When Jason St. John saw Barbara Rourke outside a Hillcrest bar four years ago, he barely worked up the courage to talk to the beautiful New Jersey native. Rourke was ready to move back East when the two met.
She never left.
The two 20-somethings-both art students at the time-also discovered a mutual admiration for the functional, organic forms of mid-century design. It was a shared love that evolved past mere cocktail conversation.
St. John was taking a furniture design class at Mesa Community College; Rourke enrolled the following semester.
“Jason and Barbara were exceptional students,” recalls David Fobes, who teaches furniture design courses at Mesa. “I was a little worried when Jason said he was bringing in his girlfriend-that maybe they'd just be in it for the fun-but they both have such great design sense and a real affinity for working together.”
At Mesa and SDSU, furniture design is an art class, not an extension of high school woodshop. During the first few semesters, Fobes teaches students how to work with tools and conceptualize complex projects. After that, he encourages them to explore their own visions, no matter how outrageous.
For St. John and Rourke-both accomplished painters and sculptors-progressing to 3-D furniture design was natural. “We were hooked,” says St. John. “We were doing twice as many projects as some of the other students.”
Once they had the technical know-how, the couple began to create pieces reflecting their interest in furniture as “usable art.” Rather than completely reinventing, say, the chair-already a perfectly functional form-St. John and Rourke artistically modified and improved such archetypes.
Like other former students of Fobes (including the Leritz brothers of DeForm fame), St. John and Rourke are influenced by mid-century designers like Verner Panton and prominent design couple Charles and Ray Eames. Both Panton and the Eames employed the newest technologies and materials, like Panton's ground-breaking single-form injection technique and Charles Eames' experiments with fiberglass-reinforced plastics. Their futuristic work was not only structurally sound and aesthetically appealing but also made possible the assembly-line production of attractive, affordable furniture.
St. John and Rourke similarly experiment with forms and materials, a sometimes costly endeavor depending on the quality of wood or type of metal. “We push the envelope,” explains St. John. “Our furniture is about design. The construction is secondary.”
Their student works are impressive, with beautiful curves, minimalist forms and earth-tone palettes. Despite the mid-century influences, Fobes asserts they aren't simply jumping on the retro bandwagon.
“It's a reinvention of modernism,” he explains. “They're exploring a range of materials and surfaces that the mid-century designers wouldn't have touched.”
St. John's passion and Fobes' teaching have brought good things to Mesa's program. In 2000 they joined with Alida Bracker, showroom manager of La Jolla's Divan+Studio, to launch Two Schools of Thought, a juried show featuring works by Mesa and SDSU students.
“The show has been a big success,” says Fobes. “It gives students something real to shoot for. It sets a level for professionalism and quality that need to be in place before they can exhibit.”
After St. John and Rourke's pieces were well-received at the inaugural show, they decided to take it to the professional level. They left the program and set up shop in St. John's father's garage.
They named their business Christine Alexander, a combination of their middle names, which represents a union both romantic and aesthetic. Now working without supervision or assistance, their initial experiences were nerve-racking, to say the least.
“When you're using other people's materials, some of which cost a fortune, you can't screw up!” says Rourke.
“But we're not afraid of taking things on,” St. John clarifies. “If we don't know how to use a material, we'll still take the project. We'll learn how to do it.”
Rock-solid confidence and the ability to actualize a client's vision have brought them enough business to quit their day jobs. Rourke says they've “become designers without even really trying. It's all word of mouth.”
Though the firm has primarily done custom art furniture for residences, they've done work for interior designers and small businesses, including Little Italy's chic Salon Tonic. They also developed a line of simple wood and metal jewelry that's sold well at local boutiques Niche and Stateside.
They recently completed their biggest project yet-the interior of Influx, a café in Golden Hill. Working closely with owner Jason Twila, they used a red and white palette for mid-century-inspired furniture (including a long, narrow red couch, curved tables and cool, retro-looking chairs). For the counter and cream station, they combined dark wood and brushed-metal veneer. Though they enjoy the custom work, St. John and Rourke aim to create a production line of affordable furniture.
“High design isn't available to the masses,” St. John laments. “With cheap manufacturing possibilities, highly designed pieces could be affordable.”
By “highly designed,” St. John doesn't mean unnecessarily complicated. “So many designers take a clean, functional form and embellish it simply for design's sake, even to the point of affecting functionality.” he grimaces. “That is not good design.”
He points to a Coors Lite can as an example of good design. “Clean, simple and functional. And it looks good, too.”
So good that he and Rourke both pop one open and get back to their most perfect design: each other.