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People Issue 2012: Martin Kastner, the craftsman

"I had no desire to be an artist. I thought art was all ego."



Martin Kastner, 38, is the founder and principal of Crucial Detail design studio. In collaboration with Grant Achatz of Alinea, Next, and the Aviary, Kastner creates the serviceware that delivers Achatz's concepts to the table. In August Kastner launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to move one of his pieces, the Porthole, into larger-scale production and raised $736,112—more than 20 times his goal. As a blacksmith and multidisciplinary artist, Kastner doesn't believe in innovation for its own sake. "I make things that need to be made." Sarah Nardi

I grew up surrounded by different cultural influences in an old medieval city in Western Bohemia, right on the border with Germany. I always found it intriguing that all of these disparate elements were concentrated in a relatively small area. One way to perceive this difference was through objects, like the mixture of Czech, German, and Bohemian buildings. Every day as a child, I would walk past a 600-year-old Gothic fountain. You could sense the presence of the person who built it and I became taken with the idea of making things that last.

As probably any 12-year-old boy would be, I was fascinated by the idea of heating up metal and banging on it with a hammer. So I enrolled in an elite boarding school to study metalwork and art. By the time I left, I had no desire to be an artist. I thought art was all ego. So I began as a blacksmith doing restoration work in a medieval castle. That work is concerned with figuring out techniques of the period; there is no real deviation from the past. That wore on me and I wanted a more expressive medium. I didn't want to look at my work through other people's eyes. So I went back to school to study natural materials design. I was making sculpture and jewelry that was all highly conceptual. The jewelry wasn't meant to function as an object, but to explore the concept of adornment—the relationship of the object to the space around it. I had a professor at the time who was the first to really introduce the idea of design as a discipline beyond automotive engineering or pure theory. It put design on my radar for the first time. My girlfriend, Lara (now my wife), who had been studying abroad in Czechoslovakia, wanted to return to America, so I came, too.

I struggled to find work here. Nobody really had a need for another metalworker with a master's. I eventually started finding projects with fabricators who would come to me with a client sketch and no real idea how to approach it. I began renting space and making things and that's really how my design studio was formed. This was happening prior to the democratization of design—way before Isaac Mizrahi ever sold anything at Target. So I was making things that I couldn't find in stores. Things that were homecentric, like wine racks and knife holders. It wasn't a real business. I was just making things that needed to be made.

Then one day I got an e-mail from Grant Achatz, who was then the chef at Trio in Evanston. He was looking for new ways of presenting food because he was developing culinary concepts that couldn't be delivered to the table with existing presentation pieces. He was creating food that didn't really have a home in a traditional four-star environment. For example, he wanted to present a sphere of ice as a palate cleanser. How do you do that? So I developed the Tripod, a collapsible lollipop stand. I was also looking at his menu. Trio was far more traditional than what Alinea came to be, but as a person who had limited dining experience it didn't make sense to me. What's shiso?

For the menu, I developed an infographic—a way to visually represent the experience. By this time Grant and Nick Kokonas were moving forward with Alinea and asked if I'd like to be involved. I said yes, I want to design the entire space! As it turns out, legally you can't do that without being an architect, but I designed the entryway and many of the service concepts.

When Grant started thinking about Aviary, we began a conversation about what the cocktail experience should be. We both loved the idea of an infusion, of flavors developing and deepening over time. And this is how the Porthole came to be, as a way to offer something that was both a vessel and a window into the infusion process. The Porthole exists only because we couldn't find what we needed to accomplish what we wanted. And that's what it really comes down to: if you can't find it, you make it. But it's never about innovation for the sake of innovation.

Keith Magee, the pastor

Index: 2012 People Issue

Becca Hall, the projectionist

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