For TOAST Portraits, journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick meet the people whose treasured TOAST pieces – some archive, some new – have stood the test of time. This month, Mina and Elena met with design consultant and curator Mariah Nielson at her home in London. Below is her story.
There is a beech tree visible from Mariah Nielson’s bedroom in London. It is framed perfectly by the window and she watches it change over the course of the year. “When it’s covered in leaves, it’s a full dome, lush and bright; now, in winter, it has these gorgeous black lines, it’s totally sculptural.”
Mariah is perhaps singularly attuned to trees and their many possibilities. She grew up in Inverness, a northern California town in Marin County that is “all about trees” – in a house made by her late father, the celebrated sculptor JB Blunk, out of salvaged materials in the 1950s – much of it redwood from the surrounding woodland, burls and all.
When we speak, Mariah is at the Blunk House, the home her father lived in from the time he built it in 1959 until his death in 2002. She has managed his estate since 2007, comprising an archive and exhibition space at Blunk Space in nearby town, Point Reyes; occasionally hosting tours of the house, and inviting artist followers of JB’s work to stay for residencies. The cabin sits on a ridge that overlooks Tomales Bay, a narrow inlet of the Pacific that brings this pocket of Marin a wealth of oysters, iridescent light and, I’ve always thought, a particular feeling of magic: there is nowhere quite like it. Mariah, a design consultant and curator, splits her time between here and London, keenly aware of what she loves about both.
“From the ridge right now, I’m overlooking a forest that’s perennial,” – how different, I think, from the shape-shifting dome of beech outside your London window. “You don’t witness the changing of the seasons here in the way you do in London,” she goes on, “and I’m still totally enchanted by that, even after ten years: the feel of the place shifts so dramatically. Here, it’s just - are the hills green or are they brown?”
Mariah’s potted history of her father sets much about this place, and her, into perspective. JB wasn’t a California native; his family moved here from Kansas in the ’40s and he studied ceramics at UCLA after a brief and ill-fated fling with the physics department. In ceramics he was guided by visionary Californian ceramicist and educator, Laura Andreson – “a force,” says Mariah – who opened his eyes to the world of clay and pottery, notably in mingei ceramics (early twentieth century Japanese folk art). When JB was drafted into the army to fight in the Korean War, says Mariah, he saw it as an opportunity to find the artists making the work he so admired.
“He met the acclaimed sculptor Isamu Noguchi in Takumi, a shop specialising in Japanese folk crafts in Tokyo, completely by chance, and they struck up a friendship, which proved life-changing for JB.” Noguchi helped JB to discharge from the army and made an introduction to the British surrealist painter, Gordon Onslow-Ford, who went on to become JB’s patron, ultimately offering him an acre of land in Inverness, California. It is here that The Blunk House now stands and where he spent over 40 years making his uniquely elemental art from wood, clay and metal, which has been a key inspiration in the TOAST SS22 collection, Elemental Compositions.
The house became a canvas for Blunk’s work and epitomised his unpretentious approach: it was never finished, a place in constant evolution. “He’d always say ‘nothing’s precious’,” says Mariah. “He wanted people to sit on his furniture, touch anything they were drawn to: everything could be engaged with.” She tells me that everything in the house was moved around on a regular basis, “There was always some sort of playful curation in motion: a utilitarian object like a basket would be hung on a wall, an artwork would be put on the table to eat from – he had a disregard for any distinction between art and design and craft. There was a kind of fluidity to everything, a constant movement.”
Mariah was born at the house in Inverness in 1978 and grew up immersed in Blunk’s home culture, celebrating the unfinished and always looking for ways to reframe the things they had. She describes the tokonoma – in Japanese architecture this is a nook in which to display some of the things you live with – and how this part of the home was always changing. And, importantly, no one item was given importance over another: baskets from Peru, a painting by one of Mariah’s brothers, stones her dad collected on the beach. “I find myself doing it in London now,” says Mariah, “a drawing that my son has made, alongside a sweet vase of JB’s, which we use all the time, next to a ceramic plate by my friend Martino [Gamper, the product designer] – it’s an ever-changing installation, a mix of objects which all tell a story.”
She came to London for graduate school, studying the history of design and material culture at the V&A and Royal College of Art. In 2011, she met her husband, German furniture designer Max Frommeld at a party held by Wallpaper magazine and the couple now have an almost four-year-old boy. Together they have converted a one-time furniture factory in east London’s Forest Gate – the flat from where she watches the shape-shifting beech tree – and, true to her upbringing, everything tells a story, “the chairs were found outside by a friend, the glassware was made by another friend, the cupboards are made from cork, including in the bedroom, where the wardrobe is made of recycled Nike tennis shoes blended with cork.” Max, it turns out, is an obsessive researcher, and tracked down this industrial material from a supplier in the north, reframing it in a domestic context. Mariah has already described her father’s “reverence for the material”, which it seems not only rubbed off on her, but which she has found in her partner.
Until the end of 2021, Mariah was one half of Permanent Collection, a business trading in original “understated but indispensable” design items, ranging from fashion to homeware, alongside Fanny Singer, the daughter of lauded chef and food activist, Alice Waters. The business is a blend of the two women’s creative inheritances, making anew anything from vintage clothing to ceramics and JB Blunk’s jewellery. “We wanted to find ways of carrying on the life of things that we liked using ourselves – not to replicate, but to reconsider and rework them, often using new materials.”
Now, speaking to me from California in mid-January, Mariah is focussing on her work with the JB Blunk estate; the pressures of two businesses and a young child became untenable last year and she moved on from Permanent Collection. It is just days since we shot photographs of her in Forest Gate, but she is now settled in Inverness for three months, and there is a lot to do: a new exhibition at Blunk Space; collaborating with galleries on behalf of her father’s archive; a book about the Blunk House (following her monograph JB Blunk, currently available to view in all TOAST Shops); and she is trying to buy the land on which the house sits, which Gordon Onslow-Ford offered to JB all those years ago (a purchase which sounds complex, “lots of ink on Japanese rice paper contracts”, she tells me).
The plan isn’t to live here long-term, though. She will start to miss London, she tells me, steeped as it is in history. “Even though I was born and raised here, it feels like my father’s place.” That beech tree, with its seasonally-changing dome, will keep calling her back. As will her own tokonoma at the home she herself has made.
Interview by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.