why this looks like that

Serban Ionescu Thinks of His Furniture Designs As Pets

Why take a chair or table so seriously?

Photo: William Jess Laird/
Photo: William Jess Laird/

This story was originally published by Curbed before it joined New York Magazine. You can visit the Curbed archive at archive.curbed.com to read all stories published before October 2020.

Serban Ionescu’s furniture doesn’t necessarily make the most practical sense, but he wants you to love it anyway. “I think these things become almost like pets,” says the designer of his work. Take the Ihop table, which is made of shamrock-green powder-coated steel with cutouts in the center that look like a face. A red mouth riveted on makes it almost look like the logo of a certain pancake chain of the same name. You get the sense that it’s a creature that could crawl toward you.

A table you can’t really put much on top of might seem strange, but for Ionescu that’s the point: He wants you to enjoy his furniture but on an imaginative, not purely functional level. It’s also why the seating he makes — like the baby-blue Lacaria bench, which is more reminiscent of a mangled John Chamberlain sculpture than a plush perch — is deliberately uncomfortable. “I don’t want you to sit in them; I want you to look at them,” he says.

The table and the bench are both featured in an online exhibition at the Tribeca gallery R & Company. Named “Failed Seriousness: Lapo Binazzi and Serban Ionescu,” the show is a window into his world of design that’s whimsical, campy, and a little bit deranged.

Photo: Courtesy of R & Company.
Photo: Courtesy of R & Company.

Ionescu, 34, was born in Romania and his family moved to Queens when he was still a child. He studied architecture at Pratt and once ran an art and architecture gallery and fabrication studio. His work has always been experimental — like the cubbyhole-filled loft in Greenpoint that he and his friends built when they were in their 20s.

Ionescu is continuing a tradition of furniture with a sense of humor — and humanity. Radical Italians of the late 1960s and 1970s — like Lapo Binazzi, the other artist in R & Company’s exhibition — tried to do similar things, which is how we ended up with sofas shaped like giant feet and coat stands that look like a nude woman had a run-in with a cactus.

And so Ionescu creates vibrantly colored powder-coated chairs, tables, and what appear to be creatures torn straight from metal sheets, or cobbled together from scrap wood, that have no specific function other than to delight. “I love film and I love cinema and I’ve always kind of treated my work a little bit like characters,” he says.

He starts each piece by freehand drawing — his sketchbook rarely leaves his side — with markers, pens, pencils, and whatever else he has around. They end up looking like a mash-up of doodles and engineering drawings, which he then figures out how to turn into furniture by bringing in the techniques of architecture, like scale, materials, and color. This process, and philosophy, is partly inspired by John Hejduk, the former dean of the Cooper Union School of Architecture who was obsessed with abstract shapes, obscure objects, and often unbuildable geometry.

But in many ways, all of the backstory and theory isn’t as important as how his work makes you feel. What matters is if it makes your heart beat, and perhaps even compels you to open up your wallet; the prices range from about $2,500 for sculptural objects to $4,500 for the larger furniture.

“I’m not saying that we should be designing kind of jokingly, but there has to be a level of humanity or something that’s a little bit imperfect, that has a pulse, that doesn’t just have, like, a trajectory of so serious but has waves and emotions,” Ionescu says.

Serban Ionescu makes a chair you don’t sit in.