Nick Onassis has never been one for ordinary artistry—or wasting Mother Nature’s valuable resources. As a child, he and his family lived on a winery in Tasmania. On a daily basis, he was forced to use his hands in nature in order to fulfill his priorities within the winery business. Nowadays he uses his hands for sculpting and artistry—including the one-of-a-kind fixtures in Alternative’s flagship Venice store—a true craftsman mastermind. Check out our Q&A interview with the eclectic artist himself.
Alternative: How did you first get involved in art and design?
Nick Onassis: I came to Los Angeles to write and direct films, but quickly came to the realization that this path was a very difficult one. I then began to work in an art department on feature films, music videos and commercials and within a couple of years, I had a comfortable career in production design. The art department was some of the best artistic training I could have garnered. However, the very unfortunate part of the film industry is the tremendous amount of waste it generates. I was continually astounded at the amount of perfectly good materials which were smashed up and discarded at wrap.
That’s why I retired from film production. Feeling constantly sick and ashamed to be a part of an industry which displays such blatant disregard for the fragile balance on which our ecology teeters is not worth the inflated rates it pays. In 2006, I began shooting a documentary about building an outdoor kitchen in an Echo Park backyard using entirely reclaimed materials. The money I had saved quickly dwindled as the film project grew, and I began building things from reclaimed wood for other people to stay afloat. Jobs came in, my collection of reclaimed wood and reclaimed wood related obligations grew, and the documentary from which my incarnation as a discarded materials builder guy was left forgotten in the form of more than 300 hours of unedited footage.
Where do you find most of your reclaimed objects and materials?
I like to feel as though the pieces find me. I don’t always know what a piece will become when I spot it on the side of the road and throw it in my truck, but I know it wants to be something. I know it isn’t finished yet but I see myself as it’s middle man, and tuck it away safely until it’s time to emerge becomes evident. The ability I am truly thankful for is the luck it takes to find beautiful, discarded items, and the gumption it takes to physically wrestle those items to a place where they have a way better chance of being transformed into different beautiful items.
For every board foot of lumber I rescue from the land fill, countless billions of board feet are desiccated, buried and forgotten. I have to deny more lumber than I can keep. It would take resources I don’t currently have to seriously put a dent in the amount of lumber which is being trashed on a daily basis. When you tell someone something is trash, they have a hard time looking at it any other way. I tell people I found something at the dump and their immediate response is “eeewwww.” It’s not broken egg shells or rotten fish carcasses. It’s wood! Wood from a tree which was 2,000 years old before it fell. Wood from a tree whose brothers and sisters are the tallest living organisms on earth! In no way is that trash.
Your work in the new Alternative flagship store seemed to come really naturally to you. Did you feel a special connection to this project?
I have had clients ask me for “that reclaimed look,” not really caring if I chopped down a tree and aged it to look more “reclaimed-ish,” but Alternative’s commitment to practical sustainability is honest. I feel tremendously fortunate to be a part of Alternative’s team and to work with Danny Gonzales and Cassandra Kellogg. Being the hands to their brains has been nothing short of a serendipitous blessing—providing the palette to their canvas, and the necessary tools to create their dreams. I love the feeling of being able to give people what they are looking for before they even know they are looking for it.
I do what I do primarily because I can’t stand waste, and recognize that there are other options to clear felling, old growth forests for wood. The fact that reclaimed wood happens to be pretty is just a nice bonus. I am proud that all of the materials I have used in the pieces I built for Alternative are completely recycled. Some bits of wood are on their second and third incarnations. It’s wood… if it’s a bit dirty just run some sand paper over it and presto, new wood! Having a client like Alternative who understands the need to re-assess our civilization’s wasteful practices on the same level as I do is what keeps my business afloat.
There’s so much passion in your work. As an artist, what inspires you and fuels your creativity?
Mostly, I am inspired by other people. People who find uses for things which are useless as well as people who compromise small things in order to stay true to big things, people who suffer now, so those who come after them won’t have to inspire me along with people who live by example. I am inspired by the brave souls on the front lines of the ecological movement and by companies who support local craftspeople, even though they can get better deals elsewhere. And lastly, I’m inspired by problems.
photos by Stephen Zeigler