One man's trash is now a treasured chair
Noel Mercado sees what you can't in found objects
With my wisdom teeth freshly out two days before, I sat down on Google Meets to interview Noel Mercado. Noel is a Chicago-born, Latino artist that collects and transforms found materials—like punching bags, metal signs, and seatbelts—into timeless design objects that capture our collective nostalgia. Bearing with me as I asked questions through gauze-stuffed gums, we talked about his process, where he finds inspiration, art, upcoming travel, the power of community, and his plans for the future.
I read your Office interview, and shout out to Sahir too because they’re working with us on Pink Essay. You told a story in the interview about how you found the punching bag for this chair in an alley while out walking your dog. That’s a gem btw. But, how do you know when you see something that it’s going to work for a piece? Or what’s your process like?
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In those cases, I just let this stuff decide for me. The fabric is really high quality, it's durable, and it's free–that always helps.
I found the punching bag after a rainy day, so it was super heavy. While I was doing the preparation, physically getting dirty and carrying this heavy ass punching bag back home and washing it and deconstructing it, I was thinking about how I can use it. What pattern pieces do I have? What would this circular piece be cool for or the little triangular hardware be used for? I'm killing two birds with one stone, concepting and deconstructing at the same time
I'm at the point with my studio where I have enough materials—I have chairs, I have signs, I have random wood that I found in the alley so now I can start puzzle piecing things together.
Do you ever go through the process and somewhere in the middle of it, realize: actually this isn't it? I can’t recover this material?
All the time. Sometimes I'll be in the middle of a piece, like I’m taking a chair apart, and I don't even realize that underneath the fabric is ruined. There’s several variables where I'm just like, I don't wanna do this or this is too much work, or it's actually not salvageable or I don't have the tools. I'm definitely weighing my options when I'm deconstructing things. That's why when I’m sourcing materials, I'm pretty picky.
I know the materials now that I don't like using, so I can just rule that out right away. But yeah, a lot of it is just knowing where I should be spending my time and how fast I can execute and if it's going to be something that I'll like at the end. A big thing with that is I’ll only have one Marlboro sign, you know? Depending on what it is, I'll make a test piece or try to mess around with the material if I have a lot of it—like, let me make this thing first out of some shitty wood—and then see if I even like the idea.
Especially because this practice does get expensive sometimes. If I find something that I gotta have, like the Marlboro sign, I can't fuck it up cuz this sign was $200–I better make it worth while. I've blown plenty of money just being like, I don't like this idea anymore. I just abandon it.
It's overwhelming sometimes cuz I like to collect, collect, collect. It’s all a game of time versus material versus being able to execute.
I would say not many people associate found materials with “untouchable”, well-known designers, like Herman Miller. You bring these worlds together in a way that makes so much sense though. Can you talk about that?
I mean, at the end of the day, all of these things are functional. A Newport sign, a chair, like they're all serving a function regardless of how well they're designed. I care about construction, so I do a lot of research. If I have an idea, I YouTube everything just to see what to look out for.
I like the Midwestern blue collar, hands-on type of vibe, but then mixed with these objects that you strive to own one day or have to work hard enough to own. Combining those two worlds comes natural.
I’m green to your work, but going through it, “Windshield” really spoke to me. It’s such a strong and familiar and nostalgic reference for me—it was just missing the Black Ice tree imo.
That’s the classic one for sure.
But for real, I see you use found objects and materials in classic furniture forms or even in reinventing some famous ones like Herman Miller chairs, but often your pieces go beyond furniture into an art space. Like I wouldn’t wanna sit in this chair, I just wanna stare at it and reminisce. Furniture is seen as functional and art, I feel like in a lot of ways, is not seen that way. When you talk about yourself, do you see yourself as a designer, a furniture maker, an artist? How do you see these worlds—furniture design and art—and what's your perspective on how they collide?
Making the connection, that's the fun part because once it clicks for me, I'm like, oh, perfect. It doesn't always work out that way, but connecting those two worlds is definitely the fun part of the making process. And then also knowing my process, the most important thing is knowing when to stop and knowing that something is done.
I always tell people that with what I do, if I cross the line a little bit, it can be tacky and it could be corny. You have to know when to stop so that it's still tastefully thought through and executed, without being over the top and flashy for no reason.
