Los Angeles, CA, USA
“Creativity must always come first,” says designer and HGTV star J.Pickens. Join us as we learn about his journey from handyman to HGTV star and business owner. He shares his design philosophy and workflow for collaborating with some of the most talented creative minds.
You’re on a popular TV show and have an incredible design and fabrication background. Give us the full download on how you got started and where you are now.
I always gravitated towards making stuff. Growing up in the country, you must be your own auto mechanic, farmer, drywall guy – fixer of all broken things. When I left Alabama after college and went to New York, I noticed that nobody there owned tools, and I could charge a premium for using what small tools I had. These skills propelled me to design sets for the theater and work as a university technical director. My path eventually led me to the Martha Stewart show and prop fabrication for major motion pictures, including The Smurfs and Curb Your Enthusiasm. After that, I became a reality-tv star for Networks like HGTV and Travel Channel and started my own residential and furniture design company.
What does the J. Pickens company specialize in?
We specialize in fabricating strange and unusual furniture and art pieces. If it's a request for a giant window display on Fifth Avenue in New York or a bespoke fireplace inside a luxury apartment – you call us. I review the job and then decide what specialized experience you need, whether it’s an artisan, ceramic artist, fabricator, metal worker, or all of the above. We don't just make pieces of furniture to mass-produce; every single item we make is unique.
Custom brass display case made for a showroom on 5th avenue in New York City.
With such unique pieces, you must have some secrets to streamlining your design process. Tell us, what’s your workflow?
We first try to understand the emotional impact a client desires. If a designer wants an enormous concrete sculpture to go inside of a modern art museum, they already have their vision for it and how they want the observer to react.
“The passion the project will invoke in people who walk through the space – that’s the most critical aspect to get right.”
Once we understand our client’s vision – one that is usually complex and has never been done before – we value engineer the concept to ensure it’s feasible. The fabrication process starts by sketching out exactly how the piece works, how it could function, and what it might look like while keeping the design high-level enough to be fluid and changeable. It’s only near the end that my team decides on curves, textures, and finishes.
A photo of a custom-made walnut dresser and its 2D plans in LayOut.
Do you use any technology in your design process?
I used traditional CAD drawing programs in college but found them very limiting in terms of creativity; conveying new ideas with only squares and perfectly aligned angles was challenging.
Eight years ago, I found SketchUp, and it has been my go-to ever since. I don’t want just to make a standard line drawing for a custom sofa job, and that’s where SketchUp comes in. I can 3D sketch a sofa reminiscent of how the client envisions the overall shape and then add in shadows and other objects to get a sense of its scale. I’ll bring in textures and detail using images and then move to SketchUp’s 2D documentation tool, LayOut. With SketchUp, I can engineer my own style and techniques. Anybody can train to be a fabricator, but not everyone puts creativity first.
“SketchUp is a valuable tool to quickly convey complex ideas emotionally and get the conversation going with a client. Using software to convey that spark of imagination is more important than going straight to the banal minutia of “this part needs to be seven-eighths of an inch.”
A rendering of a "Western" production design project drawn in SketchUp and LayOut for a music video.
What are some of your most ‘outside the box’ projects?
My team has created anything from a guitar for Prince to smash onstage on a Saturday Night Live episode to a giant cardboard city for an ad campaign. We once did a handrail with a snake wrapped around the bottom. Creating the snake was tricky. It would look flat and engineered if we were to draw it in a standard CAD program, so we used SketchUp to illustrate the metal fabrication. We even added shadows and images of scales. However, I wanted to leave some room for the artisan to make adjustments because they may decide the tail looks better wrapped around the base four times instead of three. SketchUp allows me to direct the creative vision, and as long as that’s clearly communicated, my team knows they have the creative license to make some changes.
The process of creating a pendant sculpture, made for HGTV's Smart Home 2020.
What features of SketchUp do you like the best?
3D Warehouse is essential. When I sit down to draw something, I want to get a sense of how that object will look in space. I want to understand how a chair will sit next to a table, against a wall, or in a room. I’ll create the loose exterior form of the chair and then select pre-built models from 3D Warehouse for context in the space.
“I pull objects from SketchUp’s 3D Warehouse all the time. It's amazing. I don’t need to waste time drawing plants or tables I’m not designing. You can pull them from the library and drop them into a model to immediately get a sense of scale.”
A tip to get a sense of the overall picture is to keep your 3D model in only blacks and whites at first. It makes an ethereal feeling; you can add color when you’ve settled on the concept.
How do you communicate your vision to your team?
My employees understand that we are not the company that will execute your standard kitchen for the lowest price. That's not what we do. We assist some of the world's greatest interior designers in completing their visions; we help them understand how components of what they are making can be engineered; and, first and foremost, we keep the creativity flowing from design intent to the finished product.
To do this, we train everyone on the team to use SketchUp and LayOut. Having everyone schooled on the same technology means anyone on the team can communicate with clients using our title block and pre-set styles. It presents a unified and professional company image.
How do you balance being a successful designer and a personality on HGTV?
I have always worked in television and film creating stuff. Eventually, someone asked me, "Hey, could you host this tiny little video?” and before I knew it, it was, "Oh, can you host this show?” The teaching and sharing aspect inspired me to go onscreen, and I traveled to fantastic places while hosting on the Travel Channel, Food Network, HGTV, and Discovery. It's been a lot of fun and keeps me meeting the most creative people. That way, I can continue to do some of the most innovative work designing and fabricating. Luckily, I have a fantastic team of people behind me, so it’s not challenging to do both. There are always manufacturing and cost challenges, but we've been doing this a long time and have smoothed out the process. We can’t get everything perfect all the time, but that’s part of the fun.
J.Pickens in his woodshop.
What’s your dream project?
A dream project would be to get about two weeks where I could go into my shop without distractions and craft my daughter a fantastic dollhouse. I would also like to expand my knowledge of unique fabrication methods – visiting other countries and seeing how they organize their creative processes for building something like a boutique hotel would be amazing. Expanding my expertise is an ongoing process, and I want to apply those new skills to a project with which I have an emotional connection or is that one-in-a-million project.
Want to learn more about J.Pickens? Head over to his Instagram.