R HUGHES Welcomes Refractory to the Showroom
Founded by Angie West from Texas and Alberto Vélez from Bogotá, the studio embraces a fascination with materiality, a deep respect for craft as an integral aspect of design, and an obligation to participate in the shepherding of American making. Based upon a sense that there are stories as-yet untold in design, the work is both provocative and exploratory.
This embrace of the unusual, the unforeseen, as well as the durable and resilient, are part of Refractory’s ethos, as expressed in its name. The term refractory references an unyielding nature and applies to both personality and process. While inspired by the powerful and mysterious forces of nature, evolution, and transformation, the work also bears the mark of disciplined, classically trained designers. Refractory is engaging in an open-ended renaissance of American artisanship and small-scale urban manufacturing.
When we came across Refractory, we felt it was seemingly conceived overnight. The real insider secret is that this kind of finesse takes decades of experience and editing to perfect. It burst into our imaginations with its innovative use of noble materials and inspired branding. We are thrilled to introduce this once in a generation brand to the Southeast design community and hope to grow with Refractory for many years to come.
Q&A with Angie West and Alberto Vélez
R HUGHES: You both have extensive experience in the design industry. It begs the question, how did you get your start? What drew you to this life?
Angie West: I was born and raised in rural West Texas. From a young age I was naturally drawn to composition of objects and forms, curation, and proportion. During college years this propensity carried through to photography studies, and I later became a commercial photographer in the design industry. My personal passion for photography lies in reportage, street, and journalistic image-making, but for some reason I knew how to look at a chair… perhaps because I saw it as a sculpture and not a chair… and that was a way to make a living in two worlds that I loved. Via working in different capacities in the industry, I had an opportunity to purchase a tiny foundry in Chicago (over 12 years ago now), and that has afforded me the privilege of working with phenomenal talent on the design side as well as the magic-making fabrication side.
Alberto Vélez: I grew up in Bogota, Colombia, blessed with a family with several accomplished creatives in arts, photography, architecture and design. It just felt natural to follow the path and was influenced and exposed to that world very early on. I was the kid that dismantled and rebuilt every toy before playing with it and also spent countless weekends lost in nature which was a huge influence as well. I studied Industrial Design and worked at my uncle’s interior and architecture studio through college doing mostly CAD drafting. Later, I moved to New York and those technical skills opened doors for me, becoming a very competent draftsman and design illustrator while slowly finding a voice and refining my aesthetic judgment as I worked with some of the best in the business at the time. I gradually specialized in furniture and moving to Chicago to lead the Holly Hunt design studio really consolidated my interest and expertise on the subject working with her on hundreds of concepts over a decade. Angie & I met in 2010 and started a prolific collaboration as client/fabricator through my previous job and we became good friends in the process.
The Beginning of Something Exciting
RH: How did you two meet?
AW: In 2010, after working in various capacities for HOLLY HUNT for eleven years, I was looking to shift toward entrepreneurship. I had packed up my things to move to Austin, and Alberto was on his way to Chicago from New York to take my position as Design Director at HOLLY HUNT. Just before my departure, I was celebrating my birthday with some friends when one of them mentioned that a small foundry we had once worked with at HH was going to close.
Still thinking about it the next morning, I told my roommate, who knew me very well, “I think I need to buy this foundry.” Her exact response was, “I don’t know if you should, but I think you can’t-not.” I made a phone call, we had a meeting, and a week later, I was having lunch with Holly to tell her about the idea. She said, “It’s a little crazy, but you should do it. I’ll keep you busy.” Immediately, she tasked Alberto to design items for West Supply to fabricate. There is no way we would we be sitting here if she hadn’t been so generous and visionary about where it could lead. She knew I had the passion and the potential to do well and that what we would make would also be good for her company, so she advocated for us. That’s fundamentally how it started and made it through the first few years.
AV: Fast forward to 2020, I had been through a decade of product development cycles at HOLLY HUNT and introduced literally hundreds of concepts and collections there. It was wonderful, but as a designer, I think you’re always yearning for what is next. I had started itching to try something new. As it turns out, the jolt of the pandemic created a perfect window. After departing HOLLY HUNT, Angie was my first phone call. We were both just trying to stay alive, literally, but, in speaking further, we realized in this moment of stillness, we had a unique opportunity to do something new.
AW: In February 2020, just before everything shut down, I had just finished building out a big, beautiful, white studio above the foundry so I could also begin producing my own work. When COVID hit, it was sitting there, empty, and we didn’t have any orders coming in from usual clients. We either had to start reducing staff or create work to do. After many sessions with Alberto, we saw this window to start a new endeavor, which we later named Refractory. The small business stimulus from the government allowed us to protect our fabricators’ paychecks, and the empty studio space became a cocoon for our creativity.
This pause, that we otherwise never would have had, has been a silver lining for our team and all our existing clients. We were able to innovate, experiment, and have essential, long conversations with the fabricators that we were previously too deep in our lanes to have. This allowed us to unlock talent and potential at West Supply in the form of a truly new chapter.
RH: When did you realize that Refractory was what you were meant to do together?
AV: We started Refractory together in late 2020 during the pandemic and as was true for so many other creatives, it was necessary to start something new, to make use of this forced pause and keep Angie’s crew intact and inspired. Our first collection was launched in late 2021 and consists of about 35 pieces. Now we have closer to 45.
AW: Refractory launched October 1, 2021. This was basically the moment that we came into existence via an online presence. We debuted our work internationally at Alcova during Milan Design Week June 2022, and domestically in New York at Salon Art & Design November 2022. The first collection consisted of an ensemble of various editions that formed the foundation of our offerings. The work will veer in more conceptual directions from this base.
The Debut Collection
RH: What do you want people to take away from the debut collection? What emotion do you want people to experience when they see these pieces?
AW: Lately we have been leaning hard into the word durability. We want the work to be touched and to bear the evidence of use over time. We also intend for the works to have aesthetic durability.
RH: What’s an upcoming project you are most excited to be working on?
AW: We are working with Erden on a dining/sitting room in Telluride in which the furniture and the custom rug will be in concert with one another. This will be via motifs, shape, as well as mechanics. The dining table will be able to split into two and pivot, and some of the adjacent sitting area furniture will seemingly grow from the rug. It is definitely a collaboration that goes beyond “custom” in the typical sense of the word. It will be a very functional art installation in many ways.
AW: The Scimitar Dining Table is a monumental and formidable work. The full ends in bronze coming together with the wood top – matching radius and detail, intensive construction from the underside, installation and assembly, etc – its simplicity is misleading.
RH: We are big on monthly playlists at R HUGHES with our OFFICE Radio series. So help us out, what song would you add to our next playlist?’