A lot of my process is very technical: sewing, upholstery, embroidery, all these things and I pride myself on that because not everyone can do that. I try to highlight that as much as possible while being subtle—I want to be subtle with a lot of my work because the materials are already in your face.
The other thing that I was looking at was the Kool chair you did. And since you already mentioned Newport, which both are also nostalgic for me—that’s what all of my older cousins smoked growing up, you know. Is there a particular set of references—like brands from popular culture or things from growing up—that you like to work with or feel drawn to? You’ve worked with Marlboro and you mentioned the Midwestern vibe too that you like.
My background comes from graphic design so I'm already attracted to logos and typography. A big connection—why I did the Kool on that chair—was because the Kool logo and the Knoll logo have a majority of the same letters in them. I was just making those connections—Kool logo on a Knoll chair. I had green vinyl, so I was like, oh, okay, I could use Kool.
That's one of my favorite chairs. It took a lot of time and a lot of leather knowledge. When I was deconstructing that chair, I had a totally different idea, but then as I was taking it off, I was like, I don't know how the hell I'm gonna put this back together. I didn’t want to ditch this chair. The Kool chair and then the punching bag chair, I almost sold—or threw them away—before I even did anything to them.
I took the Kool chair apart and the shell part of it, the actual structure, where you sit, I was just like, I don't have the tools for this. I don't know how the hell they put nails underneath fabric and then hammered it to—like I just don't get it. I don't have the tools. And I was like, well, let me not give up super quickly. This chair is sick. I like this idea.
A lot of it's pivoting. I pivot into what if I do a leather sling and just get rid of the the shell part, just throw that away and then do what I know how to do best or use this leather to my advantage because it's strong enough—I know how I can stitch it and all this stuff.
So I forgot what your question was…
Just your influences…
Influences, yeah, Marlboro—vintage cigarette paraphernalia and ephemera—is interesting to me because it's funny that there's clothing for cigarettes and then you start digging deeper and I found a bunch of Harley Davidson's—like Harley Davidson used to have cigarettes, so that's a future reference. It makes sense, but you never would've thought.
I mean, imagine that was a merch item back then, like instead of getting a pin, companies just had like, yeah, cigarettes.
Gonna make cigarettes for people who clearly like smoking cigarettes.
That makes sense.
Dunno, there's a slight fascination with smoking cigarettes. I don't really smoke cigarettes, but I feel like cigarettes are very romantic to oneself. To step away and have a cigarette—I like that association and the playfulness of something that's bad for you. People are going to make their own decisions.
You were drawn to brands because of your background in graphic design—because you had gone to school for that. And I don’t know why I feel stuck on the word collage, you’ve used it a few times to talk about your work, your process and the way you think about materials. But what are the other parts of the collage that you make up your identity as a designer?
I grew up always being on eBay, ever since I was a kid, looking up vintage pocket knives. Everything had to be cool and vintage and as cheap as possible.
I was just collecting things and appreciating the thrill of finding something unique that not many people have. That's always been something that’s ingrained in my identity. Everything that I own is from something or there's some sort of history behind it. When I find interesting signage or nice quality fabric, a big part of what makes it cool is where it came from and the life it already lived—and now it's with me and it's gonna live forever.
I was just collecting stuff left and right and I was like, should I open a store? This was a long time ago. This was before the vintage craze.
Yeah, I feel like a lot of people would find this stuff, hop on GOAT or something, and try to resell it. But you're like, I'm gonna make new stuff out of it.
That's literally exactly my thought process. I was like no one cares about this broken Betty Boop clock. Maybe Betty Boop people do, but, you know what I mean? How can I flip this and make it appealing to more people?
The sewing machine I make a lot of my stuff on, I bought it from this old couple. It's from the fifties and it's built like a tank. The woman who sold it to me said, this used to be my grandma's, or great grandma's and they used to use this machine at a scrunchy factory. I'm like, that's sick. You don't really think about scrunchies and how they're made, but someone made them and they were made on this machine.
A lot of it stems from repurposing too. When I used to work in a wood shop, I wouldn’t buy wood. I would always source wood from cutoffs. Almost every frame in my house was made from cutoffs—like it was once a table and you could even see the little hole where the nails were. This is really good quality wood that's usually expensive, you just gotta put a little love and effort into pulling the quality out of it.
