Nick Onassis: Designer, Innovator & Practical Craftsman

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

×Melissa Metcalf
photos by Stephen Zeigler

16 Comments

  • Reply September 17, 2012

    Barto

    Hmm, what do you mean displaying code swcers up your stuff?Hahah about your sister turning 18. My sister turned 19 last month, and it is pretty weird that we’re all growing up Hehe!Ooh about Mother’s Day! I actually saw a bunch of stuff on displayed for Mother’s Day when I was in London! At first, I was like, it’s not for 2 months! But then I realized that you guys have it first Haha.LOL about the weather in England. I was pretty lucky to have such nice weather when I went to London on Monday! Hehe!Yep, yep, yep, I know EXACTLY what you mean about your Facebook status! Hahahah. My privacy settings are sooo complicated! =P I mean, it’s different for so many people. Hahaha.Anyways, good luck being active! I should do that too =(

  • Reply May 31, 2012

    Juanita

    Cant wait to hear more about this new season in your life FT. Best of luck!This Sunday for me was for me, the eoitpme of relaxed, simple and reclaimed. We walked 11miles from our home to the next big town, picking blackberries and wild plums along the way, got the train home, then I made bramble jelly, whilst my other half baked fresh bread. Perfect!

  • Reply May 30, 2012

    Filiz

    Yes, check the local yellow pages.Call the rorfeos that specialize in slate roofs.If the job is big enough and the material is in good shape, you might get your roof striped for free.Also try specialty building supply companies that sell antique or restoration material. They are more likely to buy material like this.Be very carefull on a slate roof, it is very slippery, and you can damage the tiles if you are not careful. Try Willard Roofing 1-781-326-2807O’Lyn Roofing 617-232-8153MacDonal Spraugue Roofing 1-800-649-3710are all rorfeos who specialize in Slate roofsTry the Boston Yellow Pages and look for building material suppliers. There are a couple that specialize in renovation material that might want to buy it.Also check the Worchestor area phone book

  • Reply May 29, 2012

    Euclides

    Rammed earth builders use lots of old car tires. Adobe bolkcs could be made from local clay. Check your newspaper for auctions they usually have lots of leftover and pre-used building materials that you could use.

  • Reply May 29, 2012

    Tantan

    I couldn’t agree more! I truly love bebraoadd! The items that are posted currently were made with bb that I reclaimed from a barn out in the country. I love the look but I really love wondering about it’s past.It’s funny how we pass things on to our kids that more than likely ..we picked up from our parents! Keep covering your house with bb and thank you so much for sharing. Cindy

  • Reply May 29, 2012

    Anton

    antonio paulinoHI. WE ARE BUILDING A RESTAURANT IN BROOKLYN AND RUSTIC LOOK IS WHAT WE ARE LOOKING FOR. IF ANY ONE HAS BARN WOOD TO DO THE FLOOR IN THE MAIN ROOM PLEASE SEND ME A EMAIL. THANK YOU

  • Reply May 28, 2012

    Avdhesh

    Michele FariasI would like to know about your farm table rentals we are haivng my daughters wedding in Sept and would need to rent about 11 tables from you could you please let me know if you have availability, the size of the tables and the rental price thank you, Michele

  • Reply November 17, 2011

    Marion Semmens

    Do reflect your most inspirational lifelong project lies awaiting,. hopefully not slip-sliding away.Taking place of pride for doing it all for others cannot compare with the joy of doing it for them whilst retaining the reward of knowing it’s all yours.ERGO: do thy thing for thee not thou.
    smat mak; smattest of all smat maks!

  • Reply September 1, 2011

    debbie

    Nick,
    Thank you for making me take a second look at my “stuff” and how I might use it. Sometimes life moves fast, and we don’t stay connected to what is really important, you’re living it!
    The best…

  • Reply August 31, 2011

    Cynthia Sims

    Congrats and thank you for making a difference. I’m ashamed of myself for not looking closer at what can be reincarnated and offered a second usefulness. You have opened my eyes and I will try much harder to follow suit. Cindy Sims, Ohio

  • Reply August 31, 2011

    bridgetdew

    Great Job!

  • Reply August 10, 2011

    Carolyn Suzuki

    Really beautiful article Nick, it’s so great what you are doing xxx

  • Reply July 24, 2011

    chrysa

    Nick I love your way of thinking and your ecological concerns are so pertinent in our times!!
    I wish you well in changing the minds of people who have forgotten how to be human and are no longer inspired by our mother earth, nurtures us every day, even when we forget to take care of her!
    Lots of love
    aunt chryssi

  • Reply July 21, 2011

    Marion Semmens

    Good on you Nick, My beautiful son.
    I’m so proud of you and all that you stand for. The planet needs thousands no millions of clones of you to save it from all those who feel they have to plunder it for momentary monetary values and forget the consequences for the future.
    I love you
    mum

  • Reply July 19, 2011

    alex

    nice work nick …really good snippet …keep it rolling bra

  • Reply July 19, 2011

    Curran Clark

    INSPIRING! I’m proud of you, darling…
    Curran

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