Unique Talent: Paul Benson

Paul Benson in his workshop (Photo: Meg Messina)

Welcome to my second installment of “Unique Talent”.  I have been an admirer of Paul Benson’s work for quite some time, long before he so graciously agreed to create a bar cabinet for my  “The Art of the Table” installation at Gump’s, which was stunning and an important part of the overall design.  Paul is a genuine artist, and while insanely talented he is most humble and charming and gets you wrapped up in his passion for great design. Expertly using old-world tools and techniques he is able to create something entirely new and exceptional. Every piece, big or small, is one-of-a-kind, made by Paul’s own hands with vintage machinery, honoring a legacy of real craftsmanship.  From his amazingly detailed one-of-a-kind mirrors, sold at Gump’s, to his limited editions of furniture and unique commissions, Paul expresses a very unique viewpoint amongst his peers.  A graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and an expert with painstaking attention to detail (Jay Jeffers told me how Paul spent a tremendous amount of time in perfecting the casters on the bar cart he made for Jay’s bedroom at the Elle Decor Showhouse) he pairs various metals in different textures and finishes with brilliant colors, creating spectacular showpieces that become a focal point in every room they inhabit.

Bar cart for Jay Jeffers’ master bedroom at the Elle Decor Showhouse in San Francisco
(Photo: Matthew Millman)

Bar cart (Photo: Paul Benson)

Caster of bar cart (Photo: Paul Benson)

I was really excited when I learned that Paul collaborated with Steven Miller on a table installation for DIFFA’s Dining by Design, a charity very close to my heart.  We looked down from our own vignette at the delicate birdcage fashioned by Paul, containing a wonderful exotic bird portrayed by local dancer and performer Fauxnique while Steven and Paul represented “exotic bird handlers” dressed in khaki overalls.  Their humor and execution created one of my favorite “tables” at the event.

Installation by Paul Benson and Steven Miller at DIFFA’s Dining by Design 2010 (Photo: Paul Benson)
I wanted to learn more about Paul, his work and his passions.  Please join me for a look into Paul’s world:

Where do you find your  inspiration for your pieces and what influences your style?
My designs have always had their start in the studio.  My primary inspiration has always been the process of working with the materials.  I use antique machines, which are completely operated by hand.  These machines require an intimate relationship with the operator, constant fussing, adjusting, oiling and sharpening.  I listen to the sound of the machining, the shape of the metal shavings coming off of the cutter, all of which are clues to the quality of the finish being created.  Sometimes the sound changes because the machine has fallen out of adjustment (yet again), and an unintended texture or pattern is created.

If it is interesting, I will then make a small sample of it, and I will carry it around with me, sometimes for weeks or months.  When I take my two boys on a walk to town, I bring my sample.  While I am walking I am always looking at everything around me, and if there is something inspiring, I am seeing it along with my sample in my mind.  It may be a repeating pattern of a storm drain grate, the lacquer and chrome combination on a vintage car, or the texture on seedpods from a tree in the park.  I return to the studio and make more samples, then I carry those around and visualize some more.  My drawings usually come last.  One of my art professors used to say, “the work informs itself,” and this has held true for me.  My style is an accumulation of this process, tempered by the limitations of my equipment.

Sample with different metals and textures (Photo: Paul Benson)

Four poster bed for Distant Origin’s “Signature Collection”(Photo: Paul Benson)

What is your best design memory?
I have very fond memories of visiting my grand cousin Ross Benson’s ranch house when I was growing up.  He was a pear farmer who had an undying interest in good design, craft, and photography.  He had a mid-century style home with an interior made completely out of teak, copper, and polished pigmented concrete.  I started going to that house as a baby and continued visiting the property until I was a young adult.  I came to the realization when I was about 12 years old that design could create a strong sense of “place,” and transform a house into a home.  My dad would buy me architecture and art magazines, and I loved drawing house plans and designs.

Workers putting in stepping stones for the future garden of Ross Benson’s house (Photo: Ross Benson)

When I first started my business I was living on my great grandfather’s neighboring ranch while taking care of Ross.  He was in his 80s at the time.  I had two walnut orchards on my own, and I would alternate from pruning and driving a tractor to designing and creating furniture.  My wife Kristine worked with me in the studio running the machines and in the orchards as well.  Ross and my father would give aesthetic and technical input on my designs and my farming!  Though Ross has passed away my business is still very much a family affair: my wife, my father and my two boys are often in the studio working with me (working is a loose term when it comes to the boys!)

