Form Follows Function for Nico Yektai

Nico Yektai in his studio in Sag Harbor, New York, in July of 2018. Lori Hawkins photo

Nico Yektai knows how to read a board.

He can find the grain pattern in each piece of wood, and stack them to make the grain flow. He can build up these surfaces in a traditional, pleasing way.

He just chooses not to.

The contrarian impulse in him wants to mismatch the grain, warp the boards, break the glue lines and wear down the edges — a “pressure cooker” of sorts, he said, embracing the inevitable impact that time would have on the artistic furniture he creates.

“I developed this style of shifting the boards, shifting the plane, fasting the edges, trimming one side a little bit asymmetrical, finding something elsewhere in the piece to remove or add to balance it,” he said. “So the structure, in my case, becomes the detail, and that is the pursuit that really drives me. Sometimes I refer to it as ‘structural decoration’ or ‘structural detail,’ and there are moments I push that and I end up getting kooky with it.”

A desk made by Nico Yektai.

“But I don’t love furniture that is different and kooky for its own sake,” he added. “Personally, I like it when that’s driven by function.”

The place where sculpture and purpose meet is where Yektai has carved out a home, living and working on the wooded outskirts of Sag Harbor. His woodshop is old school — and messy at the moment, he laughed — fitted with heavy cast-iron machinery to process the raw materials that eventually become the tables, benches, chairs and accents for which he is known.

“The thing that I love the most about furniture as a subject is that some people will say to me, ‘I don’t know anything about art, but I like that,’” he said. “They might not have a Ph.D. in art history, and can’t and don’t want to talk about it, but they recognize something different and that’s just me benefiting from the accessibility of my subject — and I love that. I love that.”

“That’s the reaction that I treasure,” he continued. “At the same time, I do try to build my stuff for the art history Ph.D., and I try to tap into something broader and vaster than my own limited being, and I try to open the door to a little bit of the unknown so that it could engage somebody that comes at it from that perspective. And that’s something I learned very much from my father.”

The patriarchy of Manoucher Yektai, a visual artist, was one of creativity, innovation and immersion. They lived, breathed and built art in New York City and on the East End, coexisting with rough furniture that Yektai made with a friend.

“Eventually, my tree house obsession as a kid in the Hamptons meant that I had a whole bunch of tools, and I eventually took over that role when my father’s friend passed away,” the junior Yektai said. “I took over that role of being the person who would cut the boards and be putting things together, talking about them as compositions.”

A bench from Nico Yektai.

Thinking about the world through a painter’s eyes shaped the everyday into works of art composed by humans, nature or the degradation of time, Yektai explained. Furniture was no exception. It is a vehicle to leave his imprint — “your thought process and your aspirations and your limitations,” he said — and, in some ways, an exercise in futility.

“I watched how my father built up his canvases with paint on palette knives and the way he described being a master of a technique — which he is, absolutely, and he has incredible control of it,” he said. “But it’s limited because as he presses that paint, even though he set it up for what he wants, it still comes off the way it wants to, it mixes the way itwants to, it streaks the wayitwants to. And then he has to react to that.”

It is the same conflict he feels while building his furniture, he said.

“When I’m shifting those boards and I push one out, at first it might feel very uncomfortable and unnatural and too asymmetrical,” he said. “But if I accept it and it’s going to happen that way, then I have to react to that and try to balance that elsewhere. In that process, it goes places I wasn’t anticipating and challenges me in ways I couldn’t have figured out on paper.”

But that is where Yektai’s artistic process always begins — despite his sketches being “rudimentary at best,” he said — before quickly transitioning to scale models. They bring his imagination to life, he said, moving and twisting until they compose the piece.

A curved glass table.

“To me, that’s the really exciting part: getting a touch of that unknown into my system, if you will,” he said. “If I do that part right, it’s in that action that weaves the story that hopefully engages the casual observer with no background in art, and can engage the person who does — who recognizes how the three-dimensional composition of the sculpture has a vocabulary. That’s my pursuit in a nutshell.”

Only after 20 years of chasing that vision has the artist become comfortable enough to start experimenting with bold pops of color and new materials, he said. “I took it very slowly with both because I had this purist idea of wanting to do something that’s intimately tied to the way that the furniture is made and the craftsmanship, and the essential decoration,” he said.

While all of Yektai’s early pieces were wood, he is now integrating cast concrete into his furniture, working with negative space to create forms with his same woodworking skills — “just inside out,” he said.

“That was different, and I was able to explore different shapes and forms and procedures just like I reacted, again, to that notion of gluing two boards together seamlessly,” he said. “I kind of came at concrete to find something that was meaningful to me. And it’s been a wonderful pursuit.”