They share spaces and tools, work with galleries and interior architects, snub the industry: and, according to some, their business model is inspiring Europeans

“Contemporary American designers are first and foremost entrepreneurs”.

The first consideration made by Odile Hainaut and Claire Pijoulat in front of the request to define the soul of contemporary American design is striking.

“To understand this world we need to consider the economic situation in which American designers fresh out of school find themselves,” explain the curators of ICFF New York and of WantedDesign, showcase for emerging artists now an integral part of the fair.

“They have debts to pay off and live in a country where very few small companies experiment. They have three options: work for mass production, approach contract giants (such as Knoll, Haworth, Herman Miller, Emeco) or become their own producers. And this, today, seems the most viable choice for those who are convinced of their talent."

Creating a company that produces and sells, however, is a complex affair, also in terms of investments.

“And that's why American designers create networks. Physical ones”, they explain. “They organize themselves into communities, share spaces, hubs, laboratories and work tools”.

Makers, but not too quite

It sounds like a community of makers.

“Yes, but it's not a movement, it's a way of doing business”, continues Pijoulat, “limiting costs but offering the sophistication and customization required by their clients: decorators and interior architects who are looking for unique pieces for the homes they furnish."

Some American designers become curator

It is a strategy that rewards those who know how to apply it well.

In this sense, the case of In Common With, a studio in Brooklyn that for years has brought together different craft and design professionals and that has opened its concept store this month.

“It's called Quarters. We will display our lamps, furnishings and objects", explain the owners, Nick Ozemba and Felicia Hung. “It is a space with a domestic atmosphere, where our pieces are mixed with vintage furniture, works of art, rare books. We want to show, through passionate curation, the beauty of living surrounded by objects that have meaning".

Illustrating design culture

Also Egg Collective, an all-female studio based in New York that produces thanks to a network of local artisans, was recently transformed into a gallery.

Where, explain the three founders, "exhibitions are organized to illustrate, together with other artists and designers, the commitment of the American designer community to creating products that will last a lifetime".

“This is also a business necessity,” explains Hainaut. “Because in America the idea of furniture as an investment is not widespread. More familiarity with the topic of quality and durability would bring great advantages to those who design."

When did it all start?

“Until 15-20 years ago, the scenario was very different,” explain Dylan Davis & Jean Lee of Ladies & Gentlemen Studio of New York, cited by Hainaut and Pijoulat as representatives of the stars and stripes nouvelle vague.

“Graduates in industrial design worked in companies – most often in mass market ones – or ended up doing something else. Then the concept of design broadened and a market was created that gives space to the voices of independent designers".

The merit of this change of pace is mainly due to the interest of some galleries, starting from the early 2000s. First of all, The Future Perfect by David Alhadeff.

David Alhadeff: "in the beginning, there was light"

“When I opened in 2003, everyoe thought I was crazy for investing in American creatives: in the local imagination, design was Italian (or at most Dutch or Scandinavian) or Mid-Century Modern,” says Alhadeff.

The revolution that would give voice to contemporary American designers, however, was starting right then, with lighting.

“The most talented have been able to understand the meaning of LEDs and exploit their characteristics to create sculptural lamps, with great appeal to the public. Designers such as Lindsey Adelman, Mary Wallis, Bec Brittain understood that the paradigm of light was changing: functional lamps would become architectural, decorative ones would become part of the furniture. A concept that has recently arrived in Europe: in this, the United States has been a trailblazer."

The cutting edge of American design today is in small series

“There is no doubt, the avant-garde of American design today is found in small series”, confirms Jonathan Olivares, Senior VP Design of Knoll.

“Galleries like Marta in Los Angeles, Volume in Chicago and Friedman Benda in New York have created platforms with a strong curatorial focus and revived the atmosphere that once existed in design stores such as The Conran Shop (when it was managed by Sir Terence Conran), Luminaire (when it was an independent reality) or Moss (which it has now closed)”.

Hypermateriality at the center of research

The avant-garde that Olivares and Alhadeff talk about is always strongly linked to the themes of craftsmanship and know-how, but - addressing the extremely sophisticated, cultured and affluent public of galleries - it can go much further than that of designer brand.

Research today focuses on materials and the tools to process them: 3D printers, 5-axis systems, CNCs, laser cutters,” continues Alhadeff.

“Everyone knows how to use them. But the difference is made by the ability to obtain surprising results, to revisit indigenous techniques by updating them, to make a personal voice resonate through artisanal work. All without ever falling into nostalgia."

Among the leading names, according to Alhadeff, are Karl Zahn, which develops new sources of lighting for his sculptural lamps, and Chris Walston with his primitive, terracotta furniture.

We are very far from the warm, emotional, welcoming interiors of designer-carpenters who collaborate with interior architects. The furnishings arriving in the galleries are rough presences, almost shrill in the domestic context, decidedly reckless in terms of shapes and aesthetic references.

Furniture like inhospitable presences

For Jonathan Olivares – who also looks carefully at the worlds of skateboarding and writing – the contemporary American avant-garde is represented by the disobedient (and anti-function) objects by Dozie Kanu or from the furnishings by Jonathan Muecke, made of composite materials and reduced to an inhospitable but fascinating essence.

While to rediscover the sophisticated research of the design stores of the past, the Senior VP of Knoll looks to Bi-Rite, the shop created in 2016 by the designer Cat Snodgrass.

Her furnishings and hyper-minimalist objects but also full of aesthetic hyperboles work very well with Millennials. Because, she says, "in the last ten years there has been a renaissance in terms of interior culture and a renewed interest in postmodernism and in experimental artisanal work, which gives voice to imagination".

 

A digital touch, without being high tech

Justin Donnelly and Monling Lee of Jumbo (see also cover photo) are also taking advantage of this renaissance: they managed to create a new language, inspired by digital, but strictly analogue.

“We like that each of our objects recognizes the role that technology has in everyday life: we therefore try to bring things closer to their virtual equivalents. We do this by using inorganic materials, choosing glossy or mirrored finishes, giving each project a surprising element that invites you to touch it, use it", they explain.

Will European design resemble American design?

The scenario of American design today - so focused on materials and their processes - therefore still closely resembles that of the great stars and stripes masters of the past, such as the Eames.

Although, unfortunately, it almost totally lacks the ancient drive towards accessible production.

More and more, however, it is enriched by speculation and research that brings it closer to European design.

Is a global panorama being created, in which different approaches mix seamlessly?

Two universes that come together?

“With the wave of acquisitions of small brands by large groups, industrial design in Europe seems to become increasingly similar to the American one, linked to a more commercial than cultural context and to large architectural projects rather than residential,” says Jonathan Olivares.

The roles could be reversed - with Europe taking inspiration from the USA - also according to David Alhadeff.

“15 years ago, American designers left behind the European model, linked to industry and royalties, which was inaccessible to them,” concludes the gallery owner. “And now that this model is faltering in Europe too, with the design brands being more corporate-oriented and oriented towards contract, the young designers of the Old Continent are developing the mentality of small experimental entrepreneurs , hooking the gallery model”.

However, whether such a business model can work in Europe remains to be seen.