Seven Easy Pieces

Designer John Kelly has built his reputation over 30 years designing furniture for brands around the world such as Calvin Klein, Hinoki Kagu and Koda as well as his eponymous range. Here he talks to us about his latest work and the role of bravery in creativity, his love of timber and his American red oak range.


JK On design…

What is the biggest challenge for a designer in realizing their work at a commercial level?

I would say the most difficult portion of the entire design process is trying to convince your customer to be brave and take a chance.  If you’re trying to create something new as a designer; the worst possible scenario is to have a timid customer.  They need to believe in what you’re doing!  It is always the designer’s job to find a solution to the customer’s design needs and anticipate the market; but it’s equally important for the designer to maintain the integrity of the design intent provided.

Compromise is always necessary to address the market; but resistance is always necessary to enable innovation.

So, balance is key. That is easier said than done particularly when you are designing for different people. How do you persuade your Clients to take that creative leap with you?

To be very honest; as a designer, I’m not a big fan of the democratic design process or designing by committee.  Everything just gets diluted and muddy.

It just seems antithetical to the very nature of design.  Essentially, design is not a democratic process; it’s subjective.  It’s about you thinking you have a better vision or idea, and then trying to represent that notion.  You have to believe that your designs are going to make the world a better place, and be able to convince your customers of your ideas.

What advice would you give to a young designer trying to navigate the global design world?

My best advice to young designers is always the same; look “inside yourself” for inspiration; you can’t find it in your mobile phone, or on Google or Safari!

As a designer, it’s extremely difficult to contemplate, and think of how you can make the world a better place; and even more difficult to arrive at a beautiful solution.  The great thing about design is that there are no right or wrong answers, only questions; so it doesn’t really matter what everyone else is doing?

I believe that all design starts with an idea.  Once you understand the idea, the rest is relatively simple; and becomes an informed process of development to represent the idea.  The difficult part is coming up with the idea!


JK On material choice…

Why do you like to design using timber?

It’s such an incredible material; the first material of furniture and architecture!  The ancients used to imitate stone construction with wood, because it was easier to carve and less expensive.

Not only does wood absorb carbon dioxide, it also acts as a carbon lock.  It regenerates and is sustainable; and it’s a living, breathing material that makes us feel more human.  Different wood species offer different qualities and possibilities, so it’s the designer’s responsibility to select the correct timber to achieve the appropriate aesthetic and satisfy the design intent provided.


What timber do you design with most frequently?

For the past few years, American white oak and walnut have been particularly “in vogue”.  Amazingly, these two hardwoods are still being specified for nearly 85% of my current projects.

That’s fine, they are both great hardwoods, but what about the rest of the possibilities in the forest?  There are so many other viable hardwoods; and often my task is to value engineer the customer’s preferred finishes into something more cost effective and commercial.

In these instances, I use a lot of ash and tulipwood as substitute materials; but I am now convinced that red oak can become a viable alternative.


JK On his new range – ‘Seven Easy Pieces’…

Where did you start with this range?

My design brief for this project was to design a living room collection in solid American red oak.  Around twenty percent (20%) of the forest in the United States is red oak; making it the most plentiful, and most underutilized American hardwood.

In designing this collection, I hope to change the preconceived notion that designers often have of red oak, demonstrate what is possible, and offer a manufacturing alternative to white oak which is typically 10%-15% more expensive.

I think that most designers always have the same initial reaction to red oak. They think it will be very red when in fact the name comes from the colour of the leaves in fall.   The preconception is that white oak is more neutral and allows for more finishing options.

Accordingly, I decide that my approach would be all about finishing.  If I want to change the perception of American red oak, I need to show what is possible; so I developed four ceruse finishes in grey, brown, tan and green grey that I also think will be very well received by the commercial furniture market.


The range is minimal but has a visual strength to it. Tell us about your design approach?

The designs for this new collection were inspired by the architecture of Louis Kahn and the furniture and art of Donald Judd.  Formally and functionally, I used slabs of solid American red oak to create monolithic surfaces that either float on a metal frame; or intersect and pass through each other.  The collection is very minimal, so I used the same thickness material for the entire collection; and joinery that allows the solid wood to expand and contract throughout the seasons.

As I grow older, I’m constantly trying to reduce my designs to the most basic elements so that nothing is superfluous.


Will we see this range in the furniture showrooms around the world?

When I think of commercial viability I think primarily of cost and styling, as this determines the breadth of the potential markets for the products.  Because “Seven Easy Pieces” is such a minimal collection, it is not expensive to produce; and because the finishes are so neutral and contemporary, I think there is a broad range of applications for these products in the commercial markets.  Not only in terms of residential and hospitality; but also, in terms of both indoor / outdoor applications. We will officially launch the range later this year after the Covid-19 restrictions relax. I’m excited to see the wider reaction.


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