Refractory is a furniture, lighting and objects brand and design studio based in Chicago.
The studio conceives, produces, and purveys rigorously crafted works in a language that is distinct within American and contemporary design landscapes. Layering traditional methods with modern tools, Refractory is both an evolution and an extension of a community of artisans who seek to create in the space where art meets collectible design.
Founded by Angie West from Texas and Alberto Vélez from Bogotá, the studio embraces a fascination with materiality, a deep respect for craft as an integral aspect of design, and an obligation to participate in the shepherding of American making. Based upon a sense that there are stories as-yet untold in design, the work is both provocative and exploratory.
This embrace of the unusual, the unforeseen, as well as the durable and resilient, are part of Refractory’s ethos, as expressed in its name. The term refractory references an unyielding nature and applies to both personality and process. While inspired by the powerful and mysterious forces of nature, evolution, and transformation, the work also bears the mark of disciplined, classically trained designers.
The studio draws from a deep love and reverence for the terrain and geology of the frontier. Arid western formations, tectonic forces, and the rugged honesty of erosion all exemplify the harsh but sublime beauty of those that preceded us in civilization, a philosophical foundation for the studio’s ethos. Each work is one-of-a-kind, a result of heat, of chemical interaction, and of the hand, giving rise to variation and imperfection, as well as an identifying code for purposes of authenticity and provenance.
Refractory is co-located with its production partner and sister company West Supply, a highly regarded design and art fabrication studio, foundry, and glassworks atelier. Here the works are developed, patterned, moulded and crafted by industrial designers and artisans who have mastered centuries-old techniques now influenced by modern processes and technology. Capable of casting in innovative methods as well as handling the complexities of design and development, project management, fabrication, finishing, and patination, all at the highest level, the atelier is a rarity among a limited group of US-based studios. Future editions will include hand-blown glass, stone, encaustic, ceramics, textiles and weavings.
Refractory is engaging in an open-ended renaissance of American artisanship and small-scale urban manufacturing. The atelier offers artisans and master craftspeople a space to experiment and create, to work alongside other master craftspeople, and to be the magic behind some of the world's most elevated works in these materialities. Sustaining and enhancing livelihoods in an industrial art ecosystem and building a platform to teach future generations through apprenticeships and residencies are central to Refractory’s mission.
Angie has been a maker at heart from a young age. An inclination toward visual composition led her to photography, where she spent ten years shooting commercially in the design sphere. Her personal photographic style however is journalistic, having been deeply inspired by the incomparable work of Sebastião Salgado, Larry Towell, and Mary Ellen Mark among other masters who have captured the essence and complexities of living.
An alumni of Vanderbilt University with degrees in Fine Art and Organizational Development, she began her professional life working with Holly Hunt, overseeing marketing, art direction, and eventually the product design studio.
In 2010 she purchased a small foundry in Chicago and renamed it West Supply in honor of her family's 1940's army surplus store in West Texas. She and the unparalleled consortium of talent at WS have since established an internationally respected foundry and glassworks studio, where they have cultivated relationships with designer clients Paul Mathieu, Ty Best of Caste Design, and Anna Karlin among many others.
They have been honored to realize many commissions for Theaster Gates, William J. O'Brien, Sanford Biggers and other artists also making significant cultural impact while breaking boundaries in theory and process.
Born and raised in rural West Texas, Angie lives in Oak Park with her bulldogs, Refractory’s deputies, Chevy, Levi and Bodine.
Alberto has an instinctive commitment to embed objects with a distinct personality, enabling physical works to tell their own story, have a proud, meaningful presence and enduring aesthetic relevance.
He was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, into a family blessed with accomplished creatives who gave him an early artistic education and fostered his unyielding curiosity for the natural world, architecture, and all things mechanical and well designed.
After completing Industrial Design studies, he moved to New York to further his education in interiors at F.I.T. He subsequently joined Studio Sofield, where during a thirteen year tenure, he led its millwork, custom and licensed design practice for a global clientele including the Gucci group, Tom Ford, Baker, McGuire, Kallista while also creating countless custom commissions for residential projects.
In 2010 Holly Hunt invited Alberto to lead her design studio in Chicago. Over the following decade he designed and developed multiple, highly successful collections of indoor, outdoor and lighting products, establishing HH Studio as a leader of modern luxury furnishings to the trade.
Alberto lives in Chicago with his wife Andreina, a photographer and their children Matilde, Emilia and Joaquin.