If old-school know-how is on the wane, however, technology presents fresh possibilities. In particular, advances in laser-cutting machinery make it possible to affordably produce small batches of a given design, allowing, says Jason Miller, “for much more idiosyncratic things to be made.” These machines have also helped open up the field to talented people who lack technical design training. For example, Portia Wells, who moved to Brooklyn last year from Oakland—“I felt like this was where it was all happening,” she says—has a background in fine art and woodworking. Pieces like her Slipcover Chair Project, which consists of fabric painted with renditions of classic chairs (Eames, Chippendale, Shaker) that fit over a wooden base, slots right into the local sensibility. Redstr’s Valich used to be a Web designer; Matt Gagnon worked for Frank Gehry; Miller was a studio assistant for Jeff Koons.
The other manufacturing innovation in Brooklyn is green design, of which the local flag-bearers are Bart Bettencourt and Carlos Salgado of Scrapile. They have spent two years developing a system for turning cast-off wood scraps into high-end modern furniture. Traveling around in a van, they pick up scraps from woodworkers that they then mill into like sizes before laminating and fitting them together. Although green design tends to look simpler than most of the stuff at the Future Perfect, it is no less conceptual. Given that ecofriendly furniture can have little impact on the environment at such small production levels, it cannot help but be more about the idea of saving the Earth than actually doing it.
Where does design in Brooklyn go from here? The scene is at an inflection point familiar to many cultural movements: consolidating the initial burst of invention and filtering down to a more mainstream audience. (Alhadeff, for example, is about to open a second store around the corner from the Future Perfect, A&G Merch, which will sell simple, affordable furniture to the waves of new condo owners.) As Miller puts it, “It’s like making a second album. We have some initial interest. And now we get to figure out whether that was warranted.”
For some, stagnation has set in. “The Brooklyn scene has plateaued,” says the mercurial Tobias Wong, who has produced a steady stream of new work in the past year, despite intending to take time off. “They need to step it up.” “Everyone is a little safer; things are not super-edgy anymore,” laments Klaus Rosburg.
For others, it means wider renown. Outside the city, Brooklyn is only now being recognized as a design mecca. “I look to Brooklyn as the hot spot,” says Brad Cook of Show in Los Angeles, who stocks the core group of designers. (Homework is another L.A. booster.) “We were in that whole mid-century-modern phase for so long. These people are taking it to the next level.” Big companies are calling, saying things like “I want to manufacture Williamsburg.” The design firm Umbra, which began a competition at Pratt last year, even has a “Brooklyn” collection (right alongside “Soho” and “Madison”). And look at stores like Brooklyn Industries, which has stamped hoodies and messenger bags with the local imprint. Designers find the idea distasteful, but there’s strong evidence that Brand Brooklyn has legs.