It’s tough being a bad boy when you’ve got orders piling up. “I can’t wake up hungover anymore,” says Ted Nemeth. The latest darling in furniture design, Nemeth, whose work has been lauded as “Pottery Barn for Hell’s Angels” by Maxim magazine, has a vision that’s one part Victorian, one part hot rod, and 10 parts rock-star pomp. (He likes to pose for photos with his middle finger in the air.)
Blessed with the charming aura of someone 10 years his junior, the 37-year-old New York–based designer has all the cliché—yet surprisingly fresh—looks of an American rebel: a looming, 6-foot-7 physique; a fedora angled rakishly over his eyes and spiked with an ace of spades playing card; a T-shirt that’s seen better days; vintage cars and motor blueprints tattooed on his forearms; a pet glass of whisky; and a very dirty vocabulary indeed.
While the International Contemporary Furniture Fair may be an unlikely arena for Nemeth’s in-your-face style, it was here at the Javits Center in New York that his work finally made sense. “Everything was so sleek, simplified, and happy,” says Nemeth, who personalizes his projects with odd finds like bottle-openers for handles and accessorizes with hood ornaments, bullet casings, and replica monkey skulls. “I thought my stuff would stick out unbelievably. It says, ‘Fuck.’ It’s got tattoos. It’s got craftsmanship. I made it with my hands. I didn’t see any of that there. It was all kind of conveyor belt.”
And stick out, Nemeth did. The following year, in 2007, he came back with five pieces, including a chair, a stool, and a set of drawers. Being the black sheep at the fair had its advantages. An interior designer for Carey Hart (a motocross racer and reality show personality) enlisted him to make 13 cocktail tables for Hart’s Wasted Space bar at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Nemeth also gave Hart, as a gift, a plaque made of stingray and adorned with brass knuckles for his tattoo parlour.) More celebs soon followed, and Nemeth added the likes of Christina Aguilera and Tommy Lee to his client list.
If loud and boisterous seem apt adjectives for Nemeth’s world, the attributes modest and soft-spoken may be unexpected. On a quiet evening in the Manhattan suburb of Astoria, Nemeth speaks shyly in the triangular space of his top-floor flatiron apartment, which he shares with a graffiti artist. With his eyes on his black boots, he nods his head to Johnny Cash playing in the background. It was his idea, he admits, to present his bio on his website as a police arrest report: “I downloaded it from the Internet.”
It may also seem contradictory that Nemeth spent three years in a pinstriped suit crunching numbers on Wall Street. A travel sabbatical came after that, followed by seven years in tech firms. Suddenly all his finance references filled in the blanks. “Instead of going into the bags, belts, and wallets, I went into the furniture direction because the profit margin is a lot higher.”
Landing in the furniture business is as much a surprise to this Manhattan College grad as to those around him: “My friends still can’t believe what the fuck I’m doing.” As the story goes, one day Nemeth was looking for a bag to put his things in, and when he couldn’t find one, he bolted together the sides of a piece of leather. Tooling and other tricks of his trade were an afterthought. “Like all master craftsmen throughout history, I read an article on the Internet,” he deadpans.
In his adjacent work studio, he points out preliminary sketches for his next client—“My first billionaire,” he says—which feature a recessed space covered in reclaimed barn wood, candle sconces, laser-cut leather (a skill also gleaned online), and satchels for prized bottles of wine. “So it’s really kind of like a big art installation.”
Under his current umbrella, Nemeth also dabbles in jewellery and leather coats—and then there’s a television pilot produced by a friend. “It hasn’t been sold. Less than one per cent get bought. I’m gonna have a cool highlight reel, which is what it comes down to.” Otherwise, he works alone with one assistant, Ines. “She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, but we are like Batman and Robin,” he says.
On a window ledge, an aesthetic huddle of Jack Daniels bottles beg for attention. “It was a tough month,” he says laughing, then adds, “I don’t drink that much anymore. No time.”
Nemeth knows he has to find an investor if he wants to fulfill his dream—and his 10-year business plan—of owning a luxury brand. “Ted Nemeth Designs Inc. was on a really good trajectory before the economy went to shit. It is a flying kick in the nuts because there were actually two guys in Dubai that were very interested, but now everybody is holding onto their money. It’s slowed down the last three or four months, but luckily I have enough clients to keep me busy.”
For Nemeth, the days of the three-piece suit are gone for good: “They’re now the rags that shine my ’61 Lincoln.”