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Sculpting Life: An Interview with Designer Brian K. Ellison

The sounds of saws and a long splattering of sawdust meet me as I enter Brian’s warehouse. Inside, it’s surprisingly bright and expectantly loud. I make my way to the back where Brian is reviewing designs, covered in dust, some dotting his goatee. Brian is a tall, buffed guy with deep experience in the martial arts, so it is sometimes surprising to have to ‘lean-in’ to hear him.

Since microphones and airborne particles don’t mix, so we return to the front office where I learn new layers of his life: he dropped out of college the first time around and helped build an aids hospice in South Africa after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. He eventually received his Bachelor’s degree in Architecture and began a lucrative professional career building affordable and mixed-income housing throughout Chicago. I first encountered Brian when he was a Vice President of Construction after I moved here about 15 years ago. Now, my experience of him is as a busy entrepreneur building his art practice. He juggles staff questions, phone calls, and early arriving clients all while sharing insights on why he decided to pursue his passion of woodworking.

Sheila Lewis: What is BKE Designs and when did you decide to make furniture making your art practice?

Brian K. Ellison: BKE Designs is a custom furniture and product design firm located in a 10,000 S.F. wood-working warehouse on the near west side of Chicago. I’ve always been a tinkerer and maker. While I worked in the corporate world I maintained a small woodshop in my basement, designing and fabricating custom furniture mostly for myself and a few clients since the early 2000s. I have a Bachelor of Architecture degree, so I’ve always been interested in the world of design.

SL: When did you decide to focus on your art practice and design firm full-time?

BKE: I decided to do this after a series of life changes in the early 2000s. In 2006 I quit my job and relocated to Amsterdam for two years by participating in a program under the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty — which is an agreement that encourages cross-cultural entrepreneurship between the two countries. While there I partnered with Dutch designer Faas Van Dijk and got the chance to work on a really nice, chic bed and breakfast called La Remise.

SL: Tell me a little about the furniture you selected for Connect Hyde Park.

BKE: I like to create functional art. I sometimes see my furniture as sculptures. Many of my pieces have many facets. The two art pieces I selected for Connect Hyde Park are thickly padded are multi-sided, textured and toned. I call them stools, but they really are side seating that can be enjoyed in any room.

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Brian K. Ellison, a portrait by Tony Smith. Image courtesy of the artist.

SL: How long does it take to make a custom furniture piece?

BKE: That’s relative. When I was on the television show Framework we made a piece in 24 hours. A lot of the pieces I made on the show in a normal pace would take two to three weeks or even longer. The amount of time put into a project is relative to the piece.

SL: Tell me more about the television show.

BKE: SPIKE TV’s reality television show Framework was a competition show similar to America’s Top Chef where you receive a challenge to design and make a piece of furniture in twenty-four hours. The judges pick the best and worst artists, and the worst gets eliminated. It was a 10-episode season that aired in 2015 about furniture makers. There were thirteen contestants on the show from all over the country and I ended up being able to survive eight of the ten episodes.

SL: What is your biggest takeaway from being on Framework?

BKE: The biggest takeaway was the twelve other incredible talents that were on the show with me. Everyone was madly brilliant and creative in their own unique way. For me, it was good to be in an environment of creatives like me where I am able to challenge myself and be around people I can learn and even grow with.

SL: What influences your creativity?

BKE: Everything around me influences my creativity with my furniture. When I engage with a client, I always make it a habit to become familiar with the client’s personality and the space that the piece will reside in. It helps me create a stronger relationship between what they need and the solution I come up with. Many times when I’m out, I look at different things and solutions. The things I engage with are influences, which can sometimes be literal and sometimes subtle. My influence is pretty much everyday life, not specific things. I try to keep life as interesting as possible by trying to stay on the art scene and in creative environments.

SL: What creative environments are you apart of?

BKE: In addition to designing and making furniture, I have a relationship with the Chicago Burning Man community, which is a collective of multi-disciplined artists [who work in] performance art, sculpture, and print work. It’s very stimulating from a creative sense since everyone involved is pretty much a creator on many different levels.

SL: What type of performance art?

BKE: I do a practice that’s called Poi, which was created in New Zealand. It is basically a fire performance art that involves two balls attached to chains about eighteen inches long. The balls are dipped in lamp oil then dipped in fire. Then you swing it around your head and body and use different techniques to form different types of cool patterns and dance with it. It’s a dancing art.

SL: How did you learn Poi?

BKE: I learned when I first engaged with the Burning Man community close to fifteen years ago. I have a heavy background in the martial arts and a lot of things involved in the practice of Poi are similar to martial arts.

SL: How long did it take to learn fire dancing before you felt comfortable performing in public?

BKE: I’m still learning and it’s different for everyone. Maybe four months after I started practicing it I did my first burn. There’s an event that is now sanctioned by the Chicago Park District called the Full Moon Jam. It’s usually held monthly on or around the full moon from April through October at Foster Beach. I also get together with people in the community and we just light up and jam. Sometimes I do it alone. It’s sporadic and not a regular thing. I also dance with my wife who has been doing Middle Eastern dancing for about 15 years; most people refer to it as belly dancing. We occasionally are hired to perform together, or we do it to share ourselves with an audience.

SL: Outside of making furniture and Poi, how do you spend your time?

BKE: I am now learning to play a metal pan drum. The guy who makes them is also a part of the Burning Man community. He made my first drum about a year ago, and we get together with others to have little jam sessions. I play a lot of poker, too. And, yes, I win! But most of my time is spent here at the shop and it has a lot to do with me enjoying what I do.

Learn more about Brian K. Ellison’s work at bkedesigns.com.


sheilalewis_headshot_jacketonSheila Lewis is an arts, business and multimedia producer in Chicago. She’s a strategist who helps artists, creatives, entrepreneurs and global brands transform ideas into meaningful stories to drive financial success. She currently designs and delivers learning experiences to effectively reach, serve and engage niche audiences. Video is her vice: she’s been an Executive Producer in over 100 experiential campaigns developing video, podcasts, webisodes and digital content for companies like Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s and General Motors. A foodie that hails from New Jersey, in a former life she worked in finance and photography was her first creative love.