In the art-design duo’s studio, references to bodies and buildings meet unexpected material experimentation

For the past 12 years, Kristen Wentrcek and Andrew Zebulon have operated an exploratory, indefinable studio practice together. Their collaborative process might result in sofas or settees or lamps, or could take the form of deconstructed lawn chairs, vacuum-packed sculptures, or wax-dipped rabbits’ feet. Fluidly shifting between art and design worlds (and exhibition spaces), their work challenges conventions in both domains: invigorating aesthetic objects with function and crafting functional objects in non-traditional materials and with complex affects.

For their most recent solo exhibition, No Life, at Marta gallery in Los Angeles in late 2023, for example, the duo showcased lighting and furniture made of foam and starboard, all painted a single gray-brown. The monochrome and minimal objects at first glance seem formally distant from their first exhibition at the gallery, HOG TRAP (2021), which displayed ruffled and vibrant “homecoming mums,” like those worn in the 20th-century American South, alongside photos from hunter’s trail cams. But the tension between these aesthetics, references, and forms is precisely what’s at stake in Wentrcek and Zebulon’s practice.

Document ducked into their basement studio in Chinatown to talk experimentation, institutional memories, and the scent of pine tar.

Drew Zeiba: What have you been working on?

Kristen Wentrcek: We did a big show with Marta last year [No Life, in Los Angeles]. But now we’re doing smaller chunks of work.

Andrew Zebulon: That show last year was the most stuff we’d ever made at once. So we were working on the same thing for a long time.

Drew: That was like one body of work.

Andrew: We started talking about it at the end of the year, so it seemed like a new year kind of thing. Now we’re doing these little collections of stuff. And we can just make them faster. It’s more loose and it’s more…“experimental” feels like a stupid word, but it’s kind of true. You’re less concerned about, like, is this thing gonna hold up over time? It doesn’t need to be super polished. We’re working on a set of lighting works—lamps and wall stuff. We’ll show you.

Kristen: [Kristen brings out a wooden lamp with a glass top.] They’re kind of small. Andrew wanted to use this pine tar. So we were like, Okay, well, what do we have [that] we could use and then just whip out some stuff? And then we had a bunch of little glass pieces that were polished.

Drew: Wait, are these two-way mirrors?

Kristen: Yeah, because we did an installation [where] we had a 4-by-8-foot piece of two-way mirror, which is stupid big, so we cut it up.

Drew: Is being drawn to a material and trying to figure out how to use it often the source of a project? Or are you usually drawing first and being like, This is the material to solve it? What is the process? Does it happen on the page or in physical space?

Kristen: It’s a mix. I think you [Andrew] usually start with drawing. I usually start with the material. Although you picked this one—the pine tar, which is the coating on the wood. This is an old yellow pine, which you can’t get anymore, because they overharvested it. It has to be reclaimed. We had a whole plank of it.

Pine tar is old school. They use it on baseball bats. They drain out of the tree and then cook it and get it thick. Open it, you should smell it.

Drew: [Opens lid and sniffs.] It’s like maple syrup, basically, except disgusting.

Kristen: It has linseed oil in it.

Right: Kirsten wears top by
Fendi. Earrings by Burberry. Glasses by Akoni.

Andrew: Someone, usually Kristen, comes with an inch of some material or a process or something material-based. In this case, we’re like, Cool, this pine tar is an interesting thing, an interesting finish, and then we’re like, Alright, well, what can we do with that? It’s pretty wide open.

Kristen: And same with the Dyneema. We have materials, but we want to use something new. So we got this stuff, which is supposed to be the strongest thread on Earth. They use it for bulletproof vests. And we had this new adhesive that I wanted to try that was specifically for upholstering. We upholstered with the Dyneema.

Drew: You have this layer of material, which is really important, but it’s also so thin, and the color of the foam is coming through. The shape of the foam is really legible through it—it’s not like you’re upholstering with wool or leather. There’s an immediacy to it, which I also think is true of many of your objects that appear to be mono-material.

Kristen: Totally. And that’s the best word. Immediate. We’re using it in the wrong way.

Drew: How do you mean?

Kristen: Usually upholstery foam is fully inside. Instead of having a plywood base, and then foam, and then it’s fully encased, the foam’s just there. There’s not much modification to it. I mean, we will shape it or cut it. There are so many time-tested ways to use upholstery foam. And we’re fucking with that a little bit so you never know exactly how it will perform.

It’s similar to this vinyl coating that we’ve been using. We’re using it in a maximalist way. Mostly people do smaller pieces with it, and we’ve been doing huge things with it. We’re using a lot of the stuff improperly.

Andrew: Pushing it to do something that it was never really meant to be used for.

