with the release of his first furniture collection, produced with the storied Brooklyn-based furniture maker Atelier Viollet. Titled Monument, it is a five-piece ode to Zinser’s tendency to see objects as living things and consists of a chair, bench, chaise longue, stool and side table crafted from oak in four custom stains (black, dun, sand and a deep chocolate brown) inspired by the sumptuous woodwork of the 1930s French interior designer Jean-Michel Frank. “I found myself creating a family of abstract animals,” says Zinser of his kinetic forms, which, with their expressive and mostly footed legs, each conjure the silhouette of a small mammal crouching, lounging or standing at attention. “Over the years, I’d amassed a collection of inspiration images, including pictures of bronze forms by Diego Giacometti, caryatids, Ancient Egyptian furniture and works by Constantin Brancusi and Pierre Legrain. I found a running theme throughout: that each piece was some sort of creature.”
His research into ancient Egyptian furniture proved especially fruitful. An essay by Nora Scott, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1930 to 1972, introduced him to the idea that many ancient Egyptians believed, like Zinser, that furniture was, in some sense, alive. Moreover, in that period wood was seen as a precious and rarefied material; local varieties like acacia tended to be brittle, so timber for large pieces of furniture was typically imported, and craftsmen often preferred veneer to solid constructions on account of its efficiency and strength. “We ought to think about wood the same way today,” says Zinser, who crafted his own pieces with sections of oak veneer at the suggestion of Jean-Paul Viollet, the creative director of Atelier Viollet. “In a world of deforestation and climate change, we have to be more conscious about how we use our scarce resources.” To further minimize waste, the designs are all made to order. Available for purchase on Zinser’s website, they appear in soft-focus images taken by the photographer Richie Talboy that emphasize the collection’s tactility and offer a reprieve from the influx of airbrushed and overtly shiny imagery that so often fills our feeds. “I’m hoping,” says Zinser, “to establish a connection to real things again.”
He’s not the only maker attempting to force-eject aesthetes from the world of fast design by using ancient techniques and timeless materials. Matthew Fisher, a Virginia-born, New York-based craftsman who fell into design after giving up dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer following a career-ending injury, has long been fascinated by Classical antiquity. This week, he will release his first collection of objects under his own name. Handcrafted from age-old raw materials that he has manipulated to assume modern forms, they include soft-edged lichen marble and borosilicate glass bowls and urns, low-slung travertine plinths with detailing inspired by the contours of ancient aqueduct segments and black and fawn columnar vases carved from sandblasted ash wood that Fisher, 31, burned and charred repeatedly to achieve a contemporary, rounded look.
The collection reflects the influences of his paleontologist father and his draftsman grandfather, he says. It also marks the realization of designs he had dreamed up but had been unable to execute earlier in his career, when he worked on back-to-back projects in hospitality and hotel design. (Since 2017, he has also run his own studio, Mulberry Black, which produces custom pieces and site-specific work from natural stone for clients in the art and design worlds.) “I was tired of creating these temple-like spaces we’d pour so much of ourselves into, only for them to close in three years,” he says. “My father, who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, exposed me to a particular concept of time that a lot of children weren’t taught, so materials like stone and wood help me connect to that longevity, that sense of timeworn human history, and my upbringing.”
Fisher notes that while he was “never interested in creating things that look wildly modern,” he hopes that his objects straddle the space between the past and the present. Indeed, it was only last spring, as commissions began to slow during New York’s first lockdown, that Fisher was able to devote more hours to his personal practice and develop these objects, which he’d begun making for friends and family some years prior, into a formal collection. “So many of the things I thought were significant to spend my time on were pushed away,” he says, “and the thing that provided me comfort became, I realized, much more important.” Crafting objects slowly and determinately by hand from materials like wood and stone, as makers have for millenniums, was a grounding experience and one during which time seemed to stand still. “The pressure to be creative constantly is always there,” he says. “But it was nice not to be inundated so entirely by unbridled information — to be measured and deliberate.”