Sign up for our Newsletter

Niko Yektai rests on one of his creations. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Photography by David Benthal

For someone who thinks so much about the art of sitting, Nico Yektai is usually on his feet. 

The Sag Harbor-based furniture designer — who specializes in sculptural seating that fuses woods and concrete into one-of-a-kind, asymmetric forms — is more comfortable standing over a table saw or bandsaw, or hoisting large works-in-progress onto a ceiling hook for a better angle. 

The result? Avant-garde benches, chairs, tables, desks and other furniture pieces that uniquely merge form and function. 

You may have stopped to rest on one of his designs and not even realized that your perch was part art. His work graces the grounds of clients and fans, as well as lauded gardens at East Hampton’s LongHouse Reserve and Greenport’s Peconic Landing, among others. The pieces offer repose, but also the opportunity to admire the surprising beauty of the serene but not-so-simple seating itself — the pieces  are, after all, one-of-a-kind works of art. But for this artist of fantastic form and function, you might say the sculptural aspects (and assets) of sitting were a creative calling that pushed him, and his clients, to think outside the home.

The tools of the artist’s trade. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Creative kernels 

Yektai grew up in New York City with an abstract expressionist painter/teacher father and children’s book author/illustrator mother. From the 1960s on, he spent time in Bridgehampton and Sagaponack around his family’s artistic friends. While his parents discouraged Yektai from pursuing a career in the arts due to the profession’s many hardships and uncertainties, his proclivity for working with his hands was apparent from an early age, beginning with building tree houses with his dad and then moving onto other functional pieces they made together. 

“We’d talk about furniture the same way we talked about creativity with two-dimensional art, so I always had this idea that furniture was sculpture,” he says, underscoring his determination to pursue his passion. 

To hone his craft, Yektai got an art history degree at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, then an MFA from the School for American Craft at Rochester Institute of Technology. He started creating sculptural furniture from the get-go, finding balance in imbalance and creating his own language in asymmetry. 

He didn’t find his groove for outdoor furniture until later; that idea came from his clients over the years. “I was always hearing, ‘I love your benches, but I just don’t have anywhere in my house to put them,’ ” he says. 

Moving works outside shifted the design paradigm, allowing clients to break free from the conventions of interiors and be more experimental with the additional space. “The outdoors brings a whole new element to furniture and art,” says Yektai. “The scale is quite different outside, plus, people don’t need to ask their interior designer if it ‘fits’ with the scheme.”

All in the family

While a bench typically seems like a standalone object — and, certainly, many of the artist’s pieces do sit as solo works — he typically creates them as part of a continuing exploration of a theme. The artist estimates that each piece in a series is about “85 percent of the next.” 

“Each one benefits from the greater exploration that each one should have something unique and new and different,” Yektai says. “However, if you take any one out of the lineup, it tells a complete story.” 

Nico Yektai creates small models of his benches first before contracting the final, life-sized version. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

At the very beginning of his process, Yektai creates small-scale models (1:8) of each piece before committing them to 300-pound constructions, a practice that allows him to experiment with ease, and helps clients visualize the finished piece in a three-dimensional way that a two-dimensional sketch or computer rendering never can. He keeps all of the models as part of a tangible portfolio in miniature, using them not just as examples of his work but as jumping off points for new designs. “I tell my clients they only get to keep one thing, the bench or the model!” he laughs.  

Yektai focuses mainly on one-of-a-kind pieces and commissions — producing anything from one to two very large pieces a year to 16 to 20 smaller works — saying his “brain is wired for limited production.”

Even within that mindset, though, he does find ways to thematically keep a certain kind of trademark consistency to his work. For instance, for the bench legs he designs in concrete, pieces can be recast in the same forms and used again, just in a different orientation. It’s all about seeing things differently each time. 

“Instead of the legs being parallel, I’ll move one this way then move one the other way and it creates movement,” he says. “They’re still legs, they still function, but they become more conscious. It becomes a catalyst for pushing boundaries within function.”

