For Colorado artist and designer Stephen Gulau, just playing around in his shop has yielded a diverse portfolio of unconventional, experimental furniture designs that straddle the line between functional objects and fine art.

Illustration by Chantal Bennett

“In the past, I’ve done a lot of commissioned work built for a specific client and space,” says Gulau, who also spent years teaching wood shop and fabrication at art schools in Chicago and San Francisco before returning to his Clear Creek County hometown in 2018 to focus on his own design practice—currently based in a 6-by-10-foot cargo trailer adjacent to his portable, solar- and wind-powered tiny house. “Now, 90 percent of the stuff I make, I make for me out of my own curiosity,” he says. (Gulau still welcomes commissions, and also sells select pieces through the shoppable homes staged by Denver-based Guest House.)

Take the Awkward Bench, for example, an angular, lacquered-steel base topped with thin wood slats rotated ever so slightly along a center axis, forcing those who perch upon the bench’s tilted ends toward each other. The piece began as a large art object with which Gulau explored the skewing of repetitive forms. But once he considered its potential function and meaning, the object became a bench and a means of encouraging human connections: “If two strangers sit on the ends of the bench, it feels awkward,” he says, “but ironically, as they move toward the middle of the bench—and each other—it becomes less awkward.”

Stephen Gulau’s Tense Bench. Photo by Tamara Porras.

Whether he’s designing a functional shelving/table/lighting installation inspired by peeling old wallpaper, or an off-kilter dining table finished in melted white plastic, Gulau’s creative process hinges on finding an interesting element, then “extrapolating it, going deeper and deeper and exaggerating it to see what comes out of it,” he says. Some of the resulting designs have never been built, like a sculptural seat—dubbed the “Spine chair.” (Fabricating its brass “vertebrae” requires tools and metalworking skills Gulau has yet to acquire.) But for Gulau, bringing a piece to life isn’t necessarily the end goal: “If a design can spark a conversation or even curiosity, I think that’s a win.”