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With an approach that combines the intuitive with the formally rigorous, Bay Area designer and artist Yvonne Mouser’s creative inquiries have generated an astonishingly varied body of work, from fine art to industrial design. This fall, selections of Mouser’s work, courtesy of the gallery Municipal Bond, will be exhibited at AHLEM’s newly opened atelier in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. The show is part of the AHLEM Artist Collective series celebrating creative community and connecting local makers and artists.

Tactile and playful but deeply rooted in craft techniques, Mouser’s work immediately resonated with Ahlem-Manai Platt—and the feeling was mutual. As Mouser explains, “We’re both motivated by the functionality of what we produce—the artistry of that being both the design and the craft, and the idea that something that’s everyday and so simple can still feel unique and special.”

Before the opening, we caught up with Yvonne Mouser in her Oakland studio to discuss inspiration, her dream design studio and the cycles of creativity.

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Photo by Hugo Ahlberg

How did you first get interested in woodworking, industrial design and sculpture?

I’ve always been a creative person. My grandfather was an artist. My aunt was an artist. My parents were artistic, but not practicing or professional. As a kid, I entertained myself by drawing or playing outside. I went to college studying sculpture—I'm drawn to three-dimensional thinking. At some point I wanted to make something more functional. That's when I decided to make furniture. So I went to California College of the Arts, and their furniture program had one foot in fine art and one foot in design. That worked really well for me. I continue to think that way.

Is most of the work that you do for galleries or is it commission-based?

It was 2009 when I started really doing design build, having clients who would say, “I need a table," and then I’d design something and build it for them. All along, I was also making my own art. The art was, for the longest time, just something that I did when I was invited to show a piece. I was more focused on having a business, because that was how I made a living, and it was much more practical to solve people's needs by making furniture, which I also really love. About a year ago I had my first solo show at Municipal Bonds in San Francisco. Now that I have a gallerist, there is a different kind of request: What are you going to do next? What's your next show going to be?"

What's your favorite material to work with?

Well, I definitely am rooted in the wood shop. That's where my technical training is, and that's the equipment that I have here. But you can apply those tools to a lot of different mediums. Right now I'm really excited about creating composites out of my own studio waste. I use a lot of paper in the design process. And even just right now—I'm making a rug, and all of the wool that I shear off, I'm like, why not put this back into something?

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Left photo by Hugo Ahlberg. Right photo by Michael Lyon, courtesy of Yvonne Mouser and Municipal Bonds.

Is there a material that you haven't worked with yet that you'd like to explore?

I don't know, maybe stone. I also kind of want to get into sound, some electronics. That's something I dipped my toes in when I was a student. Interactive lighting. Honestly, the list is really long.

What's a typical day like for you?

I have a live-work space in West Oakland, and basically I'm always working in it. Every day is different, depending on where I'm at in my projects. There's usually a handful that are active at the same time and I have to pick and choose where to push things forward. Usually if I'm doing any kind of deep thinking, or design work, or proposals, that'll happen in the morning. Then I'll move into the wood shop or into the studio to do the fabrication part of it. Right now, I'm making a suite of furniture—shelving, a day bed and a desk. That's what I'm focused on this week, except that I have this other fun little project that's not client-driven. Someone said, "I'm putting together this show about moss." Well, I love a prompt. So that's the treat. It's hard not to want to work on that all the time.

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Photo by Hugo Ahlberg

How would you describe your work to someone who is brand new to it?

It spans different mediums and it's functional. It's conceptual. I'd say that my design work is driven by concept and restraint and simplicity. I like to have fun. I like it to be playful. I want to be uncovering something new, either in the way that I'm making something, maybe a technique that comes out as a detail in the design, or it's more broad, an idea of something that feels new to me. And then my sculptural work is much more driven by idea and process.

Tell us about a recent sculptural work. How did it go from idea to reality?

Well, I have sitting next to me “Geode,” which is one of the pieces that Ahlem picked [for the San Francisco exhibition]. “Geode” is basically all my wood scraps. It's the little pieces of past projects that I've held on to for whatever reason, chopped up. All the little edges are sanded down, glued together. So I'm basically reforming it back into a larger mass. This project is the second in this way of thinking of wood. The first one was “Remnant,” where I made a giant wood rock out of these little bits of wood scraps, and then “Geode” was the next step from that. I made this giant hollow form that I sliced in half. I burnt the outside so that you can see the interior and exterior.

