A Tale of Two Chairs

Lifework

Graphic designer and painter Ricky Watts spends the workday in a studio in Sebastopol, CA, that he once shared with his grandfather, Arthur. Today, Ricky's Embody Chair shares the space with an Eames Lounge and Ottoman first owned by Arthur and his family. Take a look at the workshop and hear the story behind the Eames piece -- as told in a charming recollection from Ricky's mother.

Give us a little insight into your background. I am an artist by nature and a graphic designer by profession. I've been drawing as long as I can remember. My earliest memories are of my mother drawing words in bubble letters and me coloring them in. As a child, I was an avid comic book collector, often doodling my own comics mostly consisting of army ants and nuclear dinosaurs. After high school, I enrolled at the Art Institute of California's San Diego campus. I knew I wanted to do something creative for a living and I liked working with computers, so it was an easy decision to major in graphic design.

While in school, I worked part-time for a print shop near campus, learning the in-and-out's of the print industry. The hands-on experience I was learning at the shop was more than I was learning at school, so I left college after two years and returned home to the Bay area. I put together a portfolio of school projects so I could look for a job. It turned out the print company who printed my portfolio was looking for a designer, so I began working for them. I bounced around different print shops for about eight years before starting my own business as a freelance graphic designer and print broker.

What year was your studio established? What led to that point? I began working in my current studio in 2004. While in college, I began experimenting on canvas. I was interested in showing art in galleries and began submitting my work to group shows in the area. The living room of my apartment quickly became my studio: art on one side, design on the other, somewhere in the middle was the couch, TV, and other clutter. It was obvious that I needed a dedicated creative space, but I didn't have much money, as the print shop I worked for wasn't paying much.

My grandfather, a retired general contractor, built a workshop in the early 1980s for his wood-working hobbies. The space was perfect -- he had everything an artist needed: a light table, a projector, a large drafting table, and a wood-burning stove to keep warm on cold days. He loved working with his hands and his personal projects kept him young. We ended up sharing the studio for few years until he passed at the age of 92. Times working next to him, often on the same project, are some of my fondest memories with him. I've continued to work in the studio, transforming it to suit my needs, but still leaving room for his wood-working tools.

Tell us what you're passionate about, what inspires you, and where you're going. Art and design consume most of my time. When I'm not creating, I'm studying other artists work and technique, researching future pieces, and day-dreaming about what they might look like. I also love baseball. I find it most relaxing to work in the studio with a Giants baseball game on the radio. Though I wouldn't consider myself a math brain, I'm fascinated by the statistics and percentages in sports.

What inspires me is always hard to answer. The world around me is inspiring. Daily experiences, my friends -- most of whom are artists and designers. I'm inspired by books because I like to imagine what the story looks like. Dreams often find their way into my work. Architecture blows my mind, especially Victorian-era buildings.

I can't tell you where I'm going because I don't think I know myself. I love being creative. I'm fortunate to have the resources and space I have. Art has taken me on some incredible experiences. With every show and mural, I become more confident that art is where I need to be focusing my time. Not knowing what's next inspires me to work harder. I have faith that everything will work out and that if you concentrate on something long enough, anything is obtainable.

Were there any special considerations that influenced the studio's set-up? What would you change if you could? The studio space is special to me for the very fact that I'm carrying on something my grandfather started. The space itself isn't very big. One room, about 400 square feet. No running water, but lucky for me, there's a faucet nearby to wash brushes. The heater is a wood-burning stove, but the climate in California is pretty mild and I don't build a lot of fires. The space is perfect for what I need it for. I have room to paint, shelves for supplies, and desk for my computer. Yogi, the sweetest 13-year-old dog ever, keeps me company every day, often laying at my feet while I work. I wish the space was a little larger and had more natural lighting, but I make it work.

You have an Embody Chair and your grandfather's Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman in the studio. Tell us how these both came to be. I do design work for Trope Group in Santa Rosa, CA. On occasion, I go into the office to discuss design and marketing strategies. They have a showroom where I enjoy test-driving the chairs on display. I'm not one to splurge on office furniture. Most of what I have now are hand-me-downs or pieces donated from past employers. I liked to imagine how nice it would be to have a real office chair. And then I sat down in an Embody chair and fell in love. The relief it gave my back was instantly noticeable. So I bought one and use it every day. I've yet to regret the purchase for a second. I love the look on someone's face when they sit in the chair for the first time.

The Eames Lounge is something that I've known my whole life. It's been in the family longer than I have. As a child, I remember curling up and napping in it, waiting for the adults to finish talking about things I didn't understand. I never knew anything about the chair until a few years ago. It was always just a comfortable leather chair that was great to sit in with a good book or listen to music. So out of curiosity, I asked my mother about chair. This is the story she told me.

"In the summer of 1963, we moved into a 1940′s stucco house in San Anselmo. It had a large, well-lit area -- empty except for a dining table and three chairs at one end, a hi-fi at the other, four Parsons-style end tables, and a matching coffee table (made by my cabinetmaker grandfather). It was the heyday of Swedish modern, and my parents were both working and had saved enough money to have -- for the first time in their lives -- a living room that was in style.

So off we went one Saturday to buy furniture in San Francisco. It's probable that from his former profession in architecture, my dad had cards that got him into high-quality showrooms.
I was 16, the decorating gene had skipped me. What I loved were books, so armed with a copy of 'Betsy in Spite of Herself' by Maud Hart Lovelace (Betsy and I were the same age), I planned to spend the day reading in comfortable chairs.

They bought, that day, a mustard and grey Swedish modern sofa, a black Swedish modern chair, and a 3″ x 5″ red Rya rug. I was underwhelmed: they were uncomfortable and, to my eyes, ugly; the mustard was a disgusting color and all three items were wool -- to which I was allergic.
However, I'd had a splendid time with Betsy, curled up in a seriously comfortable chair. When they were ready to leave, they came to find me. 'Do we have to leave?' I asked, stretching in the Eames Lounge.

They looked, not at me, but at the chair. They knew what it was; they'd admired Charles and Ray Eames for years. And they needed one more chair.
The rest is history. If you look at the feet, you'll see scratch marks from Jack, the Springer spaniel puppy who hated being left alone and took it out on the furniture: he gnawed the Eames Chair legs, jumped on the coffee table so often his claws gouged out long tracks, and tore up feather pillows on the Rya rug. So much for style."

(Images: Ricky Watts)

lifework2012-02-22 at 2.10.00 PM.jpgRepublished in partnership with Herman Miller Lifework. Originally posted by Amy Feezor.