Many of these ideas were introduced into the design world in the early nineties by the Dutch collective Droog, which now encompasses work by more than 100 different designers (Rody Graumans’s chandelier made from lightbulbs may be the group’s most memorable artifact). Droog is cited by many of the Future Perfect group as an inspiration. If conceptual design has taken a little longer to emerge in the U.S.—New Yorker Gaston Marticorena was playing around with it in the mid-nineties, and the Future Perfect fellow traveler Tobias Wong’s 2001 piece This Is a Lamp, in which he turned Philippe Starck’s Kartell bubble club chair into a lighting piece one night before its official debut, arguably kicked off the current trend—perhaps that’s because the mass-design culture that it plays against is such a recent phenomenon here.
But, thanks to the combined forces of Martha Stewart, Target, Wallpaper*, Karim Rashid, Starck, Moss, and hordes of television home-makeover shows, we are all interior decorators now. And this mainstream market practically demands that a design counterculture should develop. Throw out that Eames reproduction from Design Within Reach and get Jason Miller’s ceramic-antler chandelier! You have nothing to lose but your shoddy Ikea coffee table.
“There’s this new decorative art, and everybody’s kind of melting into the same thing, because of our culture and its consumerism,” muses Matt Gagnon, who weaves two-inch-long wooden components into six-foot-tall, interactive, quasi-architectural light fixtures. “You don’t need it to work necessarily; it’s so your living room looks good. But if it’s design and it doesn’t function as anything, then what is design? Why isn’t it art? I think it’s that people just love objects right now.”
And nobody loves objects more than a new homeowner. Brooklyn has them in abundance, furiously renovating dilapidated brownstones and raw loft space and looking for distinctive pieces that will set them apart from the Crate and Barrel set. It’s no coincidence that the design show “Block Party” takes place at the new 14 Townhouses renovation project on State Street.
But even before the homeowner market took off, designers were already working in the borough, drawn, in large part, by cheap space. In the early and mid-nineties, abandoned warehouses begged to be turned into studios, and there were plenty of manufacturers happy to pick up a little design work on the side. Plus local schools like Pratt, with its industrial-design program, provided a steady stream of talent (and interns).
The design boom is part of the Brooklyn boom, and there is something quintessentially new-Brooklyn—avant-garde yet small-town—about the work it has produced. Like a more high-minded, less-obnoxious counterpoint to trucker hats and 718 T-shirts, it incorporates the cultural touchstones of the Williamsburg generation—“a group of middle-class American suburban kids,” as Jason Miller puts it, “who are now not kids, not necessarily middle-class, and living in a city. Look at the clichéd things of Williamsburg, like the old-school gym T-shirt. That aesthetic only exists in suburban America.”
Remember the ironic hunting-lodge-décor moment? It shows up in Brooklyn design pieces like Miller’s ceramic antlers and Hivemindesign’s giant mirror embellished with stag silhouettes (and it’s already filtered down from them to the Urban Outfitters home collection). Just noticing the pirate-skull thing? It’s on Sarah Cihat’s plates, Rob Teeters’s coasters, and the Design Can’s mirrors. And there’s a whole subgenre of cocaine design—Alhadeff curated a show called “I ♥ Snow” in 2005—that includes Tobias Wong’s gold-plated pen cap and Heather Dunbar’s coke mirror hidden inside a paperback.
There is a more intangible Brooklyn quality, too: rough edges. The products at the Future Perfect have “a raw quality,” says Pratt’s Debera Johnson. “What I like about the work is that you understand how it’s put together. You could make it yourself.” Here, it connects to the artisanal tradition that is more typical of Brooklyn’s design history.
David Weeks, who has produced abstract lighting arrangements and minimalist furniture from Dumbo for ten years now, has lived through two waves of Brooklyn designers. Selling lights through Ralph Pucci allows him to pursue more idiosyncratic side projects like Butter, the quirky, collaborative product line he ran from 2000 to 2005 and which could be considered an early attempt at an American version of Droog.
“When I started, I could have everything done in Brooklyn,” Weeks says. “Half the time, I was driving around in my little car, dropping things off with this guy, having something painted here and cut there. And it was really satisfying because it was like a little tiny town in which you’re making these elaborate things.”
That world is endangered, though. Even as Weeks sees more designers than ever in Brooklyn, he sees manufacturers leaving, driven out by gentrification. The loss is substantial. Sather Duke of Hivemindesign, who’s recently started working with casting, says, “These guys, it’s like having your grandmother tell you stories or something. If I don’t listen to this story, nobody’s ever going to pass this on and nobody’s ever going to believe it. There used to be 100 of them in Brooklyn, and now there’s one. I’m petrified that it’s going to be gone. You’ll walk out your door and be like, I want to build this thing, but where do I go?”