Simplicity by design

Driven by pared-down aesthetic, KU alum opens gallery

Lawrence designer Carl Masters likes to keep things simple.

"I like especially things that are functional first, and that function drives the design," he says, looking around his airy downtown gallery and boutique.

No signs here of the extraneous plastic moldings or blinking lights that festoon products on many retailers' shelves these days.

"I really don't like that aesthetic. I think it sells well because people think they're getting more for their money, but in fact it's just extra mess and waste and clutter," Masters says.

"I like things that are generally simple and just do what they're supposed to do. The design would follow the function more than the function following the design."

Masters owns KOJO, a smart little shop on the corner of Eighth and New Hampshire streets that deals in clean, high-design products from around the world. It also devotes gallery space to area designers creating work that's both functional and beautiful.

Joel Smith's agrarian chic furniture has been featured since KOJO opened in early December. The Lawrencian collects farm equipment, car parts and kitchen gadgets and welds them together to form tables, chairs, lamps and other whimsical wares.

Masters' handiwork graces the space, too. He and his partners, Billy Price and Adam Millikin, created the store's galvanized steel and glass shelves. Masters used plumbing fixtures and pipe to erect yet another set of shelves that display picture frames. The creations serve the dual purpose of exhibiting merchandise and touting the trio's skill at creating custom furniture through a side business called KOJO Workshop.

During the store's first three months, traffic has been slow through the week but tends to pick up on weekends and during Downtown Gallery Walks. Masters hopes a new pool of clientele will flow in with the completion of the Hobbs Taylor Lofts, a high-end, contemporary housing community going up across the street.

"I think the people who are moving here, they want to be downtown," he says. "So that sort of speaks to their philosophy, and maybe they're kind of cosmopolitan."

Room to breathe

The 28-year-old Kansas University graduate started KOJO (Japanese for "factory") after his first dream -- opening an art supply store/gallery -- fell through. Following a two-year stint at a product design firm in Kansas City, he spent two years teaching English in Japan. While he was away, the Olive Gallery opened, filling the niche he had intended to occupy.

But his Asian sojourn inspired him to take a new direction.

"I got to absorb a lot of good design," he recalls. "The way that they keep a shop is so different than in America. Space is at such a premium that they have to really use it well. So you'll find that their stores are much neater and tidier, and things are displayed in a more precious way.

"We tried to strive for that sort of aesthetic. ... If you clutter this type of stuff, it's going to look really cheap."

At KOJO, everything gets ample room to breathe.

Three amoebic vases by acclaimed Finnish designer Alvar Aalto become more striking in isolation, reflecting outdoor happenings from their perch in front of window facing New Hampshire Street. Not-too nearby, a pair of playful Iittala glass birds stand sentinel, their translucent colors punctuated by filtered morning light.

Salt and pepper shakers, dish scrubbers and tea pots occupy a shelf at the back of the shop. Sleek lines and a judicious range of hues make these objects worthy of leaving on display in the kitchen long after the dishes are done and the tea is served.

Public involvement

Some of the products move faster than others; the speed seems to be a direct correlation with price. Locally made cat toys and iPod holders sell for less than $10. Swanky plastic chandeliers from Denmark approach $100. An aluminum rocking chair by Phillipe Stark -- "one of the best product designers in the world," according to Masters -- is priced at $600.

In an effort to bring more attention to KOJO, Masters intends to emulate the Olive Gallery.

"I love the way they use contests for promotion and also to get lots of people involved," he says. "I wanted to do a similar thing, but with more of an industrial design focus."

Masters is planning a lamp-design contest to coincide with the July gallery walk. He hopes to involve area design professors and architects in judging the lamps, and then possibly auctioning them to benefit the Lawrence Arts Center.

In the mean time, Masters and his partners are developing a series of concrete furniture pieces they'll be able to customize to match patrons' tastes. They're also coordinating their next gallery show, scheduled to feature Atchison ceramic artist Zia.

If the turnout at the January gallery walk is any indication, Masters knows there's a lot of potential in his 600-square-foot corner store.

"I was really surprised that so many people came; it was really bad weather," he says. "There were probably 200 people in here at one point meandering around."


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