On the second floor of a brick rowhouse on New York’s Lower East Side, Seth Kinmont is at work on a single-octave harpsichord strung with the spines of turkey feathers and made from limewood and spruce, like a Stradivarius. Inspired by the smallest unit of information in a fugue, it’s meant to be used as a compositional tool, and when it’s done, it will come with a notebook for music notation. If the project sounds more like a dreamy art experiment than a salable piece of design, that’s because it is. A onetime double major in neurology and studio art, Kinmont, 35, makes collectible pieces with esoteric applications; the closest he’s had to a runaway hit is an edition of wine stills he produced last year in hand-blown Pyrex. Elegant snail-shaped contraptions devised years ago during a stint brewing exotic wines on a Northern California mountaintop, the stills come with carefully engineered candles that sit underneath, brewing an eau-de-vie during a meal for after-dinner sipping. An edition of 15 sold out quickly after being displayed at the Chinatown boutique Project No. 8, and the last few sit in cardboard boxes next to Kinmont’s drawing table, waiting to be shipped to buyers.
Kinmont’s studio is the house’s only original space, with an old fireplace and rough floorboards that evoke its long history. Built in 1824, the three-story building once housed up to six families, but now it’s home only to Kinmont and his fiancée, the painter Maggie Trakas, who rescued the place from neglect in the late ’90s. Scattered around the studio are drawings and maquettes for half-completed projects: a wooden clock with five faces, each running at a different speed; a set of verbena-scented fireworks designed to be framed flat after they’re shot off; and an electric car he’s building on a borrowed 50-acre property in the Catskills. Made from poplar and Baltic birch, it’s a peculiar hybrid of hearse and horse-drawn buggy. "I was thinking about sculpture as a vehicle that carries you toward death," Kinmont says. "But by making things, you get to be the driver." If these half-functional objects seem like artifacts from a Phantom Tollbooth-like universe, it’s because they all derive their form from a complex set of algorithms of Kinmont’s own making; he promises to explain all at an exhibition he’s developing for the fall. "I think of these pieces as one piece," he says, and yet there are still more unrelated curiosities in the studio, including a prototype for a human-size crystal ball-fired in a brick oven he built in his backyard-which he conceived as a comment on the study of consciousness. "I’m making stuff as fast as I can," he says. "If I had 48 hours in every day, I would use them."
NEW YORK CITY
SQUARE FOOTAGE: 228 (2,400 for the building)
NUMBER OF WORKERS: 1
DECOR ELEMENT THAT SAYS IT ALL:
"The fireplace," says Kinmont. "Especially the inside, because it changes throughout its use."
ON THE STEREO: Daniel Johnston and
Hatful of Hollow by the Smiths
FIRST THING TO BE RESCUED IN A FIRE:
"My drawings. A family friend who’s a photographer just asked me that. I don’t like to be photographed, so she took pictures of me with my drawings in front of my face," Kinmont says.
PHOTOGRAPHER: MARK MAHANEY