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Catching Up with Kirsten Grigor (’01 B.F.A. Drawing and Painting)

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Furniture and drawings by Kirsten Grigor

Interview by Professor Emerita Micaela Amateau Amato

Kirsten Grigor graduated with her B.F.A. in Drawing and Painting and minor in Art History in 2001. We worked together briefly, but I was always impressed by her enigmatic figurative imagery, and her serious focus and concentration. Eighteen years later she continues to make beautifully articulated, densely patterned pen and ink drawings, reminiscent of beehives, honeycombs, or meditative cellular structures. Kirsten is also a custom furniture maker of built-in geometric sculptural forms with repeated trestles and arches in the style of the Arts and Crafts movement, an early precursor to modernist minimalism. 

After graduating from Penn State, Kirsten worked in New York City as a graphics consultant, designing multimedia presentations for a high-powered litigation firm. When her husband’s job relocated them to Washington, D.C., she continued as a freelance graphic consultant for about a year, and then decided to explore her athletic interests developed as a swimmer for Penn State. She joined a triathlon training company and worked with athletes on swim technique. She was also the head swim coach at a private high school in Alexandria.

In 2008, her focus turned to learning carpentry so she could master furniture building and built-ins to remedy the outdated structure and décor of a 1948 house in Arlington that she had purchased. She moved back to State College with her husband and two daughters in 2014, and started KLG Custom, an art and furniture business, a year later.

The following is part of a conversation we had in late April 2019.

Kirsten, I’d love to hear you describe the furniture you make. Directly and indirectly, have you been engineering and organizing the space/time/energy of people’s lives? 
I am very drawn to the classic and timeless styles of the Shaker and Arts and Crafts movements. I build in that style but updated for today’s way of life. My main focus when designing furniture or built-ins is organization and order. The form tends to follow the function in that sense and my furniture is very simple and with clean lines. Often there are open shelves to display featured items and doors and drawers for storage. I have been building a lot of storage cubbies for people lately, with open storage and hooks for backpacks, jackets, etc. I think people yearn for organization, everything in its place, and that’s what I hope to provide with the custom projects I create. 

When did you begin building furniture, and how is it related to other things you make and other aspects of your life?
When I was a kid I loved watching the PBS Sunday line-up of New Yankee Workshop, Hometime, and This Old House. I had my first taste of woodworking in junior high school and, in my senior year of high school, I took a beginning wood shop class. That was the extent of any “formal” woodworking training. When I bought my first single family home in 2008 and I was ready to upgrade from hand-me-down and Ikea furniture, I had a very hard time finding items in a style I liked that were also high quality and affordable. So I started building my own. Many magazines, books, YouTube videos, and tool purchases later, I was making my own items and people started asking me to make things for them. I have always been a maker (I have the friendship bracelets from the ’80s, the beaded jewelry from the ’90s, the paintings from the 2000s, and now the furniture to prove it!). I have been very fortunate in my life that I have fallen into stages of varied and interesting careers from consulting to swim coaching and now making and, without a doubt, making furniture for people has been the best stage so far because it really combines what I love—solving problems in beautiful ways! 

How did your training as a visual artist at Penn State studying painting, ceramics, metals, and book making (and even your lifelong practice as a competitive swimmer) contribute to the work you make now?
I have always been interested in a variety of subjects. Although I received my B.F.A. in Drawing and Painting, I took as many other art classes as I could. Metalwork taught me how to take an imagined item to design and ultimately to a 3D piece. It also took away any apprehension of torches, melting metal, tools, etc. As for ceramics, my least favorite part was the glazing stage, because it can be so unpredictable. I find the same thing in woodworking. However, the meditative quality of throwing a pot and then having a functional piece of art is the same satisfying feeling I get from creating a functional structure out of a stack of wood. Book making taught me to think outside the obvious materials; books and bindings can go far beyond paper and thread. Through all of my art classes and my background in making, I learned the importance of craftsmanship and attention to detail. Swimming taught me time management, hard work, and using my body to do hard work. I also think involvement in sport at any level is essential for developing a person in so many ways. It’s hard to put into words what I gained socially from swimming and in terms of the lifelong friendships it created. 

What are the connections between the history of architecture and design that you are drawn to, and the work you make? How would you describe your sensibility? 
My dad is from Scotland and when I was young (about 8 years old), we visited one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s houses in Glasgow. An architect and artist, he designed everything in the house (including furniture, textiles, and decor) to function as one beautiful integrated piece of art. His aesthetic is light in color and minimal with long lines and rectilinear shapes. He often collaborated with his wife, Margaret MacDonald, and integrated her flowing and organic designs into their work. From a young age I was completely drawn to their aesthetic and the idea of creating one’s own space completely from the architecture all the way up to the furniture and art. That really resonates with me and inspires the work I make. As for connections on “this side of the pond”: Gustav Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Arts and Crafts movement in general are also inspirations. Again, it’s the idea of simple form and function with the integration of design and craftsmanship throughout the space. I think it’s sad that too often attention to classic, simple beauty and function is lacking in contemporary houses. 

What do you think undergraduate students need in their curriculum to help them make decisions about their futures and be more practically and professionally prepared once they leave SoVA and Penn State?
I think an artist-specific business and marketing class would be extremely helpful. After I got my B.F.A., I moved to New York City to become a famous gallery artist. I thought that was the logical next step. Obviously that was not realistic for me or most other people coming out of any art program. It would be helpful for students to learn about the varied jobs available to creative people. Additionally, if one does want to go the route of working artist, what are the options beyond gallery artist? How do you come up with a business plan or incorporate your business? How do festivals work? Where do you find information on them? How do you number prints of originals? How do you price your work? Etsy has opened a huge door for connecting artists with buyers. It would be great to have a class on how to market yourself online on platforms such as Etsy. And, if after all of that, you still want to be a famous New York City gallery artist, what are the steps to take? How do you approach the gallery? Maybe these things are taught now. I’m pretty sure they were taught to M.F.A. students in my day, but I think this information is very important for undergrads as well. 

Tell me about the new State College High School curriculum and how you believe it better prepares students for their future?
The new high school is amazing! I took a tour recently and I am excited for the students who are going through State High now. There are hydroponics classes, a kitchen and bakery where students can cook for the cafeteria, a mechanic shop with car lifts, a giant wood shop, architecture and drafting classes—the list goes on. I think high school is a chance to try different things and with all the opportunities currently offered there is no excuse for any State High student to have a study hall or free period.

You mentioned you believe many high school students should have the opportunity/option of working and traveling after graduation, before determining how and what comes next. Can you talk about that?
I think a “gap year” would be very beneficial to most students. I think the idea of expecting kids to figure out what they want to be when they “grow up” without any real life experience is not the best way of going about education. Apprenticeships, work experience, or a national service requirement would allow young adults to experience life a bit before settling in and deciding what direction they want their education to take them. Ultimately the more varied your experiences are, the more likely you are to fall into something you never knew existed. I think that’s how to keep life interesting, invigorating, and exciting! I am all about a once-a-decade reinvention! So maybe it’s never too late to take that gap year?!   Instagram @klgcustom   Facebook /klgcustom