Jack White: Rock and Roll Icon—and Furniture Upholsterer?

Jack White: Rock and Roll Icon—and Furniture Upholsterer?

We got the low down on Jack White’s Rolling Record Store, but the man had much more to say. Here in our archives, he talks about unfinished furniture designs, high school with Harry Bertoia, and why we should all be listening to Captain Beefheart.

Jack White

You used to be an upholsterer. Is that what turned you on to design?

Yeah. When I was a teenager I apprenticed as an upholsterer shop that worked on mid-century and arts-and-crafts furniture. I came to love design through furniture—Harry Bertoia went to my high school—then through the architects. 

Hah! No way.

And I’ve always loved Eero Saarinen; he’s also from the Detroit area where I grew up. He would change his style based on the problem in front of him and that’s the way I attack design too. It’s the same way at Third Man; I like tackling problems from a pragmatic standpoint and changing my style accordingly, rather than approaching everything with one style. Each of the design elements is a solution to something.

Do you miss working with furniture?

You know, I actually rebuilt my upholstery shop just last year. All my sewing machines, tools, and cutting table and were all in storage; I brought it all out. I’ve got it back again.

So you’re covering and cushioning in your downtime?

I do it when I can, but yeah, the only problem is the downtime. I do have some designs for furniture that I haven’t built yet. One day I’d like to see if there’s a company who could produce multiple versions of these chairs I’ve designed.

Do you see a connection between the tactile nature of design and the tangible quality of vinyl? Why was it important to have the Rolling Record Store exist as a physical outpost?

I think that the newer generation especially needs to see music; they need to see it in front of them as well as hear it. They’re just listening to iPods and sharing mp3s with their friends through email and Facebook, and they don’t actually experience the physicality that music can have. If my brothers hadn’t put albums in front of me when I was as a kid, I wouldn’t have known anything about them. That’s one aspect of it. 

How did you capture that experiential element with Third Man Records?

A lot of things I get involved with start out as something simple until baby steps turns them into something bigger. Take our Nashville headquarters—I bought the building as a place to store tour gear when we weren’t on the road. Then I thought about rereleasing old records of mine that were out of print, then I hired a couple of employees, then we put a live venue in the front, and then it just became a humongous thing. The same thing happened with the Rolling Record Store. There are a couple venues across the street from Third Man hq—Mercy Lounge and the Cannery Ballroom—and there’s always a line to get in to the shows. I thought about setting up a table outside, kind of like a garage sale, but selling our vinyl instead. Then I thought, you know what? It would be nice to do that from a truck; like an ice cream truck window. We could drive it over there and drive it back. It just went wild from there. Now Third Man also produces a lot of limited edition vinyl only available from the truck—I always like that. It means you really had to be there. It’s a combination of art and music that you can’t really get on the Internet. 

Do you remember your first vinyl purchase?

I can’t! But I do remember skipping school when I was 14 and walking to this record store in downtown Detroit¬—it’s crazy that you could buy a record in downtown Detroit at some point, because it just seems like no way you could ever imagine that nowadays—and I bought the Beatles White Album. I came home and felt kinda bad for skipping school but I still loved listening to the record!

Happiness is a new album. What artist do you feel like Dwell readers should check out?

Captain Beefheart. His poetry, his music, and his paintings—they’re all incredible. He’s an amazing American artist who is still under the radar, and in a lot of ways not really getting his due. He was like a Dadaist in a different time period who also incorporated the blues— two incredibly simple forms of expression—playing with them both in a truly brilliant way.


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