When Is A Chair Not A Chair?

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. Photo: Mark Heithoff

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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.

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?”

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. Next: A Brief History of Brooklyn Design

When Is A Chair Not A Chair?