Maker Profile: Sasha Burchuk, Creator of New Age Design Studio - Portland, OR

 
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Hi Sasha! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I design and build furniture and home goods. It’s my true calling, but it took me until I was 31 to realize it.

What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I began designing dollhouse furniture and working at a miniature scale when I was 8 or 9 years old. My household was very chaotic, so I projected myself in to the calm and ordered space of my dollhouse as a way to escape. I was always very interested in design, but was very unsure of myself and insecure through my late twenties. I felt too vulnerable to expose myself creatively to anyone, so I didn’t really engage in any visual creative pursuits between the end of childhood and my early 30s.

However, I did dabble in other creative work. When I was in college I wanted to be a journalist and focus on international policy, especially the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. I went on a number of research delegations to Mexico and studied abroad there. I sought out and found a lot of incredible architectural and design gems while I was working and traveling. Mexico is so rich with great artists and architects. The things I saw in my years abroad there are definitely the biggest influence in my work. I’m glad that Mexican design is finally starting to receive some of the attention it deserves.

Trying to become a journalist in 2008 when a lot of media companies were folding didn’t work out, so instead I became a web developer at Instrument, a digital agency. Ultimately I didn’t really enjoy programming as much as I thought I would, but the education I got in user experience has been invaluable to my design process,

When did you begin furniture design? What was the process of creating New Age Design Studio?
I began designing human-scale furniture in 2014 when I couldn’t find any furniture that I liked and wanted to live with. Shortly thereafter, I started building furniture due to a lack of professional craftspeople who were willing to take on my commissions. In 2015 my husband and I bought a dilapidated A-frame on Mt. Hood and we wound up gutting it, redesigning it, and doing most of the buildout ourselves. After that project I just knew that designing and building was all I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Towards the end of my career in tech I became so obsessed with furniture and interiors that I lost all interest in doing any other kind of work. I built up a little financial cushion and took a six-month sabbatical to focus on learning woodworking and other production methods. I prototyped a few pieces during this time but didn’t really have marketable skill as a furniture maker, so I took a job as a concrete fabricator so that I could hone and refine the concept for gemstone terrazzo.

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Could you walk us through your design process and inspiration?
My approach is extremely varied, but user experience is always at the center of my design process. Whether I am working on an interior project or a new object, I am always carefully considering how people will interact with the space or thing, what feelings and thoughts it will evoke, what needs it has to meet, and what people’s emotional response to it will be. I believe in creating a division of space when it comes to interiors. When I am concepting a new interior project I think about what activity will take place, where, and how to support the people who are using it for that purpose. When it comes to prototyping objects, I want them to be functional, exotic, and high quality.

What led you to making your own terrazzo for your pieces and custom designs?
It’s a funny story, but in 2015, NASA publicized a series of photos to commemorate the Hubble Telescope’s 25th anniversary. My friend Maria Joan Dixon did a painting on black velvet of one of the Hubble’s views of space, and for some reason, when I saw it the twinkling stars and planets reminded me of semi-precious stones. And then I knew I had to make this thing that was gemstone terrazzo with black concrete.

I became obsessed with making this material, and joined the Mt. Hood Rock Club so I could learn more about lapidary work and rocks. I read a 200 page book on concrete and then made a crumbly sub-par prototype in my driveway. Finally I lucked in to a job at Coulee Concrete as a concrete fabricator where by the grace and generosity of my boss, I was able to develop my concept into a high-caliber material over the course of a year.

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In addition to product design, you also offer interior design services. What interior projects do you work on/what types of projects would you like to work on?
So far I’ve only done residential remodels, and they’ve all been pretty tame. I would really love a project where I get a lot of creative freedom to just be unorthodox and radical but create something really beautiful and practical at the same time.

When I redesigned our A-frame I did it in an eclectic California/Scandi style that was very “safe”. Through the years I’ve added more distinctive touches, but it really isn’t a reflection of my aesthetic now. I like minimalism accented by really exotic objects or pieces of furniture or art. I kind of think my style is almost minimalist and maximalist at the same time.

I dream of doing a small landscape hotel in the Columbia River Gorge, and even wrote a business plan and was attempting to buy cheap land for the project, but that’s been put on the backburner for now. I can’t give my design practice the attention it needs and also court angel investors, which is what it would take for me to make the landscape hotel happen.

