Author and designer Daniel Kucan grew up in Las Vegas, in a theater training conservatory where he studied design, carpentry, art and performance studies from a young age. During his teenage years, he developed an edgy, dramatic style and quickly became known as an artist who made rules up as he went along. After attending NYU, Kucan worked as a performer until 1999, when he moved to the west coast and became the lead designer for Hollywood furnisher Mortise & Tenon on La Brea.
From 2005 through 2006, Kucan was the resident carpenter on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and became known for building with recycled and renewable materials. He later hosted Desperate Spaces with Lise Simms on HGTV as well as Sell This House: Extreme on A&E with Tanya Memme.
In February of 2014, Kucan published Full Contact, Collected: The collected stories of Zach, Elroy, and Taro the Hunchback, an introspective, no-holds-barred look into the mind of a modern day warrior.
Kucan currently lives with his wife and his two dogs in Los Angeles, California, is an expert in two different Chinese martial arts, and occasionally fights competitively.
I have an irrational fondness for art and artists. One of the biggest flaws in our country’s social political ideology is its disinclination to fund art on any level; we don’t even have a national theater, something that every major civilized country has. When one looks back on any historical epoch, it is defined by its art. When one thinks of classical Greece and Rome, one thinks of the architecture and theater and visual art. The same can be said of the restoration or turn-of-the-century, and on and on. I think it’s funny that politicians and such run around acting as if they are somehow incredibly important, when in fact they will be lost to the footnotes when this age is being remembered for its films, TV and video games.
How did you get your start designing and building furniture, and what do you enjoy most about carpentry?
There is something exceedingly satisfying about starting with a bunch of raw boards, and finishing with a THING. Our ability to begin with chaos and shape it into something workable is unique and wondrous and I find it really enjoyable. The actual work, like all creation, can be genuinely unpleasant. But the before and after makes it worthwhile.
How did you initially get cast on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition?
I was working at my store and I got a call from a (at the time) young producer who said to me, “Hey, you don’t know me, but you designed a living room for my boss and he is the executive producer of a reality show where they build houses for people in need… have you ever thought about being on TV?”
I actually said, “No thank you.” But we continued talking and it was about a year later that I finally watched an episode and that changed my mind.
Have you always been a writer, or is this something you’ve only begun to pursue in recent years?
A large part of my training as a kid was as a writer. My father is a wonderful writer as is my older brother who is a celebrity in his own right. We are a family that really appreciates good wordplay. Honestly, I think all art is the same in this respect. All art is a translation process from some kernel of truth or honesty within an artist, into something discernable by an outside viewer. That’s art. That’s it. So the translation process can be in whatever media one decides: a novel, a rap song, a painting, a dance. The actual techniques simply have to be learned; but the most important thing in my mind is the kernel and the honest translation.
What aspects of the writing process do you find most enjoyable?
I find writing to be largely excruciating. It’s like smashing my face into the keys of a piano and hoping that I compose a symphony. I do find some pleasure in reading the things I’ve written when they are done (and I really like the conversation that is begun when someone reads my prose and has feedback), but the shouting of the words down onto the page… I’d rather go to the dentist.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
As a writer, I really like Chuck Palahniuk and Margaret Atwood right now, and a great novelist that is largely unknown in America named Mark Cirino (who I think might be a genius, but it’s too soon to say). A great book that just came out called Becoming Insomniac by Lee Scrivner just melted my face a little bit; it’s very heady but full of unexpected humor and grace.
The design world has me a bit flummoxed. I find that one can split most of what’s happening into two categories: clever design (which I abhor) or retail design (which is the only thing I hate more than “clever design”). There has also been an interesting phenomena where much of what’s happening in home design is based on things that have been showcased in home design TV shows. Of course I’m at least a little responsible for this, and it will take up a couple chapters in my book of sins.
For you, what separates a beautifully-designed room from a poorly-designed one?
Now you’ve done it… You’ve asked me a design question. This can only end badly. Of course design is merely another kind of artistic translation process, the retelling of an inner truth through the manipulation of plaster and color and upholstery. There is an inherent conflict in all design that adds a sort of majestic tension: it is the fight between the aesthetic and the functional, and entire schools of thought have grown up around this entirely savage battle.
