E/S x Commune

The Abstrakt collection, our newest series of decorative cement tiles, was developed with long-standing E/S collaborators, Commune Design. Principal designer Steven Johanknecht, whose original artworks inspired the series, sat down with us to share his personal influences, artistic insights and the backstory behind this colorful collection.

Part 1

Steven's Inspirations

Who are some constant sources of inspiration for your work?

Steven Johanknecht: I've been painting most of my life and have been interested in abstraction since childhood. I grew up in Syracuse, New York, when The Everson Museum (designed by I.M. Pei) opened. It's a perfectly proportioned brutalist building and it blew my mind. It’s also where I was first introduced to abstract art. Abstract expressionists like Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Josef Albers and Henry Moore.

When I started painting myself, I always gravitated toward abstract forms. I guess it's the way I look at the world. I love the work of Josef (and Anni) Albers and the Bauhaus School, Mondrian, Paul Klee, Arshile Gorky, and also a lot of work by Cuban geometric abstract artists from the 1950s.

What was it specifically that inspired the Abstrakt series?

SJ: During the pandemic, I started working on a series of small compositions in my apartment. The intimacy of working in my living space, and in that scale allowed me to work on many at a time. They're developed through a series of conscious and unconscious decisions, and one decision informs the next. I just follow that path where it leads me and I make all the moves until everything sort of sits and coexists and seems balanced to me. They really kind of paint themselves at a certain point. 

These small paintings then became a catalyst to experiment with design and pattern. They're basically a springboard. We take the individual paintings and then see what happens when repeated or manipulated in different ways. They become something else, a pattern for the tiles, carpet, fabric or something. 

Next: Painting & Perspective

“I just follow that path where it leads me and I make all the moves until everything sort of sits and coexists. It seems balanced to me.”

Steven Johanknecht
Commune Design

Part 2

Painting & Perspective

Can you talk a bit about your process – any routines or rituals you may have? Do you paint every day?

SJ: No particular schedule, and I don’t paint every day. But now that I'm painting in my living space, I can interact with the paintings at different times of day and in different light. Part of my process is to make decisions and then let them sit before making the next move. That's why I like working small and having it part of my day-to-day life. The next moves become very clear to me and I can have flexibility to just go in and spend ten minutes and make some decisions, or notes to myself and then clear my head and do something else. 

When you look at a finished painting, are you already thinking “Hey, this would make a great tile”?

SJ: Not really. Well, years ago actually, a small design piece that I had done my freshman year in art school was something that I discovered while I was cleaning out my parents’ house, and I brought that back. That became a pattern that we developed. So I don't start out the paintings with that intent, but that was sort of the catalyst. We've always got various products in development, and so we're always thinking about how things could become something else. Especially with pattern work, it’s important to us that it's personal and that it's unique. I think you get inspired by different things, but it needs to be original. 

Next: The Production Process

“We've always got various products in development, and so we're always thinking about how things could become something else.”

Steven Johanknecht
Commune Design

Part 3

The Production Process

Now that you’ve seen them, what are your thoughts on the final products? 

SJ: We were blown away. They’re pretty incredible. I love seeing how the paintings became something else. The handmade process and what happens with the color is amazing. Sometimes I look at them and I feel like they have a relationship to the Memphis movement. It can feel like an African pattern or even Scandinavian, but also then shift into Memphis and things that were happening in the 80s.

What steps do you and Commune progress through during development, from initial concept to launching the final product? 

SJ: My business partner, Roman [Alonso], really saw the potential of making tiles from this work. I've been doing some other work that became rugs and other pattern work, but it was something that really came to his mind. We scan the paintings and translate them to the scale of the tile and then manipulate them into different repeats and patterns to see if we like where it's going. From there we worked with E/S to choose color samples to get as close as possible to the original paintings. When we got the samples back, we were shocked at how close they were. We love the earthiness and finish of the tile. E/S did an amazing job with them.

Next: Working with E/S

“When we got the samples back, we were shocked at how close they were. We love the earthiness and finish of the tile.”

Steven Johanknecht
Commune Design

Part 4

Working with E/S

Commune always brings us so many options to choose from. We’ll see all the patterns and different tiles and think, “Okay, let's get this down to four”. it was very hard to select them, actually. They were all great. 

SJ: I think we want to have more and then work with you, because it is a collaboration. Show you all of the possibilities and work together to narrow that down. I think that's just part of the process and the enjoyment of working together. I love the input, and whether that's initially from within our office when we're looking at it together or when we bring it to Franck [Nataf] and the team at Exquisite–I think that's what's exciting about it. 

Why is a collaborative spirit not just something you encourage, but sort of necessary for the work that you're doing? 

SJ: I think projects are always stronger when they have that collaborative spirit and people contributing ideas. Also the workshops, contractors and craftspeople doing what they do best. What you want is the whole team to get on board and be excited about a direction and then add to it and make it better. We've always felt that the group makes the work stronger. That's why we're called Commune.

What do you hope people feel when they see this collection?

SJ: I’d like them to feel happy and inspired to use them in their own way to bring energy or something unexpected to a project. I can imagine the tiles being used in many different spaces. I could see them used for a Mexican or Spanish style house, hotel or restaurant space. I could also see them in a very modern brutalist design paired with wood and concrete. Or a corridor, floor space or a tile top table, or vibrant outdoor shower. Somewhere that needs some energy and something a little unexpected, I think would be a great way to see these transform and be executed.