Music That Makes a Difference 2018

Music That Makes a Difference 2018

CNN Music & Art

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

CNN Music & Art

Eddie Van Halen donates guitars to public schools

Eddie Van Halen

CNN Music & Art



For eight decades Kipp Stewart has rarely colored outside the lines. The representational artist, furniture designer and architect has followed a roadmap with very clear instructions. It’s not that things were handed to him; Kipp has simply trusted his instincts. They’ve led him to Italy, Spain, Bermuda and throughout California, and have kept him from working for anyone else since his mid-twenties. Stewart hasn’t always had money, but he’s always had peace of mind. Kipp’s methodical approach to art and design are a byproduct of his intense vision. “I don’t look at blank canvases. I just don’t paint anything until there’s a picture in my head. I can’t even get out of bed until there’s a picture in my head of walking away from the bed,” Stewart admits. “I can’t do anything unless I see it first.” That is, of course, until now. For the first time, his artistic vehicle is doing some serious off-roading, and Kipp’s enjoying the ride.

His new series is unforced. Shapes appear to swirl before connecting with one another: hearts, clovers, spades, circles, squares, all sorts of geometric forms piled high. The ones that are completely abstract he loves the most. “Old pots, jugs and decanters usually are the basis for these things,” Stewart says. “I just draw one and then these layers develop. For these abstract paintings I do not have a preconceived picture. It’s counter-thinking to everything I do, but I like them more than anything I’ve ever painted.” The radical shift in style and philosophy are welcome, unplanned journeys into a different realm of his brain. The art is like a giant puzzle, one of those teaser games that he’s delighted to solve. Structure and order still exist in the works, but the meticulous detail is missing. Instead, it looks like architectural doodling.

Stewart doubts the new series will sell, and he could care less. Instead of hanging in a gallery, stacks of the masonite paintings are lined up in rows on the counter like used books. They are slightly bigger than pieces of paper. Each has depth and a story to tell, but the color and mystery are hidden behind dozens of boards in front and back of it. Kipp can’t paint fast enough. The work is invigorating. It’s as if he has to get this abstraction out of him or he’ll explode. He rides with his wife to the grocery store, then stays in the car and sketches on whatever he can find. “It’s where I do some of my best work,” he quips.

His beautiful home and studio are across from the famed Forest Theatre in Carmel, California. Stewart’s studio is kept clean and neatly divided between his disciplines. At one end, a drafting table for furniture design. In the middle, a long table that allows him to lay out blueprints and does double duty during parties. At the other end, an easel with brushes and paint. Back against the wall, a long set of drawers full of drawings and old paintings. History can be felt in here, but Kipp Stewart is as humble as it gets. They don’t make 80-year old men more handsome. He’s got lots of stories but feels no reason to shout. Instead he wears a genuine smile on his face and profound dignity on his sleeve. He’s a guy that will have a drink, but more than one makes him sick. Kipp and his wife, Kim, stay up late, get up around 8:30 everyday, have one cup of coffee and go about their business.

A designer by trade, Stewart has won nine national and international first place awards for his furniture. Kipp understands the importance of fashion, but is more interested in creating furnishings that are timeless. Bells and whistles are for school recess. When it comes to furniture making, Kipp Stewart wrote the book. Inspired by early-Greek furniture, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, Stewart has created his own casual contemporary sets. His teak and stainless steel pieces are modern and incredibly durable. They can be found in hundreds of major hotels, corporations, huge yachts, university campuses, urban developments, thousands of homes around the world and even at the White House.

Stewart’s career path was paved when he was fifteen. He fell in love with a storefront shop and studio on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles while hitchhiking to high school. An industrial designer had posted all kinds of pencil drawings in his window and Kipp was sold. Kipp turned down a track and field scholarship at USC, instead enrolling at Chouinard Art Institute because of its great design school in the late 1940’s. Kipp taught during the day, took classes at night and then built prototypes in the shop until all hours of the morning. He welded, ground, and sprayed steel “for as long as I could stay awake,” he says.

His work developed this fresh kind of a character. “In college, I made a chair with steel rods and I invented a little spring seating mechanism that was always comfortable and you could tighten it up if you needed to.” He entered the piece in “The Good Design Show” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and won. It opened all kinds of doors for his career. “There was a company there at the event called JG Furniture. They said, ‘We saw your chair and we wonder if we can make it for you and give you royalties.’ I said, ‘You make it and pay me money?’ It didn’t end up being much, but the light bulb went on. Let the manufacturers do it.” The philosophy worked well for Stewart, who still collects royalties from furniture designed 25 years ago.

While it may seem like a charmed life now, it was anything but early on. Kipp was born in 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to a teenage mother. Her dad kicked her out of the house and at six months old, Kipp was sent away to live with a bunch of distant cousins in Oakland, California. “They took me in. It was kind of a charity case, and they raised me until my mother got really smart and married an alcoholic. From then on life was lousy.” Kipp was just eight years old and soon his mother also turned to alcohol. “Name a town in Southern California and I’ve lived there for a year, because (my step dad) could get a job, but he couldn’t keep one. So off we’d go to greener pastures. Then about fourteen or fifteen, I became very independent. I realized they didn’t have a clue where I was or what I was doing. So I just did my own thing and lived my life. My parents didn’t even know where I went to high school. I went to Hollywood High School because that’s where a lot of guys I knew were going. I lived out of district, but I gave the school a false address and they never found out. My parents never had any interest to go to the school for any reason.”

