Made In Sarasota

By staff June 1, 2005

It was a case of boy meets girl. Two Englewood artists enjoying a smooth latte (and an even smoother conversation) discovered they had much in common. Ideas were tossed around, cups were refilled, and by the time they finished their third cup of coffee, the creative duo had entered into a concrete partnership-and Davidson/Schlake Design Studios was born.

Diane Davidson and Erik Schlake have blended their talents to create tables, pedestals and lamps using cement as the primary medium. While their unique sculptural designs can stand alone as art, they're functional furniture, too. Each piece fuses elements ranging from copper or exotic and recycled woods to fossils, stone, glass and concrete.

"We design the concrete portion first, then incorporate other elements to enhance the piece," says Davidson, whose background in fine art and architecture lends itself to such expressive designs. "People get a sensation when they look at our work, unaware that we are balancing the elements." Always, earth, fire, metal, water and wood are represented either physically or symbolically.

Davidson says the pieces often cause emotional, visceral reactions. At a recent art show, she says, one woman hugged the "Chunky Monkey" table, pressing her face against its surface while exclaiming, "I love this table!" The one-of-a-kind piece has a sleek, polished top with an inlaid design made of exotic wood. (Each piece is named to reflect its personality.)

Commissioned work comprises a majority of the partners' business, but they've also established a presence at local shows. "Now we have collectors and galleries interested-and they haven't even seen our latest designs, which keep getting more and more innovative," says Davidson.

Schlake, who has received national recognition for his paintings, says this new medium offers another chance for expression. "Our different backgrounds allow us to express our vision with confidence; we have clarity." Confidence surely helps, considering the amount of engineering that goes into some of their work. "We're playing with illusion, trying to make concrete feel lighter, trying to achieve a floating effect," Schlake explains. One of their latest table designs has a leg on only one side; the other side is suspended from steel cables attached to the ceiling (installation is included). "We love playing with that line between form and function," he says.

Although these artists are dealing with what is typically a construction material, there is a lightness-even weightlessness-about these pieces. "When people think of concrete, they think of something heavy, rigid, and not very attractive," admits Davidson. "People are genuinely surprised when they run their hands across one of the smooth, glassy tops." Some pieces are left raw for a natural look, while others go through a laborious buff-and-polish process that counts as the day's workout. All are ground, sanded and sealed for protection.

On some pieces, the finishing work might include fitting the tabletop with a set of interchangeable trays-for example, a sandbox (think Zen garden) and a metal magazine rack that sits securely inside a cutout in the concrete.

The artists experimented until they achieved the perfect blend of sand, aggregate and cement-their own top-secret concrete mix-and developed their own colored pigments. "You won't get this look using bagged cement," promises Davidson. Before forming a table, they prepare a color mix, a step that often leads them to a different design direction than they originally intended. "The whole process is fluid; we just go where the materials take us," she says. Because they are dealing with natural elements, there's both an element of control and an element of surprise. "When it comes time to unveil a piece, it's always exciting. We can't wait to see how vision, design and the elements have melded together," says Davidson.

To commission a piece by Davidson/Schlake Design Studios or to see more of their work, call Diane at (941) 474-4653 or Erik at (941) 460-1717. Coffee tables start at $400; other pieces vary.

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