Double Vision: Ben and Aja Blanc
October 6, 2017
Text by Lisa H. Speidel
If you live and work together in a creative industry, inspiration can come when you least expect it. Maybe you’re on the back deck coloring with your two daughters when you realize you’ve just sketched an idea worth pursuing, or perhaps you’re grabbing drinks at a dimly lit bar on the West Side of Providence when you suddenly pull out pen and paper.
So it goes for husband and wife Ben and Aja Blanc, who merged talents officially in early 2015 to form their eponymous Providence-based boutique design studio, producing furniture, lighting, and objects. The couple met in grad school at the Rhode Island School of Design, but pursued separate tracks after school while dating long-distance. She, a museum studies major, headed to the Yale University Art Gallery to work with their collection and teach. He, a furniture design major, stayed behind to start a design studio, freelancing on the side.
“When we started living together,” says Aja, “that’s when the design conversations began happening.” But it wasn’t until 2014, now married with a toddler and working at RISD, that “Aja came home one day and said, ‘I’m going to quit,’ ” remembers Ben. “That’s the moment there was a rigor brought to this studio. We knew that creatively we’d be better together.”
Joining forces meant a fresh start and a collaborative approach. When it comes to the design process, Aja explains, usually one of them will have the seed of an idea, the other runs with it, and then they engage in a lot of back and forth to revise and refine. They use their individual expertise to their collective advantage. “Ben’s background as a maker has him very involved with production. He knows how to make anything, it’s amazing!” she says. “My background in art history often comes into play during the conceptual research phase of designing—where I am placing our work within a context that helps us evolve the design.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that much of the couple’s portfolio plays with “juxtaposition and partnering.” They tend to work with minimalist, monolithic forms and then add a level of warmth. Their Eos mirror, for example, not only contrasts the harder edges of a geometric form with the warmth of fiber, but also explores the relationship between the functional (mirror) and the nonfunctional (silk/mohair). With the rectangular Ida mirror, the Blancs probe partnering and light and reflection in a different way, by removing the mirroring on the bottom half. “It’s a subtle gesture that adds warmth and a horizon line, so now you’re aware of your environmental space,” says Aja.
Similar principles are at work with the large-scale Ellipse table. “It’s monolithic, it’s formalistic, it’s steel, but at the same time, it’s an ellipse, and it’s blackened steel, which adds warmth,” says Ben. “Juxtaposition is happening in that design conversation.”
There’s also a modern, sculptural quality to many of their designs. With the statement-making Moon light, the image of the moon is lit from within and enclosed in glass. Hung from the ceiling or wall-mounted, it at once acts as light, sculpture, and image.
For materials, the Blancs skew classic: bronze, steel, marble, wood, and glass, and steer clear of applied color. “The color,” notes Ben “comes from the material.”
Sourcing plays an important role in the process, too. The fiber they incorporate in their designs (a silk/wool/mohair blend) is hand-spun and hand-painted in Japan. The designers pride themselves on working with various manufacturers to achieve the best results; in fact, not one piece is solely made in house. The components and materials are shipped to their studio, where they construct the final pieces.
This attention to detail coupled with a crystal-clear vision—“the objects we tend to gravitate toward have function, but not overriding function,” says Aja, “we don’t do dining tables or sofas, for example”—has brought the duo much success. They’re repped by galleries in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Manhattan. And their work has landed in various venues, from a pizza place in Austin, Texas, to a facial spa in Beverly Hills to a Victorian home in San Francisco. “We don’t like to be pigeon-holed,” says Ben. “It’s exciting for us to see how interior designers put our work in different spaces and are able to transform our pieces. Our work is like the jewelry in the room.”
And as for that piece Aja started sketching on the back deck with her little girls? It’s currently in the design phase, part of a new collection of fiber mirrors that will be released by the end of the year.
Ben & Aja Blanc Providence, (323) 510-7121 benandajablanc.com