Group Group – wooden building blocks by Nathan Paul Rice


Nathan, why you design wooden building blocks?

I wanted to make a series of playful objects for children that could also be enjoyed and appreciated by adults and where the parts could be interchangeable. I experimented with color, shape, and texture to make sets of building blocks that can be played with in a familiar way (stacking, balancing, world building) but looked different than any set I had ever seen.  This allows for experimenting and discovering unexpected color and shape combinations. They invite the user to be a designer. I love to see how people find ways to arrange them and place them. It becomes a collaboration between me and whoever picks them up, like an interactive sculpture.

What was your inspiration for your latest project Group Group?

I spend a lot of time looking at 20th century artists particularly, Alexander Calder, Joan Miro<, and Isamo Noguchi. A few years ago I came across the hand painted blocks made by Joaquin Torres-Garcia. For whatever reason, his attempt to market and sell them failed even though they are so charming and full of character. I began to experiment with scrap wood in my own shop for fun.

It has been a series of trial and error and studio exploration developing these shapes. Everything I make begins as a drawing on paper and for me cutting shapes from wood is like drawing with a saw. This is where the 2D becomes 3D. I iterate quickly and  intuitively, adding to my own library of shapes that I keep expanding.  I make the circles and lines deliberately irregular and organic.

My working title for this series of wooden building blocks is GROUP GROUP. I like the playful and rhythmic sound of the two words repeated. It sounds like baby babble (the building blocks of language development).  A group of a group can refer to a collection of things brought together. GROUP GROUP is the sound of many colorful objects coming together.

Do you have children of your own? If so, how do they respond to your colourful wooden blocks?

I have two children (7 and 10) and they call the blocks Papa’s Blocks which I love. My youngest creates characters with the blocks or uses them as landscapes for his other toys. My oldest uses the wooden blocks to make their own mini sculptures and they display them around our house. Because my studio is in my home, they become an invaluable part of my design process. I can give them something to play with and immediately get honest feedback. They don’t hold back!

Now, your Group Group is still a protoype, but what are your plans for it in the near future?

My goal for the near future is to develop branding and packaging for GROUP GROUP. This is an aspect where I would benefit from a collaborator who specializes in this field. I will still make custom sets as commissions and for friends, but my next goal is to also have a limited run that could be offered in stores. I want people of all ages and backgrounds to be able to bring them into their homes!

Nathan, are there other products that you design specifically for children?

As an artist and designer, play is a huge driver of my practice. The cohesive thread between all my work is a looseness that comes from channeling playful energy while I work through an idea. I bring this energy to my ink drawings, sculptures, toys and the custom play structures I design and build for families. I am currently working on a play candelabra that will be a part of a larger playspace designed by my friend and collaborator Katie Shook of Mudland.

A few personal questions at the end, dear Nathan: What toys did you play with as a child? Did you have a favorite toy?

I grew up in the 1980s so my favorite toys were LEGOs, GI Joes and Transformers. I could spend hours creating worlds by myself. When I was 10, I got my first skateboard and that was it for me. Living in San Francisco, the city became our playground.  I loved the freedom and risk that skateboarding allowed. The movement and being outside in the city with my friends was what brought me joy.

And subsequently: What toy do you think is a completely superfluous?

I am put off by toys that are cheaply made and quickly become landfill or toys that are too prescriptive. I want to see more toys that teach children personal agency and encourage experimentation. A good toy lasts and can be passed down.

And last but not least – tell us something about you Nathan and your career. Where and what did you studied and what was particulary formative for you?

I studied studio art (painting) at Lewis and Clark College and earned my MFA in Applied Craft and Design in 2018 from Pacific Northwest College of Art. I was able to weave together my love of woodworking, playground design, and thinking through making. It was an amazing experience. Being surrounded by dedicated, and hardworking artists and designers really pushed me out of my comfort zone. It was here that I began to find my own voice and be able to articulate my ideas off the page and into the real world.


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Photos Mario Galluci