Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt and actor Terry Crews talk design at ICFF

May 24, 2017

 From left: Rima Suqi, Jerry Helling, Tift Merritt and Terry Crews during ICFF Talks at New York's Javits Center.

 

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Tift Merritt and actor Terry Crews showed how design can come from outside traditional creators at an IFF Talks conversation Sunday afternoon at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) at New York's Javits Center.

 

Journalist Rima Suqi moderated the talk, which centered on the relationship between the various creative disciplines and design and also included Jerry Helling, the creative director of Bernhardt Design. Both Merritt and Crews have product on display at Bernhardt Design's expansive exhibit.

 

"Nothing is more inspiring than passionate people," stated Helling. "That's why we end up working with the unexpected--because they're so passionate about what they do."

 

But Helling himself expressed passion for both Merritt and Crews. In fact, he was just a big fan of Merritt when he approached her 15 years ago to star in a Bernhardt ad. They became friends, and she eventually showed him the vintage ribbons and trim that she had collected out of a "textile addiction," she said.

 

While touring, Merritt would visit antique and vintage stores in search of things to inspire album covers.

 

"I can't carry chairs and tables, but I can carry textiles," she said. "I happened on ribbons with metal in them, and friends started giving me ribbons and I sought them on the Internet. I love the beauty and usability of textiles."

 

 Guitar straps and textiles made from Tift Merritt's ribbon collection on display at ICFF.

 

Ribbon-abundant after getting off the road, Merritt obtained leather and made guitar straps with them—many on display at Bernhardt Design's exhibit space.

 

"People are always looking for inspiration in textiles," noted Helling, "and I've never seen as much inspiration as I got from Tift."

 

Indeed, Merritt designed 24 upholstery fabrics for Bernhardt, based on her ribbon collection, in two weeks.

 

Helling has only known Crews for a year, but the former pro football linebacker-turned-actor (The Expendables, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is represented at ICFF by several furniture designs for Bernhardt. But the Flint, Michigan native attended the state's Interlochen Center for the Arts on a scholarship, and said that he "never saw the line of demarcation" between athletics and arts.

 

In fact, Crews noted that he's always been an artist, either painting or drawing and eventually progressing into animation voice-over and acting. He choked up as he quoted his mother, who died two years ago: "'Never forget you're an artist. This is what you are. All the acting and everything—you're an artist'—and I know she's proud of me. I just went another route. I always say I got kicked out into my destiny!"

 

 Terry Crews' furniture at ICFF.

 

Crews recognized that his destiny as a furniture designer at Bernhardt was to "create something new." His pieces on display at ICFF include a sofa with ends resembling "the wings of a bird that protect you and hold you," and "small, thin legs that mimic bird legs" such that you feel like "you're actually flying."

 

His "lily pad" chair and ottoman, he said, were based on the river Nile, with the former piece—basically a swivel chair atop a table—a nod to the Egyptian sky god Horus.

 

"He's always depicted sitting on top of a Blue Nile water lily," Crews said of Horus. "You sit on the 'lily pad' and you're like a god."

 

Crews' product line for Bernhardt also includes "float tables," manifesting his "vision of pebbles in the Nile."

 

"I wanted the comfortable feeling of wading in a river with water up to your shin," he said, "so the tables have the sensation of floating, of a god in ancient Egypt sitting at the Nile. And they seem like they were shaped by water over thousands of years—natural and organic. They appear like they're floating."

 

As for the creative process relating to design, Merritt, noting that songwriting required "spending time alone with your materials and trusting your instincts, instruments, and your stories knocking around inside of you," said that textile design had "an arc like any other creative process," with a beginning where "you doubt everything and see where you're failing, and the specific problems that need to be solved--and then you let go."

 

Crews' wife is also a songwriter.

 

"I've seen her go through it. Every medium and artist, it's all the same," he said, then approached the topic of creativity from his experience as a football player.

 

"In America, we're taught that competition is good, but competition is very, very bad," he said, "because we're dealing with what already exists and trying to be better than what's already here. I learned that the direct opposite of competition is creativity: There's no pressure, because you're not trying to be better than the other guy--like in the NFL, where in the end both of you are broken and beat, and they're on to the next guys. But it's our own world and planet when we create—our own space and atmosphere."

 

Bernhardt Designs, as Helling noted, strongly supports young designers. He lauded Crews for his support of young designers, too, prompting Crews, who lives in Pasadena, to relate his mentoring of Ini Archibong, who went to the ArtCenter College of Design there.

 

"We'd sit and talk for hours about art and design," recalled Crews. "I had to help him and give him his shot."

 

Having become an "immensely successful" actor, Crews offered to support Archibong financially so long as he agreed to two rules: Crews would have no involvement in Archibong's work, and that his work had to be as creative as possible "since a lot of young designers are forced to do what the boss wants."

 

"'This is your dream,' I told him--and I spent crazy money!" said Crews, choking up once again. "But I told my wife, 'I just have to do it.' It's so important that you have somebody believe in you! Somewhere someone has to take a bit of that dream and say, 'You can do it!'--and I knew I had to be that guy for Ini, and now to see him world renowned…but it wasn't me. It was all him, but I was doing my part--what I needed to do. And when you do that, you meet Jerry Helling, and you get your opportunity because you took a chance on someone else."

 

"It's what I mean about the competition thing being false," Crews concluded. "There's enough for everyone. Enough for all of us."

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