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The Art of Design

When it comes to style, nothing is off limits for Baltimore-based furniture designer Harris Rubin

The Art of Design

Inspired by the geometry of a crystal, the steel base of the 210 dining table can be topped with wood, glass or stone.

Some people just know what they are meant to do. For Harris Rubin of Harris Rubin, Inc., in Baltimore, the clues came at an early age. “When I was little, I was a Lego freak,” he recalls. “Some kids were into Little League; I was into making things with my hands.” So it is perhaps no surprise that this Maryland-born metal sculptor-turned-furniture designer spends his days creating utilitarian pieces with an artistic flair. Since 1991, he’s been fashioning tables and consoles along with various styles of mirrors and lighting accessories, and recently added bookshelves to his offerings.

Although his roots are in metal sculpture, Rubin (whose friends call him Rick) has a knack for working with all kinds of materials, from the imported iridescent glass and mirrors he cuts for mosaic tables to the solid slabs of walnut and mahogany he often selects for tabletops. No doubt, his interests are many as he describes his own work as pluralistic.

“I definitely do not have a unified design direction,” he says. “I’m not a modernist; I’m not a traditionalist. I like to pluck from different styles, for better and for worse. For worse, because it is not easy to pigeonhole me or identify what I do in a design sense. For better, because this keeps me interested in what I am doing.”

According to Rubin, he mines from different periods of design and finds inspiration in everything from artwork to antiques. The Jackson table, for example, comprised of a walnut top with a stainless-steel apron and base, resembles the Eastlake style in its geometry, he explains. In contrast, the McGavin console, Rubin’s signature demilune table with tapered legs and a mottled finish, is made of steel (that’s been purposefully rusted and waxed) and is Shaker in style. The Overlay console, a modern yin-yang design constructed of stainless steel and walnut, plays upon the notion of asymmetry, while the Morgan table is reminiscent of a Victorian-style piece. “You would have seen a ball and claw table like this about 120 years ago,” says Rubin, “but instead of a metal base it would have been carved in mahogany.”

Some of Rubin’s most creative work has evolved from commissioned pieces. “One of my favorite New York clients came to me and said, ‘We want something ’30s French, in gold leaf and simple. We have a beautiful rug and we don’t want to see the table.’  So I did this,” says Rubin, pointing to the Pavilion table with a glass top, which has now become a mainstay in the Harris Rubin line. “It’s not earth-shatteringly original, but it works. I like having clients who make these kinds of requests.”

Rubin’s road to furniture design was somewhat circuitous. “I went to a liberal arts college and probably should have been a lawyer or doctor like everyone else,” laughs Rubin, who is not afraid to poke a little fun at his life’s journey. After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, where he took some studio arts classes, he received a Watson Fellowship to study sculpture in the Basque region of Spain. “So that age-old question of what do I do out of college was answered for me by having gotten this grant,” Rubin recalls. “I was naturally interested in art and sculpture.”

Upon his return to the States, he moved to Brooklyn, where he apprenticed with sculptors and worked on his own pieces. Although he had worked with various materials along the way—wood, stone, glass, clay and bronze—it was metal that most interested him as a medium. Rubin focused on what he calls “narrative tableaus” that could have been current-day Berninis, done in metal instead of marble. “I was creating these underwater scenes of shipwrecks on Greek vases with fish,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Just shoot me! What was I doing to myself!” Though he jests now, Rubin did have moments of success with his sculptures. “I was showing and getting good reviews. And in my best year, I broke even,” he laughs.  In a more serious tone, Rubin admits that being in this “marketplace of ideas” was beneficial for his artistic growth, but he yearned to make things that were useful. “I turned back to design, to furniture and utility,” he says.

To pay the bills as a struggling artist in New York, Rubin worked with architects and designers who wanted custom interior metal work, such as staircases and copper-clad walls. “This was the 1980s, so metal was really emerging as a much more acceptable decorative material,” he says. “It became more refined, more aesthetic.” Making the transition from artist to designer was a natural one for Rubin. “I know what it feels like to be an artist,” he says. “You wake up in the morning and put on a very different hat. You are really involved with cultural and social issues, not so much utilitarian issues. Now I am a designer.”

Harris Rubin creates a wide range of furniture in his Baltimore studio.

With every design, Rubin is conscious of that fine line between art and utility. “I want to make things that are simple and fit within the context of the design,” he explains. “I want a piece to look good with the rug. I want it to be comfortable—something you can sit with and put a drink on, something that is not screamingly calling attention to itself.”

Today, Rubin creates his furniture line from an unassuming one-story brick building within the city limits of Baltimore, a move he made for economic reasons back in 2002. Harris Rubin, Inc., is a five-person outfit whose work is carried by a dozen designer showrooms nationwide, including Holly Hunt in Miami and David Sutherland in Dallas. Although he’s no longer in Brooklyn, a majority of his clientele is still located in New York, along with the West Coast, Miami and Chicago. Though the company has grown since Rubin’s days as a one-man shop, he still chooses all materials and finishes each piece of furniture himself. “I buy all of the wood myself,” he says, “like a chef who buys his own tomatoes. We are still at the level where I can select stuff by hand.”

So even though that kid from Bethesda who adored Legos is all grown up and has since traded those brightly colored blocks for custom metal-sculpted furniture with high-end finishes, his innate desire to build stuff still burns strong. “It doesn’t matter where I am,” jokes Rubin. “Put me in a diner and I will probably build something out of the straws.”

Kelli Rosen is a freelance writer based in Monkton, Maryland. For more information on Harris Rubin, visit www.harrisrubin.com.

Other pieces in Rubin’s collection include the 75-inch-tall compass torchere.

Rubin can customize the Mondrian dining table as a console or a square or rectangular table.

Rubin recently designed Wave as a private commission and has now prototyped it for production. The asymmetrical steel arcs of its base are a nod to sculptor Richard Serra. The base is steel in a lacquered, gunmetal finish; the top is solid walnut.

Rubin’s bench also started as a private commission for a client with a modern apartment in Manhattan. It combines solid walnut with curved steel.

Rubin’s new bookshelf, also inspired by Mondrian, can be custom-ordered to match any color palette. The red version pays tribute to traditional Chinese lacquered pieces.

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