JP Williams has enjoyed plenty of validating moments in his 20-year career as a graphic designer: Getting to study under one of his design heros, Paul Rand, at Yale; winning more than 100 awards for projects like kraft-paper tea packages for Takashimaya; discovering that his collection of baseball cards from 1909 was worth enough to buy his wife and business partner Allison an engagement ring. All well and good, however none of it really compared, he admits, to the feeling of being validated by Martha Stewart. “My next guest thinks this is a work of art and not just a ball of string,” she marveled as she opened a segment of her show dedicated to Williams’s twine collection in 2008, holding up one of its largest specimens. Finally, someone who really understood him.
You see, Williams is the kind of guy who has dedicated his entire life to surrounding himself with good design. And that can mean anything from pale orbs of industrial string to the hairless Cornish Rex cat that he and Allison bought largely because the shape of the breed’s head — a perfect oval — was so deeply satisfying. When the pair travel, they send their laundry out to be cleaned by the hotel just so they can photograph the packaging it comes back in. “We’re not weird,” Williams insists. “We’re compulsive designers, and we look at everything.” So much so that one of their closets at home is packed with no fewer than 60 archival boxes containing vintage office supplies, letterheads, books, and other ephemera — largely Williams’s doing. To call him a collector is an understatement; what he calls his popular blog, “amass,” is probably more representative. There, he posts long, charmingly personal treatises on his finds from the past 30 years, as well as installments from his ongoing photo series of lost, rumpled gloves lying in the street.
In person, Williams is as open and disarming as his online journal would suggest, calling himself the “consummate amateur” and telling endless stories of how he acquired most of his mementos for next to nothing, often before he knew exactly what he had lucked into. His dream is to one day retire and open a shop; until then, he keeps his own shelves so well-stocked that it’s a good thing he and his wife live in a sprawling Tribeca loft that offers plenty of breathing room. In December, he gave us a tour of the space and all the wondrous things in it.
Ah, the impotence of the urban dweller. Ever since the Best Made Company axe debuted this spring, you’d be hard-pressed to find a New Yorker who isn’t dying to snap open that wooden case and heave the Tennessee hickory–handled thing at… well, what, exactly? “At first I thought a lot of New Yorkers would buy them,” says Peter Buchanan-Smith, the New York–based graphic designer who founded the company along with his childhood pal Graeme Cameron. But it turns out the best audience for an axe — even one with a handle saturated in gorgeous shades of spray paint — is a person who actually might use an axe.
This story was originally published on November 3, 2009. A year and a half later, Dror Benshetrit unveiled at the New Museum a simple, scalable structural joint system called QuaDror, which just may turn out to be his magnum opus. It takes obvious inspiration from the kinds of toys he shared with Sight Unseen here. // Some furniture expands if you’re having extra dinner guests, or folds if you’re schlepping it to a picnic. But most of it just sits there, content to be rather than do. This drives New York–based designer Dror Benshetrit crazy. “Static freaks me out,” he’s said, and so the Design Academy Eindhoven graduate has spent the entirety of his young career making things that either capture a state of transformation (his progressively shattered series of vases for Rosenthal) or actually transform themselves (the Pick Chair and Folding Sofa that flatten using simple mechanics). When I first saw Dror’s latest project, a trivet for Alessi whose concentric metal arcs are magnetized so they can be reconfigured endlessly — and even, the designer enthusiasticaly suggests, worn as a necklace — I thought: If he can’t even let a trivet sit still then his fascination with movement must be more than a design philosophy, it’s probably coded in his DNA. I was right. Dror has been obsessed with kinetic toys since he was a child.
The editors of Neuland, a recent compendium of up-and-coming German graphic designers, struggled with all the usual big, philosophical questions while putting their book together: What is German design? What is German? Who cares? If they were Ellen Lupton or Steven Heller, they might have spent pages upon pages ruminating on these issues. Instead, they did what any editors who are actually designers by trade might do — they asked their 51 subjects for the answers.