‘Utilitarian and minimalistic’: Q&A with one of the artists and furniture makers behind Black Helmut

In 2020, two friends in San Diego launched Black Helmut. Together these friends, Curtis Felten and Chase Young, design and sell unique furniture, described as utilitarian and minimalistic. All their products are made from aluminum, wood, steel, and limestone. 

In the three years since the genesis of the company, Chase has relocated to the United Kingdom and Curtis has found himself in Fort Wayne, using his garage as the headquarters for Black Helmut, but that hasn’t prevented the duo from running their art and design business.

Since moving to Fort Wayne, Curtis has been working to connect with local creatives and introduce the Black Helmut brand to the Summit City. On November 5, Black Helmut is hosting its first pop-up event at Wunderkammer on Fairfield Avenue, a sort of proper introduction and an opportunity for people to experience the brand in person. 

Black Helmut's Pop Up EventInput Fort Wayne sat down with Curtis Felton of Black Helmut to learn more about the inspiration behind their furniture and the upcoming one-day pop-up event.

Input Fort Wayne: Tell us about your business, Black Helmut.
Curtis Felton: I let the products do the talking. We’re a design studio that focuses on furniture. It primarily uses utilitarian and minimalistic aesthetics to make functional art or furniture. It’s very intentional and we’re very influenced by a few artists– Donald Judd and Chris Burden. We’ve been trying to make new products and collaborate– do anything we can to get it off the ground. 

IFW: How was Black Helmut created?
CF: I come from a design and build background, but I always wanted to start a furniture company/art objects something. I didn’t want to do it alone. In early 2020, I knew who I wanted to do it with and that was Chase Young. He and I created Black Helmut in the summer of 2020. 

I’ve always been a furniture guy. In 2018, I got into sculptures and things started to bleed a little bit. That’s when those influences affected what I was doing in my day job, where I was designing places like Electric Works and building them out. 

I’ve been intentional about gaining skills because I wanted to make something that was very unique. I love minimalism, but I love functionality and I love appropriating commercial materials in ways that they typically aren’t used. So that was the jump– me wanting to make something very stark, very quietly loud or bold, yet highly functional. I wanted to make products that challenge how we live at home. We want to use materials that don’t hurt the Earth and have a higher output than something like IKEA furniture.

Folding chair, made by Black HelmutIFW: Black Helmut was launched in San Deigo, but is now operating in Fort Wayne. How did you end up in Fort Wayne?
CF: I was in San Diego for seven years. In the summer of 2020, my girlfriend at the time, now fiance, is from Fort Wayne and she thought, ‘Maybe we could go to Fort Wayne and buy a house?’ I was like okay, let’s try it out for a minute. At the end of 2020, we moved. That’s what brings me here to Fort Wayne. I’m from Grand Rapids, Michigan, so I’m a Midwest guy at heart. 

IFW: What can people expect at the pop-up event?
CF: I wanted to put some of our furniture pieces in there and I also wanted to try to include some other artists that do, not at all what we do, but have a similar aesthetic, whether it’s an architect or a screen-printer.  

Steven Putt, an architect in town, and Robert Fowler, a screen printer, who is actually from Fort Wayne, but lives in Chicago, will be showcasing their art. Blue Bottle off C-Street is going to curate some natural wines. 

If you peel back a layer from Black Helmut, it’s like, these guys are obsessed with art and they just want to be like performance or sculpture artists too. It’s very much kind of a Tom Sachs kind of business model. We make products, but we also make sculptures. In the pop-up, there will be the remains of a performance piece that happened a few days earlier, which was thought of by Chase and me. 

It will help people understand more about us and why we use the materials we use. Like there will be a lot of cinderblocks. That’s partly because of the performance piece and partly because it’s the most rudimentary construction material ever. I think we always just view it that way when it can be used in so many different ways. It’s almost like a symbol for us at the pop-up. 

Raw Limestone Sconce, made by Black HelmutIFW: What inspired you to host a pop-up in Fort Wayne?
CF: I know I haven’t been here that long, but I have tried to be somewhat loud. Unless you’re in my house or on Instagram, there’s no way for anyone to see what we’re doing. Operating online is cool and everything I see on Instagram is cool, but I know these brands have cool pop-ups in L.A. and they’re doing temporary brick-and-mortars in New York. We have a good relationship with a lot of similar brands in Detroit. It’s cool but I don’t want to be that person. I want to do it here. I live here in Fort Wayne. 

IFW: Where did the name Black Helmut come from?
CF: There’s a couple of different routes it could go, but it really comes down to three things–

First, I really like colors in brand names because companies can evolve and the colors can still be incorporated. It could become something down the road that you weren’t expecting. 

Second, when I would woodwork way back in high school, I would put on a motorcycle helmet as my eye protection and ear protection and it was black. So, that’s like a shoutout to that. But more than that, playing with Legos as a child, there was a helmet with a black visor and it was always very sought after between me and my brothers. It always was the coolest thing for me growing up. Then, I wanted to use the letter “U” to separate it and make it ambiguous if it was American or European. 

Solid Limestone Book Block, made by Black HelmutIFW: How is it running a business with your business partner so far away?
CF: He just graduated two months ago from getting his master’s in fine art at Goldsmiths College in London, so it’s been interesting. I’m typically the person who builds, designs, and makes everything, but he is leaning more toward that. With him being in London, he’s pretty much all customer service, all website and social. He’s kind of the voice. If Black Helmut is talking in any way, it’s him, and he is really good at that.

For me, it’s like I have this idea, and Chase is like the one asking, “Well, why though? Let’s actually have a narrative behind every part.” Not just trying to do something cool, but trying to do something good. 

Him being in London, me being in Indiana, it was a little bit of a learning curve or a season, but it’ll be over soon, he’s moving back to the States. 

IFW: A big perk to selling solely online is that you can sell anywhere. Is there a region where your furniture is really popular?
CF: 90 percent of the people buying our stuff are people living in Brooklyn. It makes sense. We get what their apartments look like, how tiny are, and how annoying it can be to get something up the stairs, and we design things that are easy to ship. 

IFW: Where did your interest in building furniture come from?
CF: Growing up, I would be in my shop making furniture. I’ve been making furniture for a while. It’s what I knew. I hadn’t been exposed to other art. My dad hooked me up with a guy named Chuck Smith, who’s now passed away, but three days a week throughout my high school career, after school I went and learned about woodworking with him. I saw what he had made and I wanted to mimic it. I never went to art classes in high school. I was late to the game, I learned that all in college. 

I learned metal working in San Diego. I got thrown into the fire of aluminum and steel. I still do woodwork, but I really love working with metal. That’s what spurred Black Helmut’s initial materials. 

Check out Black Helmut’s work here.

Black Helmut's Pop Up Event
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Read more articles by Brittany Smith.

Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne's Managing Editor. Previously she served as Assistant Editor and participated in the College Input Program. She also volunteers for Northeast Indiana Public Radio.