CCS: Crafts I Shape the Future With an Arts and Crafts Degree

'04

Chad Jensen

Thomas Riley Studio

Creative Director & Lead Designer

These days, Detroit remakes itself in ways large and small. But artists and creative professionals from around the world still call Detroit home or call upon it for inspiration. Just ask Crafts alumnus Chad Jensen.

“As a kid, I always felt that everything was or could be made in Detroit,” recalled Jensen ‘03, Crafts. “I grew up seeing the huge manufacturing operations or playing with piles of aluminum coils from the mill process. I also spent a lot of time at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Diego Rivera [Detroit Industry] frescoes are imprinted on my memory. They heightened the manufacturing process — the idea of it — and found beauty and art in the way things are made.”

Jensen now lives in Naples, Florida, as the creative director and lead designer for upscale gallery and atelier Thomas Riley Studio (TRS). The ardent sensibility toward handmade objects that developed during his childhood in metro Detroit remains evident in his designs, which maintain a tension between a material’s actual character and its appearance — a “tufted” wooden bench, for example, that mimics the softness of leather.

Whether he is working on a personal art project or creating custom furniture for a client, Jensen seeks to contextualize furniture not only as object but also as experience.

He still finds beauty in manufacturing and shepherds each piece of furniture through the process from conception to final product. “If I design a collection for TRS, that means working with the engineers and fabricators through the entire process,” said Jensen. “When I work on my own conceptual, personal projects, I’m actually hands-on — designing and building everything myself.”

After graduating from CCS’s Crafts department in Winter 2003, Jensen moved with his family to Florida the following summer. He had no real agenda except to find work doing what he loves. When he discovered Thomas Riley Artisans’ Guild, manufacturer of fine architectural interiors, he hadn’t actually answered an ad. He simply made himself useful, serving in multiple capacities until the company could spin-off Thomas Riley Studio, which specializes in contemporary craft, fine art and design.

It was a chance encounter that offered Jensen the opportunity to “learn and listen and gather.” During the next decade, he honed a number of business skills, such as how to work one-on-one with clients and how to secure contemporary art and design sales, as well as commissioned custom pieces, from clientele with a traditional orientation. “There was one client about three years ago,” Jensen remembered, “that I started working with because another designer called me in to design a dining table for their home.” That dining table evolved into $1.6 million in custom furniture, design/build and art sales for one residence.

It becomes clear that Chad Jensen is taking part in a kind of cultural zeitgeist — evidenced by the rise in shelter blogs, books and magazines, as well as bespoke home goods among a more design-forward American public.

“Now all of a sudden people are thinking beyond things on their walls and sculpture. They’re thinking about everything they surround themselves with,” he said. “There’s a resurgence of interest in handmade, high-quality objects. It’s been interesting to watch the evolution. Now you walk into some people’s homes and everything is art.”

In May 2014 during New York Design Week, Jensen debuted the Versailles Collection, which he designed for Thomas Riley Studio. Based on a visit to the sumptuous chateau in Île-de-France, the collection evokes the classical yet remains of the moment. It speaks to his theory that “if you lend 

the design some story, some substance, people will come.” Jensen continues to produce and exhibit his own conceptual furniture, often in collaboration with other artists, including CCS alum Jordan Smith. And in partnership with Detroit industrialist Gary Wasserman of Wasserman Projects, he’ll bring the work of German colorist Peter Zimmermann to Thomas Riley Studio in early 2015. 

“I feel that in the last few years I’ve achieved a dream scenario of being an advocate for the arts but also being a creator slash designer slash artist,” he said. “It’s the best of all worlds.”