The Home Team’s Hot New Talent, Cover Story, T Design Winter 2010

If they can make it here…… Monica Khemsurov profiles six up-and-coming New York City designers.

When Theo Richardson, Charles Brill and Alex Williams, three baby-faced graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, first appeared in 2007 with a floor lamp inspired by graphs and pick-up sticks, they were filled with energy and youthful folly: they called themselves Rich Brilliant Willing. Exhaustive self-promoters and occasional party crashers, they seemed ready to storm the offices of Cappellini or Moroso, demanding a shot at the big time. But if the big time has finally arrived for these 20-somethings, who introduced four products with four different companies in the past year, it’s because they’ve earned it. By funding their own studio projects, they’ve been able to develop a colorful mix-and- match aesthetic that is both industrial and playful, one that has caught the eye of brands like SCP and Artecnica — a rare feat for young American furniture designers. ‘‘We’ve learned to know the difference between what will be a feather in your cap and what will actually help you build a business,’’ says Williams. The group’s Bright Side Lights for Artecnica, a cast-glass pendant inspired by old telephone- pole insulators and Mason jars, also happens to be its most mature effort to date, says Richardson. ‘‘We’ve started to develop our own voice.’’

Roanne Adams is something of a patron saint for emerging new york fashion designers. From the office she shares with the Web site Refinery29, the graphic designer has spent the past four years helping to establish a handful of promising young labels, offering them full-service branding and art direction on a shoestring while balancing her books with corporate clients like Rachael Ray. Adams has developed Fashion Week presentations for Timo Weiland and Abigail Lorick (for whom she transformed a Midtown loft into what looked like a post-apocalyptic garden party) and designed Bodkin’s memorable origami invitation, which contained an air plant. And last year, she helped the jewelry designer Monique Péan win a CFDA award by creating a brand book with a 25,000-year-old mammoth bone inlaid in its cover. Adams, who cites guy Bourdin and Paul Rand as influences, admits that she’s often hired to help companies ‘‘communicate their hip, downtown cachet.’’ Still, ‘‘we’re not the edgiest firm, nor is that what we’re going for. I try to boil clients’ ideas down to an essential thought or image — I’d rather simplify than knowingly design something trendy.’’

When Salman Rushdie and André Balazs convened at the Standard Hotel in Manhattan one evening last May to host a party, the guest of honor wasn’t a celebrity but rather a $3 plastic pen. not just any pen, though: it’s a 98 percent biodegradable one, with nontoxic ink inside a sleek matte-black housing, and it’s the first product from the new eco-chic brand DBA. Indeed, under Leon Ransmeier’s creative direction, even the most mundane objects, from dish racks to humidifiers to writing instruments, become wildly covetable. Whether for DBA or his own studio, Ransmeier’s goal is to make intuitive products whose forms advertise their function, like the space heater with a simple built-in handle and cord spool, or the desk — now produced by Wright 21 in Chicago — that indulges obsessive pile-makers with open paper trays instead of drawers. ‘‘For me, reductionism just makes it easy for people to use products in the best way possible,’’ says Ransmeier, who lives in a spartan one-room apartment downtown and collects doorstops from Modernist landmarks. Although the 31-year-old new york native’s breakthrough product was a light shade for the design firm Droog, his sensibility is more Japanese than Dutch. ‘‘I’m not interested in conceptual one-liners,’’ he says. ‘‘I want there to be a very clear reason behind everything I do.’’

Upon graduating from Columbia’s architecture school in 2005, David Boira and zoë Coombes, the huband-and-wife founders of Commonwealth, set up shop in a small warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a CnC milling machine. But it was in the name of art rather than commerce: the couple invited friends to collaborate with them and displayed the results in their studio gallery. And then came the economic crisis. ‘‘I don’t want to chalk all cultural change up to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers,’’ Coombes says, ‘‘but art is often the first thing to go.’’ She and Boira soon realized they’d been more interested in making furniture all along. But given their infatuation with technology and their love of the tactile, Boira explains, ‘‘the question became, How do we use robots and CnC mills to make furniture that’s voluptuous rather than cold and geometric?’’ The answer is found in their L.E.D. Truncheon Lamps, designed for Matter’s in-house line, a warm wooden object created with a complex industrial milling process. By the end of the year they’ll bring out a collection of wooden pieces that have a soft, almost quilted effect, and they’re currently exploring the possibility of making an amorphous bookshelf with Ductal, an ultra-light concrete. ‘‘We do pretty weird work, at the heart of it,’’ Coombes says. ‘‘But we want to make forms that have a presence.’’

If the interior designer Rafael de Cárdenas has become the go-to guy for new york’s young and adventurous set, it certainly helps that he grew up in the city and runs with a downtown crowd. But it’s his penchant for pushing ideas one step past the expected — like the dazzling graphics he created for ohwow’s alternative art spaces and the nike Stadium store, or the fuschia foyer he did for the makeup artist Jeanine Lobell — that has attracted clients like Parker Posey and Jessica Stam. ‘‘If they’re not artists and designers themselves, my clients all like to be surrounded by art, and feel they can take more risks,’’ says de Cárdenas, who set up his studio, Architecture at Large, in 2006. ‘‘I’m assuming they aren’t hiring me because they want something boring and traditional.’’ That said, the U.C.L.A. architecture grad and former men’s-wear designer for Calvin Klein loves to mine the past for inspiration, drawing from sources as seemingly unconnected as the viennese architect Adolf Loos and Barbara D’Arcy, who created the display rooms at Bloomingdale’s in the 1960s and 1970s. When it comes to the mismatched patterns and reflective surfaces of his colorful interiors, there’s a Surrealist strain as well. ‘‘My spaces are meant to have a sense of otherworldliness that makes you feel disoriented,’’ de Cárdenas says. ‘‘They put you in a different place.’

Though he’s been a fixture in the new york design world since 2001, when he returned from London to start his own studio, Jonas Damon has yet to experience that breakout moment. He’s spent most of his career behind the scenes, first helping Tom Dixon transform Habitat and now as the creative director of the industrial design mega-firm Frog Design. ‘‘Being a design star was never my goal,’’ he admits. But as Damon’s repertory of charmingly approachable products continues to swell, thanks in part to his collaboration with the local manufacturer Areaware, so has his reputation. First up was an L.E.D. alarm clock composed of four rearrangable black cubes, each displaying a single red digit, that was inspired by 1980s supercomputers. Then came a perforated vacuum-tube radio with a Dieter Rams vibe and a wooden iPad holder in the shape of a retro Tv. By channeling his fascination with bygone design eras, Damon hopes to evoke a shared nostalgia, and judging from his pending deals with the lighting company Roll & Hill and the design shop Matter, he’s succeeding. Quite a switch from the gadgets he designs at his day job. ‘‘Frog is on the cutting edge of technology,’’ he says. ‘‘The things we make here are all five years ahead of us, so in my spare time I enjoy looking the other direction.’’


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