Also (just throwing it out there) I’d love to do an entire bathroom – walls, floor tiles, shower surround, integral sink and counters – in white gemstone terrazzo with some brass or perhaps turquoise blue powder coated fixtures.

What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face with your work?
Cash flow is a huge issue for any independent furniture designer, unless they’re independently wealthy. I am only ever one missed check from having to get another full-time job. I have a long backlog of work I’d love to make that I can’t finance at the moment.

Bias – whether it’s unconscious or not – is certainly an issue. I see my male counterparts succeeding with much more ease, I think, because they fit the image of what a builder “looks like”. And bias also keeps a lot of women from thinking they can be concrete fabricators or woodworkers or builders too.

Gentrification is a looming threat. It causes affordable housing shortages and displaces people, but it also reduces access to artist studios by driving up the cost of real estate in general. This not only makes studios more expensive, but also incentives real estate development that tends to raze older commercial work spaces and replace them with condos or mixed-use buildings.

Mass produced furniture has also undermined craft furniture to a considerable degree. There are a lot of manufacturing companies that present themselves as small “indie” design studios. They’re able to release more pieces per year and seem more relevant and engaging because they have a number of people working for them and large-scale manufacturing facilities. Some of them are also really driving wages and the market price of craft furniture down.

Meanwhile it’s usually just me in the studio – designing, resourcing, branding, invoicing, researching, shipping, ordering, and sometimes building – trying to produce a finished product once every few months whether I can afford to or not, and trying to keep up with much larger companies trying to pass themselves off as small makers like me.

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At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
It’s vital to our well-being and our success. There’s a broad spectrum of violence that impacts women. Some waypoints on the spectrum are things like: the pay gap, catcalling, victim blaming, and domestic violence. But all along this gradient we are objectified and dehumanized.

We aren’t treated as equals or given the same opportunities that our male counterparts are given so we have to recognize and affirm one another, and work to bring more women in to positions of power, whether it’s in our careers or our communities. Men are not going to break down our barriers to success and self-actualization - most of them don’t even know that these barriers exist.

So as women we  need to lift each other up – but since I practice an intersectionalist feminist form of inclusion when it comes to gender identity – I want to add that we also need to actively support our non-binary and trans community members because they are part of the struggle for equality too.

What creative women do you find inspiring?
My longtime friend and collaborator Christine Taylor. She’s worn so many hats in the years that I’ve known her: Creative Director, Photographer, Producer. She is always transforming herself through her lived experience and surprising me with her patience, wisdom, and the revelation of talents I didn’t even know she possessed.

Joan Didion is my favorite writer of all time and the original inspiration for who I hoped to become when I thought that that would involve journalism. Her brutal honesty, unique perspective on current events, and willingness to go through hell to write about her subjects has always left me in awe. And then, at 82, she became a beauty icon in those big black Celine sunglasses!

What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
Honestly I’m trying to learn how to slow down, and work less than 90 hours a week. I’ve been trying to learn this for the last ten years and I believe that continuing to try will be the key to my success. They say that “when you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your whole life”...but really when you do what you love you will work all of the time: evenings, weekends, holidays and vacations. I am also trying to learn how to say “No”, which is my undoing when it comes to backing off from work.

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What's something that you're excited for in New Age's future?
I’m excited to do more collaborations! I’ve been working with Scott Cummings of Base Modern and it’s been such a positive experience. Working with someone else really allows me to throw out crazier more ambitious ideas because I know I have a partner to help me carry them out.

What are some of your favorite places in Portland?
I love Mount Tabor Park. It sits on top of a dormant volcano and has a panoramic view of the city. The landscape design was executed by the Olmsted Brothers, the same firm that designed Central Park.

For old school cocktail ambience, I love the Driftwood Room. It’s got dark wood paneling, very dim light, and is kidney-shaped, which is unlike any other bar I’ve ever spent time in. I also love Sloan’s, which feels like it was mothballed in 1968, and I mean that in the very best way.

Nationale, Mantel,  Spartan Shop, and Via Raiz all have exquisite collections of art and home goods.

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