By Layne Victoria Lynch
Photography by Marc Brown
Taking in the exquisite detail, subtle nuances and modern aesthetics of Eric Billig’s creations, it’s hard to believe that the local artisan has only labored in craftsmanship for a little over a decade. His one-of-a-kind commissions can be found in an assortment of family kitchens and commercial work spaces throughout Austin, in places like Whip In, HausBar Farms and Thai Fresh. But before he ever began transforming liquid rock, glass, steel and other metals into functional works of art, the effervescent craftsman dabbled in a bounty of trades including carpentry, masonry, home remodeling and even hospitality work.
“I used to run a food truck in Albuquerque called Cafe Bubbles that we eventually turned into a brick-and-mortar location,” Billig says. “We made these crazy wraps with cool, funky names like Schuman the Human, and it was a lot of fun while it lasted, but I was ready to get out of the restaurant industry after that experience. It’s incredibly hard, and I really respect and sympathize with anyone who goes into that work—especially here in Austin.”
Putting his culinary career to bed, Billig made the one-state hop from New Mexico to Texas in 2001, prepared for both a professional and personal change of view. Shortly after his arrival, he began a labor-intensive career in carpentry and home remodeling alongside his two brothers. And though Billig wasn’t certain where the guild would take him, he gave himself up to the craftsman trade—relishing the pleasures of manipulating tangible materials and collaborating with passionate and appreciative clients. “It was great to get back to basics and learn and relearn little things like how to hammer properly and put things together and take them apart,” he says. “I really enjoyed forming relationships with clients most of all. To me, that’s the greatest joy in this line of work: bringing other people’s visions to life.”
The change of scenery quickly brought additional blessings: six months after Billig moved to the city, he met his future wife, Marcela, and began pioneering his own installation ventures with his one-man firm, Eric Billig WORKS. Beginning with an impromptu coffee table for his mother-in-law, Billig’s designs eventually morphed into a sprinkling of other installation projects along the way. The Albuquerque restaurateur-turned-carpenter had become an accidental Austin craftsman.
Over the past 10 years, Billig has completed over 65 works in a stream of intimate settings. The detailed projects vary from topsy-turvy coffee tables to artistic tiles, spacious kitchen islands, his-and-her vanities and polished countertops; but they all share two things: an alluring organic quality and a clear appreciation for detail. Perhaps the material Billig is best-known for, however, is concrete. “I always had a particular fascination for concrete,” he says. “I loved how it went down as the sloppy mud and then turned into this hard material. Even today, that still seems like the coolest thing on the planet. There is something amazing about taking this rough material and transforming it into something that fits inside a person’s home.”
The meticulous, rigid process of creating concrete works employs a delicate balance of artistic expression and scientific method. While each of Billig’s rock works differs, they all commence with a mixture of concrete in its basic chalky, liquid state. From there, he forms various shapes and imagery into the minerals, allows the material to harden and dry and then finishes off the installations with a polish. The epoxy-and-herb countertops at Thai Fresh and the long, dark bar counter at Whip In are just some examples of Billig’s free-form genius.
Outside of his craft, Billig spends time with his two greatest loves: his close-knit family and Austin cuisine. When he’s not ordering happy-hour sushi, Indian-inspired curries, local craft brews and rabbit terrines at places like Uchi, Lenoir and Whip In, the Austin artist likes to improvise meals like Cheddar Bunny chicken (baked chicken coated with crushed Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies crackers) for his kids, Beatrice, age 5, and Ezra, age 8.
When speaking with Billig, the true depth of his humble disposition becomes apparent rather quickly. It’s as though he’s completely, and charmingly, unaware that many view his complex, awe-inspiring creations as expressive works of modern art. “I never want to pigeonhole myself in trying to define what I do in my work,” he says modestly. “The safest way to describe what I do is to say I create stuff.”