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When Is A Chair Not A Chair?

And other notes from Brooklyn’s design boom.

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The Future Perfect crew: back row, from left, Matt Gagnon, Sather Duke of Hivemindesign, Bart Bettencourt and Carlos Salgado of Scrapile, Jeannie Choe of the Design Can; front row, from left, Ruby Metzner of Hivemindesign, store owner David Alhadeff, Steven Tomlinson of the Design Can, Christine Warren and Alex Valich of Redstr Collective.   

This is design season in Brooklyn. In dusty warehouses across Williamsburg, Dumbo, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a close-knit cohort of young furniture-makers and product designers are frantically putting together their latest ideas in time for the slew of shows that blanket the borough in May. Four years ago, Firstop was the first Williamsburg design show. This year, there will be at least thirteen across the borough, from Bklyn Designs, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce–sponsored omnibus, to HauteGreen, a show devoted to ecofriendly design.

So in the Navy Yard, Christine Warren and Alex Valich, the husband-and-wife team behind Redstr Collective, are making blueprints for a witty fusion of a park bench and a classic Eames leather sofa. On Montrose Avenue in Williamsburg, Sather Duke and Ruby Metzner, the couple behind Hivemindesign, are reviving the lost Sunday-school art of filography—a kind of sculpture with string—in order to cast a really cool light pattern with their big new steel lamp. A few blocks away on Grand Street, Matt Gagnon is piecing together a giant wall hanging made of hundreds of interlocking pieces of wood. As Redstr’s Valich boasts, “It’s really crazy that within a three-mile radius, all the conceptual, thought-provoking work in America is happening.”

There have been furniture-makers working in Brooklyn for decades, but not until David Alhadeff opened the Future Perfect in Williamsburg in 2003 was there the sense of a full-fledged design scene, a group of loosely affiliated young artists doing adventurous, form-pushing work at close quarters to each other. The Future Perfect is the primary showcase for Redstr, Hivemindesign, Matt Gagnon, and other Brooklyn designers like Jason Miller, Scrapile, the Design Can, Lindsay Wiesenthal, and Sarah Cihat. “They helped to make Williamsburg what Williamsburg is now,” says silver-haired Firstop co-founder Klaus Rosburg, who came to the neighborhood in 1998 after a career in German product design.

Beyond the Future Perfect, there is Matter, Jamie Gray’s more austere home for conceptual design on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. Beyond Matter, there are green design stores (3R Living on Fifth Avenue), global design stores (Loom on Seventh Avenue), and just plain pretty design stores (Environment337 on Smith Street). And beyond these are design fans who obsessively document the whole phenomenon on blogs like design*sponge.

But Alhadeff—energetic, charismatic, perpetually clad in sneakers, cords, and shades, a dot-com refugee who sold his e-commerce company to Urban Box Office in 1999—is the central figure. He shows the most ambitious work. He may not have invented the scene—many of the designers he shows were already working when he opened the Future Perfect—but, along with Firstop, he made it visible. “A lot of us didn’t know each other, didn’t realize that such a huge community was here together,” says Bart Bettencourt, who makes furniture from recycled wood with Carlos Salgado under the name Scrapile. “Dave was a huge supporter.” “I look at all these people not just as friends but as family,” says Valich. “If one of them called me up and is like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m trying to put this thing together,’ I’d go help them all night. Because they’ve done that for us.”

At first sight, the stock at the Future Perfect seems wildly diverse: Stools made from brightly colored rope sit near an intricately striped wooden table with clean, modern lines, across from standard deli coffee cups cast in porcelain and deliberately broken vases. But there is a curatorial vision at work here: “It’s all like-minded,” says Alhadeff. “What’s interesting about the work is that it’s conceptually creative. It’s not just craftsmanship.”

By conceptual, he means a purpose that transcends form and function. “A chair can do more than just hold you up off the ground and support your back,” says Alhadeff’s closest co-conspirator, Jason Miller, whose witty riffs on suburban Americana are some of the store’s biggest hits. “The idea leads you to think about something else, think about that object in a way that you wouldn’t have otherwise.” For example, Miller’s Daydreams mirrors, which are imprinted with images of trees and seascapes, are meant to make you imagine yourself in a different environment, beyond the living room.

The Williamsburg designers draw as much on the history of art as furniture and blur the lines between the two. They play with design history, as in Redstr’s American Dollhouse series, which was made by scouring the Internet for images of objects from various American design periods and creating a new piece from the composite. They turn everyday objects into luxury pieces, like Miller’s re-creations of beat-up furniture, and vice versa, like Matt Dilling’s giant chandelier made from neon lighting. They share an interest in recycling, either of mass-produced, pop-cultural objects—Rosburg has made lights out of coat hangers—or in the more serious green sense, like Scrapile. Yet for all the thought behind it, the work is also immediately appealing. “I’m a sucker for something pretty,” Alhadeff admits. This is all very, pardon the term, postmodern.


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