Drawing of bar console for ADG (Drawing: courtesy of Paul Benson)

Who are your design idols?
I became interested in design and metalworking at an early age because of my fascination with hand built cars.  My father had an exotic car company for a while, and he took me to the Concours d’Elegance car show in Pebble Beach every year when I was growing up.  These vintage cars had elegant one-of-a-kind aluminum or steel bodies, created completely by hand and engines machined with an incredible eye for aesthetics.  The car designers/coach builders who have influenced my work are Figoni & Falaschi, Saoutchik, Gabriel Voisin, Carrozzeria Touring, Vignale, Voll & Ruhrbeck, and Scaglietti.

1939 Bugatti 57C Cabriolet by Voll & Ruhrbeck (Photo: courtesy of bugattipage.com)

One-of-a-kind mirrors at Gump’s (Photo: Paul Benson)

Interior of Voisin Cabriolet (Photo: L. Marvin)

“Sunburst” Dresser for Distant Origin’s “Signature Collection” (Photo: Paul Benson)

1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Touring Spider (Photo: Richard Owen of supercars.net)

Bar cabinet for Distant Origin’s “Signature Collection” (Photo: Paul Benson)

1936 Delahaye 135 Competition Figoni & Falaschi Coupe (Photo: El Caganer)

“Rippled” Chest of Drawers for Distant Origin’s “Signature Collection”(Photo: Paul Benson)

1954 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith by Vignale (Photo: courtesy of conceptcarz.com)

Hervé van der Straeten is an inspiration for me.  I love his focus on old world craftsmanship in his work, and I find his inventiveness, especially in his lighting design, to be very inspiring.  I also am entranced by Steven Gambrel’s interiors.  I love his attention to scale, color and texture.

“Signature Collection” bar cabinet in a Manhattan apartment designed by Steven Gambrel
(Photo: courtesy of Steven Gambrel)

What was your favorite commission?
It would have to be a yellow custom console for Jay Jeffers’s room at the MetHome Modern By Design Showhouse in 2009.  I love opportunities for creating visual rhythm in a piece.  The length of the console allowed for a long series of repeated shapes in the door frames, braces and legs, and the leading edge of the casework is thin, which allows eight door frames to be very prominent.

Console for Jay Jeffers’ family room at the “Modern by Design” showhouse in San Francisco
(Photo: Matthew Millman)

What are some of your obsessions?
I am obsessed with shopping locally, slow food, and my triathlon training.  I believe in supporting local producers and farmers whenever possible.  I want to know the people who are intimately involved with creating and growing what I buy.  I am fortunate to be able to walk to town and buy my cheese directly from the cheese maker, my bread from the baker, my meat, honey and vegetables directly from the farmers.  Slowing down enough to focus on these relationships keeps me grounded in my community and gives me endless enjoyment.

Last year my wife and I lead a group of parents in a triathlon fundraiser for our son’s Waldorf inspired charter school.  We did the sprint length triathlon at the Pacific Grove Triathlon last September, and I look forward to completing a few more this year.  Often times I do my cycling training on my way to and from my studio, and I am seeing my training as a lifestyle choice.

Chest of Drawers for Distant Origin’s “Signature Collection” (Photo: Paul Benson)

Pendant (Photo: Paul Benson)

Floor lamp for Brian Dittmar’s study at the 2010 San Francisco Decorator Showcase
(Photo: David Duncan Livingston)

Clock for Brian Dittmar’s study at the 2010 San Francisco Decorator Showcase
(Photo: Emily Payne)

What are your biggest dreams?
I want to eventually become a college professor.  I believe in the importance and power of a good education.  My grandfather was a college professor, and I think it was his example that originally got me thinking about teaching.  My wife and both received bachelor degrees in Fine Arts from the Art Institute, and I remember that the focused dialog, the debate, and the exchange of ideas with my teachers were inspiring and challenging for me.  I recall thinking at the time that I could not imagine ever leaving that kind of campus community.  It has always been my intent to some day return to that environment as a teacher and complete the circle.

Bar cabinet designed for ADG for “The Art of the Table” at Gump’s (Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey)

Paul just went up another notch in my book, as I feel that teaching is one of the noblest professions.  One of my dreams is to own a piece by Paul Benson myself. Look out for his sophisticated and timeless designs at De Sousa Hughes in San Francisco and at Distant Origin in New York.  Or better yet, give him a jingle and have him design and build a bespoke heirloom for you.  I am sure Ettore Bugatti would were he still alive.


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