“I don’t know if I would call it art.”
I was walking around after an interview with Laura Horwath at Albert's General Store, taking photographs of her space, and hanging in the back of the room from the ceiling was a big chandelier...made out of bicycle parts.
It. Was. Awesome.
Sure, it was metal, salvaged, and fit right in with a men's store, but it was crafted, thought-out, and purposeful.
It was art. Eventually, I connected with the builder, Anthony Acosta of Distressed Design who makes custom, handcrafted light installations for homes, apartments, and businesses.
In one of my last questions during my interview with him at his shop in Midland, Michigan, I mentioned something about him being an artist.
“I don’t know if I would call it art. I think it's more a design," he says.
"What’s the difference between those two to you?" I ask.
"I have constraints as a designer. If I’m an artist, say, a painter, I can go any direction I want. I can do anything.
But with these lights, I have constraints; electricity, design, code. There aren’t a ton of them, and it’s not like in architecture where every little detail is inspected with a magnifying glass, but I do have very distinct limitations. There are things I can’t do. But as an artist, you can really just go to the limit of your imagination.
But I strive to be an artist. I’m a designer striving to be an artist."
I'm going to be honest and say that when he described what he did as "not art", I didn't believe him, that he might be splitting hairs.
But thinking about our conversation and the work that he does, you can describe Anthony as "creatively intentional". The art...*ahem*...designs he creates aren't just for their own sake, or for his own desires as the maker. They are for people who want something beautiful in their home or business, and as a business owner that's an important distinction to make. He's striving to be an artist while trying to meet the desires of his customers.
"I was born and raised in Miami Beach, which was not the Miami Beach of today. Today, it's parties, clubs, impossible prices. But I was born in ‘79, during the time of Cocaine Cowboys and some lawlessness in the city of Miami. Pretty much all the buildings that are clubs and covered in neon now were old retirement homes. It was rent-controlled for the elderly, so it wasn’t anything like today.
But there was a lot of culture. People from everywhere. I’m Hispanic and grew up as a majority, so it was a bit of a culture shock moving to Midland!"
I say, "Midland isn't quite Miami Beach."
He laughs. "I think I increased the Hispanic population by a percent just by showing up!”
"What lead you into design?"
"I went to the University of Miami for architecture and got my Master’s in Engineering, and I still love architecture and love the creative aspect of it. You’re coming up with a project, and the first couple weeks are where you’re creative. After that, it’s all grunt work. You have to book construction documents and this and that, so it’s not fun after that creative stage.
When we moved up here, I put in my application for a couple places and some opportunities came back. I wasn’t excited by them.
But I had sketchbooks, full of designs and notes, and my wife Jen said, ‘Well, you have all these sketchbooks, just start doing something.’
So I made a couple things, put them online...and they sold right away. And that was it.
Within two months of starting, I rented a space in that old Dunlop building in Bay City. I think it’s a body shop now, so it was just me in a huge space and it was more than what I needed. But when I started, we lived in a smaller house where I was confined to the corner of the basement and I needed to a place where I could spread my wings a little.
If I was in my own space and blew something up it’d be fine!” he laughs.
I ask Anthony how his background in architecture informs the work he does.
"I think it helps me with understanding the dimensions, layouts. I have some franchise clients that send me blueprints and say, 'This is our space, what do we need?' and I can help them because I understand how lighting impacts the space. If we paid as much attention to light as we do art, light would be art because it can change the way you feel."
As Anthony is talking, I'm looking over his shoulder at a design hanging from the ceiling. It's made from bicycle chain, but it's elegant and twisted gently.
I say, "I love how some of your designs are very much metal, but at the same time it’s soft, like a drape. There’s a flow."
"It all goes back to architecture. The University of Miami is very classically oriented, so I got a lot of the Greek architecture - proportions. Not everything has to make mathematical sense if the proportions feel right.
Sometimes I’ll sketch something out and the math makes complete sense, but when I put it together, and I think “Man, this looks like garbage!” and then I’ll have to rip it apart and just start over. So I use the classic proportions with modern materials."
So if you’re making a sketch, other than proportions what other things do you have mind?
"It depends. Sometimes I’ll just get an idea. Other times I’ll just find things and think about how I would work this into a light. And that’s what happened with the bicycle chandelier. I had some bicycle rims and was just going to a doing a single rim light with it, and then I was checking out the Rehab store in Bay City because they were moving.
And they just had a bucket of chain. Just a ton of chain, and I thought I could do something with it. So I got it to the shop, and I just emptied it out on the floor and said I’ll walk by it every day and something will click. Then about a week later, I got some more bicycle rims and put them next to the chain without thinking about it. And I was like “I think I can do something with this!” and I just started fooling with it. I think that chandelier has been through 12 or 13 different versions, but now this is it. I’m not going to modify it anymore."
"How do you know you’re at the point when you won’t change a design any further?"
"That’s a tough one. Who knows, maybe in a month I’ll change it. But I think things just get to point where you have to say, ‘It’s done.’ If you don’t move on, the changing and tweaking will never end. Obviously, everything takes time to develop, and a bunch of trial and error to get to where it is. I might put something together and pull it apart dozens of times just to get the dimensions or the right look."
