Based in Providence, RI, Ben & Aja Blanc produce limited-edition furniture, lighting, and objects handcrafted in the U.S.A.
Ben Blanc arrived in Providence a little over a decade ago to get his Master of Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design. Like many RISD graduates, the Illinois-born designer stuck around after graduation.
“In Providence, you can explore creative boundaries without feeling that you’re under a microscope,” he says. “Everyone’s pretty respectful here. It’s what separates Providence from places like New York.”
Blanc’s work inhabits the margins between design and art. For The Exchange, a 2012 gallery show, he constructed 200 baseball-sized objects out of dyed Douglas fir. Smooth with irregular angled edges, the black pieces resemble lumps of coal. One, and only one, contained a gold nugget worth roughly $1,300. Gallery visitors, unable to tell which piece had the gold inside, were allowed to buy the objects for $30 each. When each buyer removed his or her purchase from the gallery, Blanc replaced it with a large, black wooden X.
Providence is a great city for anyone working in metal, according to Blanc. “Gorham was such a huge player here,” he says, referring to the silver company founded in Providence in 1831. “And there are many small shops still in operation here doing powder coating, anodizing, lost-wax casting, [and] metal spinning.”
Blanc works in an old single-story brick building that also houses a screen-printing studio, a florist, and a manufacturer of luxury leather goods. He designed oak and leather booths for New Rivers, one of Providence’s most celebrated restaurants, as well as walnut benches for the recently expanded Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut.
Late last year, he began a formal collaboration with his wife, Aja, and the two are now partners in a furniture firm that specializes in minimalist, limited-edition furniture, lighting, and objects. The pair’s recent offerings include a two-piece, moon-shaped coffee table made of white oak and Vermont white marble, and a bronze apatosaurus. “It’s really fun to sculpt dinosaurs,” Ben says, by way of explanation.
In May, Ben and Aja debuted a new series at Site Unseen OFFSITE in conjunction with NYCxDesign, New York City’s annual weeklong celebration of design. Aja’s influence is immediately evident in the collection, which focuses on lunar objects and “cultish wuwu,” as she laughingly phrases it. The collection includes spun brass planters, a coil rug, and a half-moon mirror whose bottom half is composed of silk mohair and wool.
Ben sources many materials locally and works with several of the region’s small manufacturing shops for finishing work. “I’m working with wood, stone, and metal,” he says. “Honest materials that the people have some connection to.”
This article originally appeared in our September 2015 Print issue.