All these materials can last forever if we focus on repurposing them. You bring them into a space where people can see that, with Herman Miller and Knoll, where the association already is this object is gonna last for generations. That’s so dope.
Exactly. And that's what I aspire to make. These pieces that are the Herman Millers and the Knoll and all of these companies, where they are culturally relevant, but also really quality made and also timeless. This stuff holds the test of time. And that's kind of my ultimate goal is to create pieces that will never be out of style and it'll age gracefully, you know
As a collector and as someone who works with collected materials, I imagine there’s an inclination to turn everything into a piece of furniture. Are there things that, not because you can't salvage them or because of some other reason, you choose not to turn into furniture—that you choose to just appreciate?
I know when not to fuck with something.
There’s this stool that I have. It captures exactly everything I hope to do—It's a wooden bar stool that's probably like 40 years old or something. It has a perfect patina. One little part of the leg is painted red for some reason. The screws don't match. It's very makeshift and it's lasted this test of time. It's just great as it is. It’s perfectly aged. And now it can live in my house forever as a book holder or a plant stand.
I studied Art History in college and you know I immediately associate found objects with Dada and Duchamp and that whole group and movement. Did you go to school for this kind of stuff and learn about these guys or who/what worlds specifically would you say have had the biggest influence on you? Who do you look up to or base your craft on?
I look at all those artists, obviously they're the greats. The idea of Duchamp and Koons, they're the conceptual part of it, where I'm like, how can I make these objects mean more than what they mean without getting too deep into it and still having fun with it.
Then visually, and in practice, I look up to Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. When I go to any museum or gallery that they're in, I’m always fascinated. You know, you see it on the internet, you see it in a book, and then once you see it in person, it's amazing. It looks good from afar and then it's even better when you get close. I try to emulate that as much as possible. I don't paint—I use paint but I'm not a painter. I remember seeing a Keith Haring painting and examining and studying the brush strokes, how they're layered, and how you see it on screen or in a book, you think it's a perfect line, but then you see it in person and you're like, holy shit, there's nothing perfect about this. And that's a good thing. So I try let the hand quality be prevalent in my work.
For Duchamp and the Koons, I like the conceptual idea. Andy Warhol, I like the process and how it's screen printing and painting and on some random piece of wood. I admire Virgil as well.
I wasn't a big fan of Virgil for the longest time. Mostly cuz I wasn't an Off-White kind of guy. It wasn't me. But then I really started studying him and learning about how he approaches projects—literally designing everything. That's really important to me because I'm never gonna stop. I'm going to do everything. I'm interested in furniture, clothing, shoes and I'm gonna try to do that at some point.
I wasn't gonna talk about it cause you did a whole interview already but USM, it’s something. I’m sure a lot of furniture designers would call a dream collab. Having done that, where’s the dream go from here? What’s next on the bucket list?
I would really like to work with another brand, whether it be furniture or clothing. None of the USM stuff was custom, like it was custom but within their design system. Those are all existing colors, existing materials—I just pieced it together how I would like it to be seen.
My next project, I hope I can do more of a custom color way or really start creating a new object from scratch, whatever the capabilities of the company could be. Not that USM didn't allow me to do bigger ideas, but more of like if I worked with a shoe company, let's make a 20 foot shoebox.
How would that process start, working with outside people. I don't have to strain myself so much on only what I know and what's available to me. If I could work with another big company and take advantage of their knowledge and their capabilities and be able to outsource things—more curation, consulting on the idea, producing and coordinating things. That would be really fun to do. That’s where I really think I can shine—I'll always make artwork, but I really would like to like express these ideas in a grander way and do the type of work that Virgil and Tyler did and do.
The shoebox would be crazy.
All those things are possibilities. You just gotta know the right people and if you have the opportunity—that's something I'm really big on. If you get the opportunity, don't take it for granted. My friend told me, when they give you an opportunity, get your foot in the door and then kick the door down and take full advantage of any space that someone's giving you and show who you are.
I feel like what Virgil did too was turn his platform into something for other people, like when he put out “Free Game”. How do you think about the platform that your work is creating. I wonder if you think about that at all, your pieces obviously have a message for consumers or collectors, but I imagine there’s also a message to other designers. Have you thought about what that is?