We get up to look at a line of three different lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and Anthony is explaining the process he goes through when someone approaches him interested in a design.
"I start off by figuring out what they’re looking for and what they’re not looking for. I’ll ask them about style - classical? More modern? Then it goes to materials they may like. And from there, I’ll bring them a few pictures of examples and a sketch pad, and I’ll sketch something for them there, and if it’s local I’ll go to there space and measure and sketch it out."
"There are a lot of people in a creative business who fall short on the business side of things because it's not "what they want to do". You've got great reviews and happy customers. What does it take to build a great relationship with your customers?" I ask.
"Listening. Pay attention. You have to listen to what people want and then be able to understand what they want - because sometimes they will say something but that’s not really what they want, and you need to be able to help them. Responsiveness is a big, too. Don’t let something sit in your inbox for three or four days, you’ve got to get back with people. When it’s a custom thing, you obviously try to give people a timeline and stick to it.
All my reviews so far have been five stars...except for one. A four-star. It was pretty much, 'I love the piece! It’s fantastic! It’s a little industrial, but that’s what we were looking for.' And I’m like, 'Really??' This was probably three years ago and it still burns me! The black mark on my record!"
I laugh, "It sounds like when teachers don’t give out A pluses because ‘no one is perfect’."
"Exactly. It just comes down to striving to make people happy. I usually follow up and ask if they liked the piece, or if there was anything that could have been done better."
"That’s a bold question."
"Yeah, but you have to know. I ask because I want to know. And if there’s something that’s not right, I need to fix it. Somebody just e-mailed me and the battery to a clock I made for them a year ago went out, I sent them a new one. They need to be happy. They were just asking where they could buy a new battery, and I told them not to worry about it and I sent them one. People appreciate those things, and I would want someone to do that for me."
"What are your future plans for Distressed Design?"
"Obviously, I want to grow. But I’m torn in two directions because I want to still be hands on and keep the handcrafted, artisan aspect of it, but then what if the opportunity comes up where I can go bigger in production where I could still be handcrafted but on a larger scale. But that might cause a loss of some personal touch. Right now, thankfully, I’m not at that crossroads yet, but with some the requests I get from contractors and designers I might get to that point."
"Sounds cool but scary."
"Exactly. But even if the chance came to go large-scale with this, I wouldn’t want to be CEO."
"Because that’s a completely different thing?"
"I would need to be in the creative department. It would make me miserable to give up the creative aspect and focus on business."
"Yeah, you would just put yourself back into why you left architecture because your work is mostly about things you don’t want to be doing."
"Yes. Those things are necessary, but it’s not me. I good at that work - I come from a family that’s business oriented. Business owners, big numbers people, math - but I could care less about math. I mean I’m great at it, I have a good math gene! But I’m the black sheep with the getting into trouble part. I never did any drugs, rarely drink...some I’m like the straight edge black sheep!” he laughs."
"What was the very first piece you sold?"
"Oh, gosh. I think it was a small clock. It was like a hard drive clock to a friend. They wanted something cool and I put it together. Then I did some lights here and there. The really big first sale I had was a gym in Chicago, Edge Athlete Gym. I did old chicken feeder lights, and we hammered them into a peak. She wanted thirty of them."
"From a business perspective, what is the hardest part of being self-employed?"
"It’s detaching. My brain doesn’t want to shut off. I sleep maybe five hours a night. If I leave the shop and something is done, then I can go home and sleep in peace. But if something’s left hanging, it’ll keep me up at night. Stuff will keep me up until it’s finished.
I’m usually at a two-week lead time, but sometimes orders pile up. With lighting, you get contractors that will need lights in days. Or needs it tomorrow."
"So you're self-employed, running a business, and you have a wife and two kids, a family. What are the keys to doing both well?"
"You have to make time. Yesterday my son was here in the shop with me watching the Avengers on the TV while I was putting stuff together. I have protective gear that fits him so we can be here together.
It’s hard when I leave here to put it away, because it is my business, and I do get phone calls from the West Coast at 9:30 at night because it’s 6:30 there, or I’ll be replying to e-mails until 1 o’ clock in the morning. Or things will need to be responded to on the weekends, and in this type of commerce, people will keep looking and find something somewhere else if they don’t hear back from you right away.
And what they find might be something that’s just a mass-produced replica from India, and while it might be a great product, what you’re getting from me is something that’s handcrafted, can be modified to what you want. Like right now I’m building a light out of a huge beam and a wagon wheel and those are objects with meaning, so it’s a thing that can’t be done in mass production."
"If your kids grow up and want to become entrepreneurs, how do you as a father give them the tools to be successful?"
"If I can support them financially, definitely. If they want to do something and I can set them up financially and take off some of that burden for the first six months getting started, I’d be more than happy to do that.
(Editor’s note: Kids, I got this in writing for you!)
Instilling in them that bookkeeping is very important. How to build a brand. When I was a kid, branding really didn’t matter, but now in this age of social media and technology, your brand and everything that you put out there is so important.
Yeah, I’d help them no matter what. Financially, my own time, whatever. But I’d definitely encourage them to go the entrepreneur route if that’s what they want to do. If it’s not, and they want a corporate gig and that’s what makes them happy, then do it!"