Friday, July 1, 2016

Mats Christeen

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

Former professional hockey player, model and now a carpenter-designer-artist with a workshop ( in Greenpoint, it’s hard to be cooler than Mats Christeen—except that there is a beating and often-worried heart underneath that makes him immensely likeable, “… trying to start a business here. I mean, like a hundred-and-ten hour workweeks for sure. You crash when you crash. It just doesn’t end. The stress almost comes at night. I cross off fifteen things on the to-do list—[then] I add thirty.”

We just met your dad on his way out—am I right in thinking it was your dad who initially taught you carpentry and woodworking skills?

Yes. If you ask him he’s probably going to say, “I didn’t teach him …” It was just what we did. It was a classic scenario of my mom asking me if I wanted to go to the movies with her and my sisters or did I want to go to Home Depot with my dad, [it was] “Home Depot!” It’s not what my dad did for a living but when we moved into our house [in Sweden] it was a one-bedroom house and now it has six bedrooms—and he did it all.
Looking across the living room of Mat's Hell's Kitchen apartment.
Mats designed this reclaimed wood, steel and glass coffee table with materials that he had in his shop from two previous projects.
Another view of the table.
Steel and glass wall shelves display shells and photos of Lizzie and Bobby, mother-and-son Border collies with whom he grew up in Sweden.
Very Scandinavian right? They’re totally into their homes.

Oh yeah, totally. My mom is super into landscaping and flowers … she’s been in garden shows and my dad loves helping.

Are you good at assembling flat-pack IKEA furniture by any chance?

Er … um … I would say I’m pretty good. The only problem with IKEA is when you have that bag of fifteen extra screws and you’re always wondering, what did I forget? They used to give you one screw less and you had to go back—now they just throw them in there.

You don’t strike me as aggressive enough to be a hockey player …

I have a temper. I’ve learned to deal with it. But as a kid I gave my mom a hard time. I could never sit still … I had a very scattered mind.
A view into the compact kitchen from the seating area.
Mats created a iron frame base for the leather sofa cushions.
Peeking into the bath. Mats made creative use of simple gas pipes to create towel racks.
How did you learn to deal with it?

My mom found hockey [for me] and that definitely helped. It was a good sport for me. I think she raised me super-well. Whenever I had a crazy freak-out, she would be like, try to take ten deep breaths. She wasn’t yelling or locking me in a room until I calmed down. She was more, “It is dangerous to be this angry. Please try to breathe.”

What was it like to come here to play for the NHL? It must have been quite a shock in some ways.

When you get the phone call in Sweden and you’re eighteen and living in a small town … I mean there had been scouts. I was never really a goal scorer. I just worked extremely hard—and I hated losing.
A corner banquette was constructed out of reclaimed wood slats and cushions that previously belonged to another couch.
A plush throw tops Mats corner banquette.
The coffee table was fashioned out of poured blue-colored resin stone and a reclaimed beam. "The inspiration for the table came from old docks periodically surfacing in the Hudson River," says Mats.
It’s such a weird sport. You can’t see their faces; everything happens so rapidly that it’s over before it’s begun and then suddenly they all take their gloves off and hit each other—like boxing on ice skates. What’s all that about?

[Laughs] That’s happening less and less. Back in the day it was really the only sport where it was allowed, so it’s part of the history of the sport. It was brutal. Ten times … fifty times [more brutal] … the fighting just wakes up the rest of the team. It’s unwritten rules. You both drop the gloves at the same time and it’s a fair fight. But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to drop the gloves and fight. Nobody innocent gets hurt.

And you did this?

Um … there was… um … yes … but I played in Sweden so it’s not really the same. In Sweden you always get sent off for the rest of the game, so it didn’t happen that often, maybe once every five or six games.
A photo of adorable French bulldog, Lily hangs above the TV and stereo system. Mats built the cabinet out of left-over shop materials.
The 1980s steel bedroom bookcases were inherited from a former job site.
Engraved silver cups were purchased at a secondhand store in Sweden. "I love to bring pieces from every part of my life," says Mats.
Peeking out the rear window overlooking the backyard garden. A nearby houseplant flourishes from the direct sunlight.
A photograph purchased online is positioned behind vintage tools.
Jewelry and watches collected during various travels.
It’s just that your video on your website is all extremely Zen … you know, “I don’t want to make the piece into something it doesn’t want to be …” It seems hard to imagine you dropping your gloves and punching somebody.

