Chicago may be a huge city, but when it comes to design, it’s an incredibly small town. Which is why word spread so quickly when Volume—a new roving limited-edition furniture gallery devoted to young American talent—temporarily set up shop in March inside an existing art space two blocks away from Oprah’s headquarters. Up a flight of stairs in a building occupied by three other modern art galleries and surrounded by 20 more, the long, narrow room was emptied for a week of its typical fare and filled instead with spare white furniture in aluminum and concrete, fabricated in a nearby metal shop by up-and-coming local designer Jonathan Nesci. Despite the somewhat obscure location, anyone who was anyone in the Chicago scene flocked to see Volume’s sophisticated debut, including museum curator Zoe Ryan, auction-house visionary Richard Wright, and the handful of high-end design collectors that call the Midwestern capital home.
Any new design gallery in the U.S. is bound to be news, but it didn’t hurt that Volume’s founders are both Wright alums. Young upstarts in their early 30s, Sam Vinz and Claire Warner met while working at the influential auction house, she for five years as a 20th-century design specialist and he for just two and a half weeks, right before the markets crashed. “It was very bad timing,” recalls Vinz, who was then fresh out of the Sotheby’s art business program in London. When Warner left nine months later, the pair banded together to find their own niche. “We talked about the fact that there was this lack of a platform for young contemporary American designers,” he says. “We saw so many talented people, particularly in Chicago, struggling and not knowing how to produce or where to go,” adds Warner.
They also noticed a gap in the market for beginning design collectors like themselves, who couldn’t necessarily afford to pay £20,000 for a coffee table, especially not in the economic climate of late 2008. So rather than modeling Volume after New York stalwarts Johnson Trading Gallery or Friedman Benda, they took a page from Libby Sellers, dodging the overhead of a permanent address in order to stay as nimble and affordable as possible. The Nesci pieces, for example, start at $250 and top out at $5,000. “To a young collector, that’s a very palatable price,” says Vinz, noting that the nearby Casati Gallery charges three to four times that amount for Nesci’s work, albeit in materials like titanium. “Ours isn’t the best business model, but at the end of the day it’s more important to us to have these designers’ products in as many peoples’ homes as possible.”
Only a short time after their launch, though, the payoff already seems obvious: Volume is getting in early on what looks very much like the beginning of a reawakening for young American designers. Two years ago, says David Alhadeff, owner of the pioneering Brooklyn design store the Future Perfect, Vinz and Warner would have been spot-on about the country’s lack of a support system for emerging talent. It was around then that critic Alice Rawsthorn wrote a column bemoaning the fact that ever since its design heydey 50 years ago, neither America’s profit-driven manfuacturers nor its practically minded schools had been encouraging young designers to experiment. No wonder they were all going to work churning out anonymous gadgets for large companies. “Being small, independent, and daring isn’t valued in corporate culture,” Rawsthorn wrote.
But with the recession, Alhadeff argues, has come an increasing willingness to take risks—both on the part of idealistic entrepreneurs like Vinz and Warner, and on that of recent American design grads who have found themselves laid off from their corporate jobs with nothing better to do than start promoting their own work. “They don’t have the weight of the good old days on their shoulders,” Alhadeff says. The past year has seen them band together into fledgling coalitions like Chicago’s Object Design League, JOIN Design Seattle, and New York’s American Design Club, whose founding members include Kiel Mead and newcomers Rich Brilliant Willing. Perhaps they saw a glimmer of hope in new locally focused shops like San Francisco’s Fiveten Studio and Brooklyn’s Voos Furniture, plus the fact that the New York store Matter had begun producing its own collection, inviting youngsters like Paul Loebach and Christopoher Specce to contribute.
“Things have changed a lot here,” affirms Ambra Medda, who founded Design Miami in 2006 and spent much of last year searching for Americans to showcase. “Many more American designers are surfacing compared to when we started the fair, when the landscape was completely deserted. The possibilities are all at their doorstep now.” Even Alhadeff’s own longtime efforts to support homegrown design have benefitted from the crash: When a flood of empty retail spaces became available in downtown Manhattan last year, he was able to open a larger, more accessible second store and devote the front half to his own gallery. Loebach, one of the scene’s brightest, will show there during ICFF in April.
The oft-looked down upon furntiure fair will also get a jolt from the launch of Roll & Hill, an ambitious new lighting company started by Brooklyn designer Jason Miller which will produce high-end, cutting-edge designs for the U.S. market. Miller was already a kind of patron saint for young American designers—having conceived, produced, and sold his 2006 Antler chandelier into ubiquity all on his own—but now he’s offering them a viable way to market, which for the States has been the biggest missing link of all. Roll & Hill’s initial roster includes Lindsey Adelman, Sarah Cihat, Partners & Spade, Rich Brilliant Willing, and Miller himself. “Our work is very American,” he says. “We don’t just want to make things that appeal to Europe, are produced by European companies, and are then jammed back down our throats here in the States.” It’s not enough to make Europeans shiver in their boots, exactly, but it’s something.
Vinz and Warner, on the other hand, do intend to court an international audience with Volume, which is why they feel so comfortable operating out of a secondary city. “With the fairs in Miami and Europe, you can get the work in front of international clients without having to necessarily be in New York,” says Vinz. In Chicago, he and Warner are able to take advantage of cheaper, more plentiful real estate and the support of a small but extremely close-knit design community, including their former employer. “I think it’s great what they’re doing,” Wright says. “They’re young, and if they work hard at this for a few years, and build a program, an agenda, and a philosophy, they they can have a lot of impact. It’s comparable to the fine art world—young gallerists open up on the fringe and source work from their peers. Sometimes great talent emerges that way.”
Wright admits to being skeptical in general about the quality of the work being produced by most young Americans, but Warner seems resolute in her drive to rise above those issues: “We will not produce tchotchkes,” she says firmly, noting that Volume’s second show this fall will be of work by the local designer Felicia Ferrone, who apprenticed for Piero Lissoni in Milan for six years. “Sam and I are really in tune with what’s going on globally, and we aren’t going to let that happen. You can’t put out bad work if you’re doing something like this—American designers need to be celebrated and the quality needs to be there. With us, your work is going to be in people’s homes, and when they have money someday, they’re going to come back to you. It needs to be the best.”