It takes a lot of energy to make a splash. Designers are currently recovering after unveiling one-off installations at the Salone del Mobile furniture and design fair in Milan. Elsewhere, other short-lived projects—artist-brand partnerships, temporary public artworks, food-themed pop-up museums—are coming to fruition, only to be photographed and deconstructed. They’re called Instagram moments for a reason.
So it was refreshing to learn about designer Jonathan Nesci‘s soon-to-be-finished project: A line of aluminum tables for the clothing retailer Totokaelo, which is unveiling them at its New York storefront in May during New York’s city-wide NYCxDesign festival. Part furniture, part display system, each piece is made to last, and to transform: their tray-like tops can be stacked, covered with acrylic or glass panels to form a display case, sit on the floor without legs, and more.
The collection is called PHI, named for the flourished P-shaped symbol of the Greek letter that stands for the Golden Ratio, or a number approximately equal to 1.618. This proportional system is found when a line is divided into two unequal parts, where the entire length divided by the long part equals the long part divided by the short part. The result is what some artists and architects call the most aesthetically pleasing shape.
Nesci is obsessed with the equation and has used it for nearly a decade in his work—superbly manufactured, minimal forms made from industrial materials including concrete and steel—but not always immediately apparent. The 37-year-old designer created the PHI tables using two squares and two rectangles that can be enlarged or shrunk while maintaining their magical ratio. “The idea was that they’d all work together using [the Golden Ratio]: they can stack, they can be re-orientated in an infinite amount of ways,” Nesci says. “Who knows how fashion is going to change over time? The tables are a platform that act like a black box theater. They’re super adaptable, so you can make each display special and unique.”
The release is coming full-circle of sorts for Nesci, who showed his first collection of hulking metal tables, shelving, and stools during NYCxDesign’s International Furniture Fair in 2007 (the project cost him $20,000 but led to an ongoing partnership with Ugo Alfano of Chicago’s Casati Gallery, which went on to show Nesci’s work during the fairs in Milan and Miami). Born in Chicago, Nesci learned about furniture construction while managing the restoration arm of the Windy City’s famed Wright Auction House, where he handled some of the most important works of Italian design (Gio Ponti, Achille Castiglioni, and Ettore Sottsass among them) and spent a lot of time looking at how they were constructed.
Today, nearly all of Nesci’s products, including the PHI tables, are manufactured through a network of local machine shops in Columbus and Chicago that he’s developed relationships with over the years. “I like to nerd out over the technical parts of production,” he says. And it shows: Each PHI table begins as a 3/8-inch thick aluminum plate that’s shipped to Chicago and waterjet-cut using a digital pattern Nesci sent to his manufacturer there. It’s then dropped off to a fabricator who does the initial sanding and welds the pieces together. It’s sanded again, waxed, and ends up as a tray. The legs are made at a father-and-son machine shop in Columbus and made from the same aluminum alloy as the tray. The whole thing goes to Nesci’s crater, who ships the piece to the client. Throughout the entire process, Nesci hops from shop to shop to oversee the production.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into a new product,” he says. “I’m always trying to steer away from complications, which really suck the life out of things. The fun part of any design is the first one. And then, you can always find ways to be more efficient and improve that process.”
Jonathan Nesci and GRAY’s editorial director, Tiffany Jow, will be in conversation at Totokaelo’s New York shop on Wednesday, May 15 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. during NYCxDesign. Read more about the project here.