Eric Nation: Natural Design

Eric Nation: Natural Design
Medium Magazine (November 2002)
By Wendy Townley

Understanding Eric Nation’s roots begins with his eyes. A steel-blue gray sans visible corrective lenses, the bulk of Eric’s life has been spent on the ocean, calling San Diego and San Francisco home for more than 30 years.

Since moving to the Omaha area about five years ago, Eric misses the ocean terribly: “It’s a very difficult place to leave,” says Eric, 39. “You don’t realize how much of a draw it is on you until you move away from it.”

Much like the expanse of blue Eric mentally packed when moving east with his wife, Tara, the San Diego State University graduate also brought his love and talent of furniture design. After earning his degree in architecture and environmental design – what Eric describes as a holistic approach to architecture – he began practicing his trade. His initial interest was in residential architecture, but that all changed when an earthquake rocked the Los Angeles area in 1987.

“They (state officials) just buckled down the code system. Overnight, practically,” Eric recalls from an open, wood-floored living room overlooking Omaha’s Botanical Gardens. “Things that we were taught – just very basic, very straightforward concepts – all of a sudden became things that you needed an engineer for. It really started to take away from the artistic approach, and ended up handing more of it over to the engineers and mathematicians.”

As Eric became less and less enamored with architecture, his interest in furniture design began to blossom. What appealed to Eric wasn’t necessarily the scope of design as much the freedom. “It was being able to (design) on a smaller scale without anyone looking over my shoulder, telling me I couldn’t do that.”

In 1989, Eric enrolled in the graduate program at SDSU and studied under a number of furniture designers. After graduation three years later, Eric picked up a few teaching positions: one in San Diego, another in San Francisco.

But much like 1987’s earthquake, teaching left Eric wanting more.

After packing their belongings, Eric and Tara, an Omaha native, moved east in 1997. Their first stop was in Papillion. The good part of the couple’s move: being close to Tara’s family. The bad part: Eric was without studio space to work on his furniture designs.

“That was the most difficult point for me, because I had been teaching for the last five years and I had no large equipment or anything of that sort,” he says. “I had studio space at school (in California) to work in.”

So for the first two years living in the Midwest, Eric simply put his ideas on paper. Not long after, however, studio spaced opened up in the area: an empty building behind an old heating and air conditioning company.

“It was pretty difficult to work in, especially for a Californian, because it had no heat and no cooling,” Eric says.

Omaha residents will recall that the fall of 1997 left in its wake an October ice storm that crippled the city for nearly a week.

“That was my introduction to Nebraska. I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here? What did I get myself into?’”

With a yearning for an urban lifestyle, Eric and Tara decided downtown Omaha was the place to be: “We were used to this urban environment,” Eric says.

After looking at the various spaces near downtown, the couple opted to start from the beginning and build their own home and studio space for Eric. They purchased a vacant lot near 6th and Center streets, just above the Botanical Gardens. After a year in the planning stages and 10 months building, Eric and Tara moved into their three-story home, designed and built by the couple, some friends and skilled contractors. Rather than constructing an outlandish home, the couple kept it simple, using what Eric calls green building technology, utilizing as many recycled and low-impact materials as possible.

Now that their house is complete, Tara, who manages the Images of Nature gallery in the Old Market, and Eric are getting down to what they love. Eric, in his studio space complete with materials and tools, spends his days designing and building furniture that may never be displayed in a home. It’s what Eric calls speculative.

“They are pieces I just build for myself with the intention of them going to a gallery and being shown and hopefully sold in a gallery setting,” he says. “In most cases, they’re used.” Eric’s work isn’t always functional. More of his designs, from tables to chairs and everything in between, have an artistic angle: “It’s up to the person that purchases them to decide whether they want to consider it a piece of sculpture or whether they want to consider it a piece of furniture.”

Finding such buyers for his pieces, which range anywhere from $500 to $5,000, on the West Coast didn’t pose much of a problem. But since moving to the Midwest, Eric says locating galleries to display (and, perhaps, sell) his creations has proven more challenging than he expected.

“Omaha doesn’t have a large variety of galleries to being with,” he says. “Unfortunately, furniture, in most cases, is pretty large scale. It takes up a lot of room to show it well. That narrows it down to even fewer places. A lot of my friends have talked about this.”

The frustration Eric and his friends feel boils down to one simple school of though: Omaha needs to take its art communities to the next level.

“Omaha is a funny town, and I haven’t figured it out yet. A lot of people say that it’s very conservative; which it is. Change is very difficult. There’s a lot happening. Omaha is on the edge of quite a lot of energy. They just need to find a way to retain the people who are going to help kick-start that.”

Many pro-Omaha people point to the downtown development as proof that Nebraska’s largest city is moving forward. But for Eric, who considers himself an artist and an architect/designer, the city’s efforts are too focused on one sector: “They’re creating opportunities for big business, for Gallup and ConAgra and places like that. But they’re not creating the opportunities for the artists.”