If you ever have the privilege of chatting up Jade Lai, who owns the bicoastal cult fashion emporium Creatures of Comfort, don’t be surprised if she tells you that, after returning from a trip to Morocco last year with no less than 15 carpets in tow, she was struck by the notion that she could totally see herself in the rug business. And when this is followed by the revelation that she’s looking to expand the Creatures of Comfort brand to encompass food, or that she’s been taking pottery classes, or that she hopes to run a bed and breakfast sometime soon, resist the urge to raise an eyebrow — these may sound like the ramblings of a dilettante, but make no mistake, Lai is both hyper-creative and legitimately driven. Consider, for example, the year she spent working as a product developer for Esprit in her native Hong Kong: She took the job after having graduated with an architecture degree, freelanced as a graphic designer, and started her own stationery line in L.A., but proceeded to become so good at it that she could eventually identify a fabric’s contents by touch alone — a useful skill for someone who now designs Creatures of Comfort’s in-house fashion line, and one that would certainly come in handy for any aspiring carpet slinger.
To some degree, Lai opened the first Creatures of Comfort in West Hollywood six years ago because it seemed like the only tent big enough to hold her multifarious interests. Despite the fact that she quickly became known as the go-to for emerging clothing brands like Mociun and Rachel Comey, “I didn’t intend for it to be so fashion-focused at first,” she admits. “I knew it would start out carrying clothes, but I also designed the space and the furniture, invited my friends to build it, and did the graphics myself. It was an outlet for me to do all the things I wanted to do.” Early on, Lai began eyeing the three-story building next door — owned by an older gentleman who ran a framing service out of its ground floor — and dreamed of taking it over and turning CoC into a multi-disciplinary lifestyle shop in the vein of Bless or Margaret Howell. She’d been obsessively reading design magazines, for one, and wanted to stock more of the objects she loved. Strangely enough, it was New York that ultimately offered her that opportunity.
Despite the obvious economic drawbacks, Lai spent years looking for a larger space in downtown Manhattan than the one she had in L.A., hoping she could open a sister store with room to do more than just sell clothing. Two years ago she found one that was big enough to encompass both a store and a small gallery, a space where she could host rotating art shows and creative collaborations like the pop-up shop she devised in partnership with the Japanese design boutique Playmountain. Recently, the storefront held a temporary bookshop courtesy of the indie imprint Textfield, and Lai took it as an opportunity to learn more about publishing and printing presses. “In a way, the gallery is my own form of schooling,” she says. “I’m still constantly finding new things I want to learn about.” Meanwhile, Sight Unseen interviewed Lai about eight of her current and most-enduring interests, and they’re presented in the slideshow at right.
As design-store owner Dave Alhadeff sees it, there’s a distinction between the kinds of craftspeople he is and isn’t interested in: The latter make objects primarily to show off their manual skills, while the former are motivated by a larger concept, a wish to make tangible some abstract artistic meaning. Carving toothpicks into forest animals? Skills. Carving porcelain into vases so mind-bogglingly intricate they appear to be made by machine? Concept. A subtle difference, but one that helps it seem slightly less absurd to picture Alhadeff — who runs The Future Perfect, one of New York’s most well-respected purveyors of contemporary design — roaming the aisles of a Westchester craft fair, chatting up potters and glassblowers. Concept, he explains, is what builds a bridge between pure craft and design.
Certain areas in the Northeast are generally regarded as nirvana for antique collectors: Hudson, New York; Lambertville, New Jersey; Adamstown, Pennsylvania; Brimfield, Massachusetts. Red Hook, Brooklyn, isn't one of them. But that’s where 29-year-old Russell Whitmore decided to set up shop three years ago, on a corner just a few blocks from the East River wharfs. His much-loved store, Erie Basin, specializes in Victorian- and Georgian-era jewelry, furniture, and curiosities, with a dash of 20th century thrown in.
On a temperate night last July, a group of designers gathered for a party in a prototyping lab in the heart of Queens. The occasion was the acquisition of a brand-new laser-cutting machine by the fabrication lab at the CUNY-run studio space NYDESIGNS, and the brief was to cut or etch something as unconventional as possible. Klaus Rosberg of Sonic Designs sliced handcuff bangles from cardboard, while design couple Alissia Melka-Teichroew and Jan Habraken made sandwiches from dark bread and ham, trimmed into the shape of tiny pigs. Though we assume the sandwiches failed to move on to bigger and better things, one design did: A scarf by Pratt grad and industrial designer Kevin McElroy, which inspired a collaboration with the ethically chic fashion label JF & Son called CUTS///. The fabrics were provided by Jesse Finkelstein and Katie King, the designers who have run JF & Son since 2007, and the eponymous cuts came courtesy of McElroy, a design consultant who has worked with clients from Hasbro to CVS. Launched this week at the brand's New York flagship store, the resulting 17-piece collection is unlike anything either party had ever done before — leather skirts with delicate scalloped cutaways in repeat, cinched shifts with tiny dots and rectangles, shorts with triangles whose edges still bear evidence of the laser’s burn. We recently spoke with McElroy to find out how the project came together.