I always hope to communicate that if you wanna make art, there's no excuse. It just takes determination and that's how you see who's serious and who is willing to put in the extra effort. Those are the people who I want to help, you know. I've done the hard work—I do the hard work. I pick things up that are gross and dirty and have spiders on them and shit, and I clean 'em off and I polish 'em up.
But I hope one day I can be a resource for people. I feel like I help people how I can, just with experience, I've had personal brands, I've designed things, I've gone through printers, all these little things that you just pick up throughout the years. If I could help someone being like, hey, you need vinyl stickers cut for a wall. I have a person, here you go. Now you don't have to look. And that just eliminated a whole day's worth of work for you. I already priced them for you. I already found what the costs were for me. And here you go. It's little tips like that.
Helping people think more creatively is super important too. If you wanted to make a table and you didn't have money to buy wood, right? There's free wood out there—you just have to find it. Figure out what you're willing to compromise on to make what you wanna make—that's really what it is. A lot of these kids are super creative and they have all the accessible knowledge in the world. I wanna help them.
I wanna come back to it now that you mention the homies and helping out the youth. You grew up in Chicago, and we’ve talked about Virgil who came from Chicago. It’s got a lot of richness when it comes to the creative community. And especially now it feels like, in the wake of Virgil, Chicago is getting a lot more recognition in the design world, I mean creatives emerging from the midwest in general right now are starting to get more and more of a spotlight on them. Do you feel that at all? I mean, what’s life like being a designer in the midwest—in Chicago—right now?
I love Chicago, my family's in Chicago, and I'll always be a Chicago representative, like forever. I'm gonna be traveling soon and I'm really excited because I'm going to Europe and I'm gonna be back in New York next month. I have to take what's cool in Chicago and the vibe from here and sprinkle it around to other areas. That's what I hope to accomplish—to really show people that quality ideas are coming out of here and representing where I'm from and being proud of it. Being a proud Mexican from Chicago that works as hard as I need to get things done that I want to get done.
I'm still relatively young too, so I'm trying to take advantage of my time. I have to go out and get some more inspiration from outta the country and bring that back home and incorporate that.
Also, outside of art, just connecting people. I threw this event at Soho House in Chicago. It was called Group Critique. I got a bunch of artists together to critique each other's work because I haven't had a critique since college. I actually didn't participate cause I had way more people than I thought—I wanted to let this be more about the community and let it be about them talking to each other and getting to know each other.
I was always the kid in college, who was like there's this art gallery opening, let me just go and show face and show I'm interested and maybe the artist will be there who I'm a fan of and all these things. Going outta my way to be a part of the culture and the community and the Soho House thing was really great for me, like this is where you guys can do that and show your work and talk to each other, network, and if you see something that you have in common with each other, connect on that.
That's a huge part of why I want to do this stuff is to help and inspire other people. You don't have to go to art school, you just have to care. That's all it is. You just have to care and once you care it'll show.
The space where you’re engaging with an object really matters. We’ve talked about Virgil and I feel like that’s something he really understood—designing the space. For furniture, it’s inherent most of the time—you know if it belongs in your kitchen, your living room, your bedroom—and a lot of that comes down to function. How do you think about designing the space where your objects are supposed to exist?
That's something I'm super conscious of.
I never even used to call myself an artist and I was making pretty much the same type of stuff I make now. So at first I was kinda like, all right, how do I want people to view my work? Like I said earlier, do I want it to be Etsy? Do I want to charge 50 bucks for some sort of makeshift thing that I made? Or do I want it to be at a gallery and be appreciated for what it is? Nothing wrong with Etsy, but my time is worth way more than trying to make a quick buck when I spent four days sewing. I'd rather people see it in person, appreciate it and give it the space it deserves. I'm like, yo, I put my time, my research, all these efforts into making this piece, you're gonna respect it. It needs to be respected.
It's definitely a much harder sell than the quick Etsy flip on something, but I want to be in the realm of people who make great work and people who appreciate great work and have that same enthusiasm and care. I'm not really the type of person where I don't care what anybody thinks when it comes to what I make. I make art for myself but I also respect the opinions of my friends, of my family, of people who I admire—like who’s artwork I really appreciate. I want to hear what they have to say about it because I respect 'em and I respect what they do and am always learning from.
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