Kristen: We’re extrapolating a new way to use the materials.

Drew: Do you make prototypes? Are you doing a lot of material testing?

Kristen: Tons of testing. I think that’s the best part.

Drew: What’s testing like?

Andrew: Especially with a new material, we’ll do a lot of smaller tests. With something like the Dyneema, we’ll make a lot of iterations… [Kristen brings out several Dyneema-wrapped foam elements.] Oh, here’s a couple of them.

Kristen: We were trying to figure out the seams, if we would need to have seams or how does [the Dyneema] all go on at once. Do we want it to be wrinkly or not? And then, how do you finish an edge? So you go through a lot of iterations.

Andrew: We ultimately decided to do it almost like wrapping a gift or something.

Kristen: Yeah, it’s more like a gift. I was looking at Japanese gift wrapping.

Drew: Like on YouTube?

Kristen: Yeah, totally.

Andrew: The world masters of gift wrapping, the Japanese, no question.

Kristen: I also end up spending so much time on the phone with old guys.

Kirsten wears top and trousers by Christian Dior. Earrings by Burberry. Glasses by Akoni. Andrew wears top by HOMME PLISSÉ ISSEY MIYAKE. Trousers by ISSEY MIYAKE. Glasses by Akoni.

Drew: Who’s a recent old guy you had to talk to?

Kristen: I spend a lot of time talking to the guy for this adhesive. [Kristen places a canister of Spectrum-brand adhesive on the table.] Oh my god, the funniest thing too. I told him I didn’t want to pick up the phone because it said ‘Spectrum.’ And he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I walk around with my Spectrum shirt in New York and people are fucking pissed at me.’ And he’s finally realized it was because they think he’s the cable company. So this adhesive is different from the one we use when we do foam-to-foam. But he was saying that this stuff you can shake but the other stuff, if it moves a lot, it becomes a big ball of rubber. And so the way they test the limits for shaking it is that they put a 5-gallon bucket in the back of one of the guy’s trucks and he drives around with it for a week. Then they test that bucket to give it the rating. We’re like, That’s awesome. That’s how it’s done. That’s manufacturing in America.

Andrew: American ingenuity.

Drew: On a more abstract level, I wanted to ask about color.

Kristen: We obviously lean towards a palette.

Andrew: A lot of the colors are institutional.

Drew: What do you mean by institutional?

Andrew: In a lot of different ways. Certainly the safety yellowy kind of color, these more, like, sanatorium kind of colors, you know. These gross greens and browns and even pinks. One of the things we talk a lot about are these institutional spaces, like the worn-out office building from the 1970s, and where that feeling [you experience there] comes from. It’s in the materials—maybe they’re American-made and walked over a million times and there’s a smell. There’s an emotional resonance there for us.

Kristen: There’s a familiarity with an old building. For example, the DMV, or something like that. Those materials are used over and over again because they’re built by the state. I think we have an emotional response to those really commonplace materials that are in [those] buildings, or even in an old grocery store. Presumably, the same American manufacturers made a lot of these materials. So you see them over and over again in different contexts. There’s something really interesting about pulling those out and reorganizing them.

Andrew: They’re things you don’t even necessarily notice consciously, but there’s a subconscious impact.

Left: Andrew wears top and jacket by Givenchy. Jeans by Loewe. Glasses by Akoni. Ring talent’s own.

Drew: The colors are also almost near flesh or something.

Kristen: We like bodily colors and if it can come out of you or is on you, it’s probably a color that we want to use. Blood, piss, shit, skin, hair. That’s the color palette.

Andrew: But a lot of the color stuff is driven by Kristen. You have a really good eye for… We’ll mix colors and we’ll talk about what we’re trying to achieve, and Kristen will be like, ‘Okay, this weird brown or this weird brown?’ And I’m like, ‘They’re the same.’ And she’s like, ‘No this one has more blue.’

Kristen: It just tortures me.

Andrew: We were trying to color match to the starboard over there. Kristen was going insane in here. You made like 40 different versions of this brown.

Kristen: [Kristin presents a collection of paint tests.] Light makes such a big difference. You could put this on top of it and then pull it away and they look like totally different colors.

Drew: Do you have to use different kinds of paints for different materials?

Kristen: Actually the brand I like is Alpha Enamel. Have you seen it before?

Drew: I don’t know the technicalities of paint-making, paint-doing.

Kristen: We don’t know either.

Drew: You’ve got more going for you than I do.

Kristen: [Flipping through paint tests.] Oh, you know what? I think I made a whole other file for it because there are like 80 pages of this gray.

Drew: [Pointing at paint tests.] Wait, these two—are these different?

Kristen: Yes.

Andrew: That’s what I’m talking about.

Kristen: It can be so minute.