The day Kipp turned 17, he joined the Navy. It was 1946, right after WWII, and Kipp spent two years on a ship sailing the Pacific. He got married soon after college, had two children and dedicated himself to being a good dad. “When my kids were five and eight, I had this beautiful little beach house that I built in Santa Barbara,” Kipp reflects. “We lived on the beach. I don’t mean near the beach, I mean on the beach, in the water. It was really nice, the only house in this whole big district. Along came Mr. Flax, who owned the Flax art stores all over California. He was a little, old Russian Jew, funny little guy. He was here about a half hour and he talked me out of the house. He said you need to take your kids while they’re small and go show them Europe. You need to show them the world. He said, ‘I want to buy this house.’ In a half hour, he was such a smooth salesman that I said, ‘Okay. It’s yours.’ And we’re off. Just like that. My wife could have killed me.”

So the Stewart family adventure was underway. They spent a year and a half in Italy. Kipp designed furniture for a company in New York. He’d send in the drawings, it would make the furniture and he’d collect the royalties. A steady stream of money poured in, and the Stewarts were able to afford the rent on a big stone house outside of Florence. The kids went to Italian school and had motor scooters. After traveling around Europe for awhile, Kipp packed up their things and moved the family to Bermuda. They found a terrific house right on the water looking across the bay to Hamilton. The maid was into witchcraft and his daughter loved her. Kipp and his son got into racing yachts with Olympic racers. “I set up a workshop, bought a huge sheet of plywood that I could draw on, and I’d look out the window at the bay and if the wind was blowing, I’d just close up shop and go sailing.” They spent eight months in the tropical paradise before heading back to the states. Ultimately, the Stewarts marriage did not work out, but living and working in Big Sur and Carmel certainly has.

In addition to his art and furniture design, Stewart has been the architect behind ten homes in California and New York. The first house he designed for a college buddy – a paraplegic who married a deaf woman. The home had ramps and all kinds of special needs engineering. The experience helped solidify his functionality first mentality. In addition to his residential work, Stewart’s commercial buildings have been industry giants. When he was 25 years old, Stewart took a job with Victor Gruen, the Los Angeles architect who was in the process of designing the world’s first shopping mall. Stewart did a lot of the landscaping and exterior design work for the mall, including kiosks, signs and different kinds of storefronts. Despite the excitement and his credentials, Kipp quit the full-time architectural business at a young age, but he continued to do commissions for friends and clients throughout California and New York. Among his achievements, a few large, free-standing timber restaurants and hotels – most notably the Vintage Inn in Yountville and Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur.

Ventana Inn & Spa - Big Sur, CA

Vintage Inn - Yountville, CA

The Vintage Inn is more like a French chateau, eight romantic guestrooms surrounded by gardens of flowers and the hills around the Napa Valley. Ventana is splendid in its own right built in harmony with the Big Sur landscape. It’s 200 acres of paradise looking down on the Pacific Ocean. Stewart designed it in the late-1960’s. It whizzed by the county planning commission and was completed in the early-1970’s. The restaurant is up on a knoll, while the hotel sits on a ridge across the canyon. It was the first high-end establishment built above Highway 1, and it changed the face of Big Sur. “I realized right away that I shouldn’t have done it,” Stewart says. “When I did it I felt well this won’t bring in any new visitors, but it will give people a choice… they don’t have to go over here for lunch, they don’t have to stay in a roadside motel. But it started bringing celebrities and people like that right away and it helped to change Big Sur, and I was sorry I did it. It’s not the same place to live anymore. All the old-timers and Bohemians are all gone now.”

Stewart has an affinity to Big Sur because that’s where he learned to paint. He first picked up a brush in 1971. He tested the waters with little abstract stuff on cardboard. Then with the encouragement of classicist artist David Ligare, Stewart got good. “David said if you want to paint seriously, I’ll lend you my easel. So I accepted and started doing bigger stuff.” Initially his representational work looked cartooney. To fix the problem, Stewart took photographs of his subjects and studied them before painting. He found inspiration in a huge junkyard on Cannery Row – three or four blocks long of old ship parts and wheels from the cannery. “Everything was rusted and paint dripping – it looked like abstract expressionist paintings,” Stewart says. Through photography he realized that “things really interact, overlap and form shadows.” Soon he began painting all kinds of wonderful subjects – a whole series on San Francisco, landscapes and still-lifes using acrylics and watercolor. Stewart produced two illustrated books of his drawings and watercolors called Big Sur Observed and Monterey-The First Buildings. His paintings were full of people you’d like to meet and places you’d like to go.

Stewart has traveled and lived in many different places, but he always comes back to the coast of California. He’s been married to Kim, his second wife, for fifteen years now. She runs a gallery in town, and he paints out of his studio next to the house. Out of a chaotic childhood, Stewart looked for order and for many years found it in his work. But these days he feels less compelled to worry over the details. Those unforced, abstract shapes that he can’t stop painting have given him a new found freedom. Creatively speaking, he stepped outside his comfort zone and a funny thing happened… he found that he was quite comfortable there, after all.

Written by: Ben Bamsey

One Comment

  1. Thank you for your description of Mr. Stewart’s journey thus far. I am VERY fortuate to have several of his works from the 80’s (I believe) purchased with much delight in Carmel California. His works are in my life and I find much pleasure in looking at them dailyl

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