Stephen Kenn had barely finished photographing his first-ever furniture collection when he found himself faced with a very famous client.
“We made a sofa, a loveseat, a chaise lounge, a chair, and an ottoman, and we photographed everything and started sending pictures to friends by text just being like, ‘What do you think of this? Do you like it? Is it cool? Is there something here, do you think, to keep going and pursuing?’” Kenn recalls, seated on one of his own designs inside his downtown Los Angeles showroom. “One of my buddies was dating Tommy Hilfiger’s daughter and he was like, ‘I showed this to Tommy, he loves it, could you guys fly to New York and meet with him?’ This was a week or two after we had just put this collection together and photographed it. So we flew out and we met him, and he bought a couple pieces for his shops.”
Pretty good for a first go at it, but the serendipitous sale foreshadowed the success that Kenn and his partner (in business and life) Beks Opperman have seen since launching Stephen Kenn the brand back in 2011.
It all began when Kenn and Opperman met at a concert, two outsiders (him from Edmonton, Alberta and her from Portland, Oregon) trying to carve out lives for themselves in transient Los Angeles. Three years later they were married, and soon after, Kenn—who had previously worked as a bag designer—decided he wanted to try his hand at furniture. Opperman was working in healthcare at the time, but figured she could do some of Kenn’s business handlings on evenings and weekends. “I thought it would be a fun side project to my full-time job,” she says, seated next to Kenn, the smile on her face indicating that she now knows how wrong she was. “I was like, ‘I’m left brain! I can figure out invoices and taxes! It will be so easy, I can do it on nights and weekends.’ Because that’s what you think when you’ve never started a business before.”
After about two years, she turned her full attention to the brand, which produces artisanal, artful, exquisitely-crafted furniture using interesting shapes and even more interesting materials. There’s the classic Two Seat Sofa, for example: with a simple yet arresting marbled rust frame, its standout feature is its support belts with antique brass buckles, giving it an industrial yet timeless look. Kenn’s chosen fabrics (which are often customized to fit a client’s specific space) are always high-quality and usually reclaimed, such as canvas that was formerly used in the U.S. military. It adds another layer to each piece, the patina acting as a symbol for our imperfect lives.
“We always talk about materials that are going to wear well, get better with age. We talk about things that are worthy of repair: this idea that if it wears out or breaks, that people’s first response isn’t, ‘Let’s get a new piece’—it’s, ‘How do we fix this piece?’” Kenn explains as the couple’s sheepadoodle Obi bounces around the space, which is expertly designed and decorated to feel less like a showroom and more like a home. “I love finding vintage things and then bringing them into the process, too, because I feel like they’re limited resources that speak about our country’s history and past—and if we can not leave them in dusty warehouses in LA and instead wash them and bring them into our homes, we get to live with the history and appreciate, in some ways, where we came from. I don’t want to ever apologize for little tears and rips and patches; I want to embrace that stuff.”
The brand also creates lifestyle and travel items, including a portable cocktail kit and a beautiful leather weekender. But furniture remains the heart of the business for its ability to bring people together. “One of the points of life, I think, is connecting with other people, meeting people and hearing their stories—and furniture is the enabler of that,” reflects Kenn. “I think two people can sit down not knowing each other, and then get up an hour later with a completely different perspective based on the other person’s story. And furniture, to me, is the link to that. It makes it happen.”
Human connection is at the forefront of everything Kenn and Opperman do. It’s the reason they host regular gatherings at their loft (located right next to their showroom), either serving coffee in the mornings or cocktails in the evenings. It started as a way to bring people into their space to view (and ideally buy) their furniture, but ended up being more of an experiment in community-building.
“People who are interested in buying stuff do come, but they’re five or 10 per cent, maybe. Most of the time it’s people who are friends or just heard about it or follow the brand on Instagram but aren’t going to be clients necessarily,” says Opperman. “I think it can be expensive and intimidating to try to go out and make friends in LA, so it just became a thing where we were like, ‘We can facilitate that so easily.’ And it’s a safe environment.”
It’s also an incredibly calming environment. Both their home and their showroom feature quiet rooms that allow the couple to pray, meditate, and simply sit in silence. It’s a major self-care practise for both of them, but especially for Opperman (who also nods to loving vitruvi’s Grove Essential Oil Blend, which reminds her of her Pacific Northwest home). “Both of us have been trying to practice it more, and for me especially, I think I am a little more prone to anxiety in general and stress and perfectionism and all that,” she admits. “So just taking discipline time every day to be away from my phone, to be in quiet, to breathe, and to pray has been really great.” Whether sitting on a couch they made or reflecting in a meditation room they designed, Opperman and Kenn have successfully achieved what so many young creatives strive for: a life they can truly call their own. It might be a hairy world outside their doors, but within them, everything is exactly as it was meant to be.