There is likewise a constant struggle for the importance of design itself. It all seems so bourgeois, doesn’t it? There is far more honorable self-congratulation in the expenditure of resources on, say, cancer research or animal rescue than on the discovery of the perfect ceiling height or whether that countertop is simply way too impractical. It’s a strange phenomenon working in the world of design today, where every maneuver requires a moral justification, as if we are all monastic holy men who are unencumbered by the horrifically ugly buildings we spend so much time it. So much design today is ethically justified by being “green,” when the far more important aspect of it is that it makes people happy. And isn’t that the point? That our surroundings have the magical and entirely transformative ability to make us happy?
A well-designed room acknowledges that we are different people when we are faced with different surroundings. (This is of course, terrifying. Are we all so malleable and transient? Are we so weak-willed and separated from our “true self” that the color of the walls will affect who we are, if even only for a moment? And without question, the answer to these questions is “yes.”) I like rooms that are designed for a purpose. Not the way that an operating theater has a purpose, but the way that a living room has a purpose. An OR is the definition of form over function, but a living room is far more profound, it is a place to fucking LIVE. And living requires a more subtle set of clamps and scalpels. Living requires a sense of freedom, of security, of community and connection. Once one understands the purpose of a room, the design bit is relatively simple. So yes, I think design must start with an honorable or ethical purpose.
In the 80’s, I once saw the interiors of Donald Trump’s place in Manhattan. The clear purpose of the design was to convey outrageous wealth and status. The design itself was impeccable, but the starting point was so revolting that one couldn’t help getting overcome with a relentless case of the giggles. It was like reading a beautifully written sonnet about farting. A couple years ago I did a makeover TV show where we fixed up a room for a woman who had leopard prints everywhere, I mean EVERYWHERE. When I asked her what the room was meant for, she said, “I love animal prints!!” I said, “Great. But what do you DO here?” and she said, “I LOVE animal prints!” Man that room was ugly. This sounds simplistic but it is the thing most designers forget about when they are pouring over fabric samples and bits of tile; what is the room for? Sure, sure, it’s nice when everything matches, but what are we doing there? Are we talking or sleeping or eating or reading? And then, are we talking spiritedly or laconically? Do we want a bedroom that is restful or sexy or easy to wake up in or secure? If we can be very specific in the STARTING POINT, then hell, the rest is just buying stuff.
As a man with a very unique resume, what does a typical day for you look like?
I spend way too much time in physical activity. I spend a lot of time in a weight room or kickboxing or doing Gung Fu. I believe very strongly in the kinesthetics of emotional and artistic exploration and I find that my best headspace is achieved when I’m receiving a very thorough ass-kicking. But while I like to say that the physical activity feeds my artistic awareness, that may well simply be an excuse for hanging out at the gym. I also write a little each day. Of course the store (Mortise & Tenon) takes up a lot of time. When I’m lucky, I’ll spend some time at the factory and try to draw or build some new table or dresser or something. I really like making tables…
What do you do better than anyone else?
The job of any artist (any PERSON really) is to be the best version of themselves. In this, we are all uniquely suited to be better at it than anyone else. The desire to express that “selfness” is what makes artists interesting. I hate the “be yourself” platitude, but turns out it’s the only thing I’m even reasonably good at. I’ve spend lots of time trying to be other types of artists, funnier, more clever, handsomer or more charming, more commercially viable. Turns out I’m not that guy. I’m THIS guy, with all his egotism and showmanship and regret and awkwardness. But I do it better than anyone else. That, and I know exactly where to scratch my dog to make her ride the invisible bicycle.
What’s the best meal you’ve had recently?
My wife is wonderful in the kitchen, which is awesome because I’m largely useless there. A day ago she made a tofu omelet with basil from the garden and a sweet cashew something-or-other that was really good.
What do you wish you had figured out at a much younger age than you actually did?
As a kid, I studied art relentlessly: performing, drawing, building, singing and dancing, the whole bit. I wish I had understood at an earlier age that art is for the approbation and veneration of the human condition, and not for the ARTIST. I could have spared the world a lot of bad haircuts and fashion if I had gleaned the separation of my own ego from the work. Yikes.
What are you working on next?
I currently have two TV reality shows in development that I think are really cool. And I’m working on my second novel called The Gossamer Prince which is preposterously fun.