Excerpt: Book
Where They Create, by Paul Barbera

Because he’s been doing it since he was 16 — when he used his very first camera to shoot the art studio of a friend’s father — documenting the workspaces of creatives is second nature to Australian photographer Paul Barbera. So much so that he can now identify his own memes: piles of rubbish on a table, trash cans, air conditioners, outdated technology. “How many fax machines have I found that are covered in dust but powered up, just in case I get a fax?” laughs Barbera, whose new book Where They Create and three-year-old website of the same name are full of such telling references. Then there are the potted plants, which are perhaps his greatest weakness: “Whether they’re dead, alive, half-alive, someone’s put ashes into them, or the pot’s cracked, I love it — there’s such variation in that stupid little element.” It’s an inexplicable yet undeniable urge that we’re quite familiar with around here, searching for flashes of personality in unexpected details, which is why we felt drawn to Barbera’s work in the first place (he’s a Sight Unseen contributor). It’s also why we decided to excerpt a chapter of his book, the one devoted to the New York–based designers Cmmnwlth, in this post.

Though he has a commercial career that whisks him all over the world in the service of annual reports, interiors editorials, or Nike ads, Barbera feels most at ease when he manages to find his way into the realm of an artist or designer he admires. Unlike the perfectly kempt homes he shoots regularly for Elle Décor and Vogue Living, in the mess of a studio, he can get by purely on instinct. “It becomes about recording how a space feels, as opposed to what it looks like,” he says. Nothing’s styled, or even touched, and the focus is on process rather than on the work itself — “all the leftovers and snippets and offcuts and experiments.” When he visited the Brooklyn workshop of Zoe Coombes and David Boira from Cmmnwlth, he found the duo refining their latest pieces for Matter but honed in on things like the specialized ventilation system, and a trio of molds for the designers’ Morfina door handles. Coombes and Boira have since relocated to a new space in downtown Manhattan, but since Barbera’s insights transcend four walls, we figured it made little difference.

The slideshow at right includes some of the images published in the book and some that are exclusive to Sight Unseen, while the caption text is all taken from the book; our friend Alexandra Onderwater supplemented Barbera’s work with introductions and endlessly amusing interviews that get to the bottom of how subjects like Maarten Baas, Mandy Coon, and Opening Ceremony work — not to mention where and when they eat lunch and what they keep on their desks. If you like what you see, support Barbera by picking up a copy of the book via this link. If you live in New York, where Barbera’s now based, you’re also invited to attend the book launch party tomorrow night, November 16, from 7 to 9PM at Creatures of Comfort.

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In your words, what do you do? [C] "We are trained as architects but have drifted from the profession to become furniture designers with hands deeply in the art world."

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Boira working on the new series for Matter Made. Shown here is an early prototype for a mirror the studio is developing. Its shape is derived from dodecahedron primitives.

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How does your workspace influence your work? [C] "We took this space because it included an area for exhibitions. We had so many artist friends that we ended up doing a long collaborative series here. Our involvement with the arts really started there."

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What do you like most about it? [B] "The light and the feeling that you're inside a Roxy Paine piece. It’s really soft, heavenly and drippy, like his work."

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Any elements others would be clueless about? [B] "The crazy SLA study models that look like bones or body parts." [C] “The models on the table (above) are SLA prints, mixed up with some horsehair, metal dowels, a keyboard, and a beautiful book about the work of Greg Lynn. It’s actually a pretty representative shot.”

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What do you do in the first minutes you’re in the building? [B] "Turn all the toys, lights, and computers on."

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The studio's quite big. [C] "Indeed, 200 sqm. Because we have a 3-axis milling machine, we needed a large space with three-phase 480-volt power and ground floor access — something in a semi-industrial zone."

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What’s the longest time you’ve spent in the studio? [B] "Thirty days, nonstop. We were finishing our collaboration with Kenzo Minami, for which we produced 70 Richlite tiles with a surface and etching detail on every tile. It was horrible. We brought in an inflatable bed and we joined a close-by gym — just to shower!"

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What on your desk makes it yours? [B] “My dad’s picture. He was an artist and a painter. I wish he was around for inspiration and truly hard critiques.”

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Can you define your work environment in three words? "Inspiration all around."

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That sentiment still rings true at the couple's new studio on the edge of Soho and Tribeca, although they've shed the CNC machine and now keep a separate workshop in Williamsburg.