My father had a huge rock collection of all different kinds, really basic stones and minerals. And one of the things I did recently when we were cleaning up my dad's house is try and break open the geodes. Sometimes they're really beautiful inside, and sometimes they're kind of plain. It's a conversation with myself and my own memories. I am also open to whatever I might stumble across in that process of making it.

Where do you find inspiration?

Everywhere. When you have a creative practice, you're just tuned in. Tuned into the world, tuned into your environment, and also content, whether it's radio or books. Sometimes things just spark. Then you jot it down. When you're in the studio trying something out and you're like, "Oh, it's not going to work for this, but that would be kind of interesting," so you just tuck it in your mind. I think that the more time you are practicing some kind of creative pursuit, more of those ideas build up, and it snowballs. So it feels endless, the inspiration.

How does your approach vary between working on abstract pieces to practical objects?

It depends on the project, but there's always a starting point. I'd say for the more practical things, it usually is, "What is this need that someone needs met? What's the space like? What's the interior like? Do we want it to fit in with that or stand out?"

There's a lot of very reality-driven elements of, "Well, a shelf needs to be this deep and can only be this high," and then it's a matter of playing, thinking through the important elements, the formal elements, the structural elements. Where is there room to have an interesting connection point that becomes a detail? So I guess the difference is there's still a little bit of wandering that I let into the process, but it's a little bit more focused on the end piece.

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Photos by Michael Lyon. Courtesy of Yvonne Mouser and Municipal Bonds.

There must be times when you're not feeling as creatively energized or inspired. What do you do to get out of that funk?

One of the things is realizing that that's part of the process too. You can't be putting stuff out constantly. You have to be feeding yourself. I do need that time to rest and restore. That, I think, is something I've come to appreciate more recently. I'm like, "Don't be so hard on yourself. This is a part of the cycle." But I think that it is important to think of it as a practice. It's something that you do regularly, you show up to, and push things a little bit forward.

Is there a piece that you're most proud of?

The first piece that comes to mind is one that was significant in my creative evolution. This was a sculpture that I made. It's a table and chair designed and built in a way that the table itself is delaminating at one end, facing a single chair that is charred along with the table’s end. It looks like the scene of some event that was very powerful and destructive. As sculpture, furniture has a way of standing in for a person because we fill in the space of an empty chair, for example. The reason that piece comes to mind is it was coming from a very internal place. It was the expression of something that I felt, an instance where I had something in my mind and I made that. 

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Photo by Hugo Ahlberg

You’ve talked about being influenced by time and the processes of the natural world. What excites you about these things? 

I'm fascinated by our perceptions of time and the way they shift. Sometimes when you look back on a day that was really fun and full of joy, it just flew by. Or when there's an accident or something happens and it really stretches out the seconds, impossibly long. And also the fact that change is inevitable and it's happening all the time. Even our memories shift when we recall them. Part of it is about the permanence of life, and our desire to hold on to moments to keep them the same, even though that's impossible. These days, in our capitalist system, we're always having to do more and everything takes time, and you want to speed up time, and you're running out of time, and making time for things, and losing time. It's a complicated relationship. And even thinking about living our lives on a planet that's been evolving for billions of years, we are just this tiny little blip. Kind of hard to wrap your mind around.

What's been the most challenging part of your career so far as an artist?

The business part of it. Running a studio and being the sole person that does all parts of the business. It's getting the clients and doing the accounting and making the proposals, and doing the actual design work. The challenge is doing it all. You just learn as you go. I'm still figuring it out.

What are you most excited about right now? What’s your dream project?

I’m very close to starting my first public art sculpture, which has been very exciting because it's a different scale and a different presentation. It has a 30-year minimum commitment of being in this space, and it's going to be in Oakland. So that's fun. And I have some collaborations that are furniture and more textile driven. I dream of having a little design studio where I'm working with people who have different backgrounds and skills, and it's still functional, and it's still design and art. That’s my fantasy.

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Photo by Hugo Ahlberg