This week, Styylish had the privilege to chat with Michael Mittelman about his creative process, influences, and passion for marrying digital and analog modes of making.
If you find yourself lucky enough to ask him about his creative process, you’d find the start of many of Mittelman’s ideas around 2am, turning over in his head as he struggles to sleep. But make no mistake, these remarkable furniture pieces aren’t created overnight. Mittelman’s unique blend of technology and craft has
been refined over more than 25 years of tireless experimentation and exploration.
Before a Career in Furniture: Virtual Reality
25 years ago, Mittelman was already mixing virtual reality with analog forms–making physical models of his virtual designs, then draping cloth over them to explore the interaction and flow of the fabric over digital creations. He enjoyed creating gravity and form in physical space, providing something that VR was unable to do.
Mittelman’s VR practice began with interactive art experiences, where users would enter a virtual reality to interface with sculpture in a virtual space. In these virtual worlds, Mittelman included forms that couldn’t fully exist VR–objects draped, wrapped, and swaddled in cloths and plastic wrap. These materials and forms have no place in the virtual world, but they make the virtual environment relate to our physical reality.
After experience in VR installations, Mittelman’s introduction to wood proved a catalyst for his creative practice. Once he discovered the magnetism of wood as a medium, and of digital processes to interface with it, he felt like he’d found his artistic home. “I found wood to have some properties I’d been looking for for 25 years, and once I realized that, it has stuck. This is where I was meant to be.”
Technology as a Tool
In conversation this January 2023, Mittelman expressed gratitude for technological developments that allow him to preview many designs while saving him time and providing flexibility for design changes. “What I’ve done is I have paired the latest machining technology with very very very old woodworking processes.” Mittelman shared that he crafts the way a woodworker would have in the late 19th century, with a series of bits, or planes, that create different profiles in the wood. “By combining different profiles, I can get the form that I want.”
Mid-Century Modern Gets a Personal Twist
Michael Mittelman creates marvelous works of simple sophistication born from a foundation of mid-century austerity of form. “I’m a child of mid-century modern furniture. That’s what I have in my home–when it isn’t my own work–and that’s what I grew up with. It’s fun for me to take those forms and volumes that are so classic, and apply a completely different texture to it, while still getting that cleanness because of the math involved in the texturing.”
In the early phases of experimenting with wood, Mittelman built a vocabulary of techniques and approaches to using technology to morph his designs. Now he considers his method to be dependent on this vocabulary–combining methods in endless permutations to craft his language. “This might be a slow crossfade between a dark wood and a light wood, or contrasting a continuous groove of wood with mixed, almost patchwork pieces, or finding ways of expressing transparency in the material by layering and carving through one wood into another.
Art Nouveau Inspiration Strikes In Paris
The Art Nouveau collection at the Musée d’Orsay was an incredibly influential part of Mittelman’s development as an artist. He cites the elegant balance of complex detailing and simplicity of form as a revelation. “It was one of my favorite things to see anytime I was in Paris.”
At the age of 10, he was struck after encountering this collection for the first time. Countless return trips to Paris since, Mittelman has continued to never visit Paris without visiting the collection–A passion he has long hoped to pass down the appreciation to his daughter. “Two years ago, my mom took my daughter to Paris, they went to the Musée d’Orsay, and never went to the Art Nouveau collection.” The disappointment in his voice was palpable. “I’m still mad.”
Contemporary Sculpture Meets Vintage Architecture
In Paris, you’ll find another influence that has continued to be a source of inspiration for Mittelman. The sculptural grid pictured below is titled Les Deux Plateaux, located in the courtyard of the Palais Royal.
This spacious and hypnotizing set of black and white columns by Daniel Buren has become a landmark of modern installation through its striking yet elegant contrast to the Palais. Mittelman appreciates that these two things don’t have to be in conflict. Since visiting this courtyard for the first time, he says he has spent hours and months thinking about this space. “You can put something contemporary with something very old, and they can work together.”
Michael Mittelman on Designing Your Home
“Going through a building is a series of experiences of different spaces, and [transitions]…from one space to the next.” Consider transitions in space for your own home. Note especially the shifting qualities as you change from space to space, and how spaces relate to each other. Mittelman challenges himself to ask: “Where are you coming from, and where are you going to? What are you going to see when you walk in? What’s your sight line going to land on?
An Enthusiastic Collaborator
Most of all, Mittelman relishes the process of working with clients on custom designs. “All the work done with a client is better for their input”. He
attributes the success of these designs to the collaboration he is able to facilitate with homeowners. Mittelman can incorporate ongoing feedback by implementing his technological tools and imaging, making others an active part of moving designs forward and creating his next exciting piece.
You can always count on Michael Mittelman to provide you with incredibly accurate renderings of proposed custom work. Apart from the specific wood grain present in the final product, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the rendering and the result. Clients are able to give feedback at a point where the feedback costs nothing. “Technology, for me, is an area that allows broad exploration and fast iteration. It is there to rapidly iterate the design process, and also, give really accurate previews of the work to clients.”
Michael Mittelman’s Intersections of Beauty
Mittelman’s work occupies a curated intersection of art and technology. He highlights the beauty of simplicity and involves thoughtful details in every step. He manages to embrace the tools of modernity while cleaving to traditional techniques. As an enthusiastic observer and imaginative creator, Mittelman is inspired by his past, and endlessly appreciative of the ability to keep exploring.
Take a lesson from him and soak in inspiration for your own space wherever you can. You may even find yourself scrolling through Styylish. Where better to be struck with a vision at 2am.