Inward inspiration, outward application

Instead of the color schemes and room dimensions that a custom furniture designer might take into consideration, as an artist who uses Mother Nature’s domain as his inspiration, Yektai works within a different set of parameters for his outdoor art — like how different woods weather in the elements over time — and the outside perimeter of his studio punctuates that point, filled with wood samples in various stages of wear. This is in mind when he accents his outdoor benches, chairs and tables with legs of cast concrete — a substance impervious to water, bugs and the like. The concrete also adds an artistic element, as the material’s industrial makeup and sharp edges lend counterpoint to the wooden planks, which Yektai often shapes fluidly along the natural grain. 

He works with domestic hardwoods such as cherry, maple, white oak, walnut and ash. The only foreign wood he regularly uses is sapele from Nigeria, which is found in many of his outdoor benches. 

Most of Yektai’s work is done on commission, so he does not have a wholesale showroom for browsing, although he sells finished pieces (and provides inspiration for commissions) online through and the maker’s section at 

The best clients, he says, are those who share his creative passion and are eager to engage with the design progression every step of the way.

Christopher and Parker O’Brien, a Brooklyn couple with a home in Sag Harbor, met Yektai on an open studio tour for the East End Artist Alliance a few summers back. After adding a front porch to their home to watch waterfront sunsets, they knew exactly who to call for a dramatic bench that would double as a piece of art. 

“We wanted a 10-foot bench, but had to make sure it wasn’t going to blow into our new 12-foot-wide picture window, as we get direct strong winds off the bay,” says Parker. “The bench had to be heavy, and had to have cement, so we immediately thought of Nico.” 

“The scale is quite different outside, plus, people don’t need to ask their interior designer if it ‘fits’ with the scheme,” says Yektai of the impetus for creating outdoor works of art and function. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Yektai helped tweak the O’Briens’ original concept, adding functional enhancements like a seat that slanted slightly back with drain holes so water would run through. They also added an elongated flat area to one side for drinks and a charcuterie tray, creating an asymmetrical look. 

What the couple didn’t expect, however, were Yektai’s constant updates straight from the workshop, complete with photos, tool explanations and musings on process. 

“Every time I opened my email, there were updates of our bench coming to life!” says Parker, noting they got detailed answers to all her questions, from acclimating the wood (it’s actually done inside the studio rather than outside), how he mixes the cement, adds pigments, makes the concrete molds, cuts the wood, angles the legs, assembles, sands and varnishes the bench. The pièce de résistance? A close-up snapshot of Yektai etching his name into the back. 

The O’Briens change up the bench with the seasons, from pillows in warmer months to a sheepskin throw for fall/winter. “But honestly,” says Parker. “I like seeing it as is, so we enjoy the beauty of every line and angle.”

Site specific

Because of their unique construction and the time that process takes, though, you’re more apt to see Yektai’s benches in a park, art gallery or museum exhibitions. 

On both the South and North forks, you can experience his benches outdoors, where they sit among other artists’ open-air works. In addition to LongHouse and Peconic Landing, his benches have been exhibited at Guild Hall in East Hampton and Brecknock Hall in Greenport, the latter in a group exhibition titled “The Rest is Art: A Celebration of the Bench as an Art Form.” 

Although beautiful on their own, viewing the benches in as a series is to truly get inside Yektai’s vision for his work, like the string of them dotting the waterfront park at the Seafarers campus in Piney Point, Md. 

“They look the same at a glance, but upon closer inspection they are quite different,” Yektai says. “And if you start to look through [the series], you start to come to the conclusion that I want you to get to — that each one demonstrates some kind of compositional balance but via a different path. They’re each a moment in time. That’s the idea of my work. That’s what keeps me from being bored.” 

Currently, Yektai is playing around with a concrete series he’s calling “Cousins” — cast concrete forms that are each balanced, standalone compositions, but which work together as a larger composition when grouped. They can be used as both indoor or outdoor stools or accent tables, with custom colors and sizes encouraged.  

While “Cousins” offer a certain “spontaneity and freedom” in design, he says, he first builds them out of foam, which can be cut with much more ease. 

Lest anyone think furniture design is less of an “art” than painting, Yektai overtly “signs” all his benches, as he did for the O’Briens, with his name carved loud and proud into the front or back side — the woodworker’s maker’s mark. 

This year, Yektai has been busy with some wall-hung consoles, but the bench remains one of his favorite artistic subjects, whether indoors or out. 

“A bench has a nice balance of physical space,” he says. “[It] lends itself to a combination of materials and functions, has enough structure to get me organized, and enough freedom to let me fly.”