Well, it was a sport and it was in that moment and also it was my job. I was eating, sleeping and breathing hockey. And when it was done … I don’t go to any hockey games now [and] I don’t watch it.

Okay so we’ve given you a hard time about hockey, now we’re going to give you a hard time about modeling. What was it like?

[Laughs] I mean, all the traveling, all the opportunities—I’m super, super grateful. But is it like people think it is? No.

How did you get into it?

I was around twenty years old and my sister was like, “You could make some money on the side … you always look good in pictures” and I was like, “No, come on, I can’t be a model.” But she sent them in to an agency in Sweden and Bruce Weber was there scouting people for a story in Vanity Fair. I mean it was just a coincidence that he was there that day and said, “Who’s that guy?” So I went and he said can you come and shoot tomorrow, and I’m, like, “No, I’ve got hockey practice.” And everyone is like, “Do you know who this is?” So I went after practice.
Mat's shoes are neatly stacked in a corner of the room.
An abstract painting by Mats last year during a rare moment of down time provides contrast with the otherwise neutral colors of the bedroom.
A bed made out of reclaimed wood is designed to create extra storage for clothing and other items.
And did he give you more work?

He booked me for two more jobs in Miami and that’s when I first came to New York. I fell in love with New York. I went back [to Sweden to play hockey] and after that season I came back here. I was booked for a Tommy Hilfiger campaign that was paid a lot more in one day than I was making a year playing hockey so … I just thought, “Here I am.”

The one picture of you online, in the little denim shorts, might come back to haunt you.

Oh, yeah. I remember that shit, too. I was not happy. I mean, I called my booker the very next day and I was like, you’ve got to tell me before I go on these things.

Anyway, we have to move on to asking you about your furniture.

This is my passion. This is what I want to do every day.
Mats at work in his studio.
How did you get your start in making actual furniture?

When I was in Sweden playing [professional] hockey, I did this on the side. I didn’t do it to make any money necessarily. I just enjoyed it, so I would go to vintage stores, buy some old stuff, take it to my parents’s house where I would sand it and sell it. I remember finding some chairs in my grandma’s basement that she wasn’t using. I would go and buy the fabric [for the upholstery]; I would cut it out in the exact same way as the previous fabric. I had her help me [set up] the sewing machine and I sewed it.

I like that image … the professional hockey player and the sewing machine. How did you set up in New York?

When I moved to New York, I always had a backyard so I started making stuff we needed at home. Then a friend asked for something … fast forward a few months and that friend had his boss over for a party … all of a sudden I got an order for twenty-one work tables. That’s when I’m like, “I need a new workshop.”

Do you only use recycled wood?

Ninety percent recycled wood. It’s from construction sites, like big beams that hold buildings together. It’s more reclaimed than recycled.
Mats designed this clever wall piece out of large "old-school" nails painted different colors.
Inspiration. "It was the end of a long tiring week and I began to think "where's there?" so I blurred the word 'there' out. I like seeing it everyday."
Necessities to start and end the day.
Do you call yourself a carpenter or a cabinet maker?

Definitely carpenter. I would almost stretch it and say artist/carpenter. It’s just as much metalwork as I do woodwork. I want to push the limits with the design.

Can you characterize your style?

I would say it’s grown from rustic-industrial to a little more rustic with a modern touch. And even from there to be a little more … artsy.

What was it about New York that resonated with you?

There is no place like New York. I could just sit and people watch, wondering about their stories. It becomes a little bit of rat race sometimes … trying to start a business here. I mean, like a hundred-and-ten hour workweeks for sure. You crash when you crash. It just doesn’t end. The stress almost comes at night. I cross off fifteen things on the to-do list—[then] I add thirty.
Calling cards. The gold bolt comes from factory Mats uses to get furniture plated.
You couldn’t see yourself going back to Sweden though?

I mean, I go home to my parents’ house and it is so quiet, I constantly have music with me.

What’s on your playlist? (Not that we’ll recognize a single thing you tell us.)

There’s three parts to my day: there’s my workshop—very spacey, not dance music but [something like] Moderat. Then when the day ends, spacey music but more calm, like Beacon or VIXX. The more I stress out over all these emails when I’m starting my day, I tend to put on some reggae—Bob Marley or something.

Well, I recognize that. Did you ever see all this in future?

I definitely dreamt about it for sure.