Even for struggling post-grads, the constraints under which Pete Oyler and Nora Mattingly of the fledgling design studio Assembly created their debut furniture collection would be considered rather limiting. The couple — he a Kentucky-born RISD furniture grad, she a Pratt-educated interior design major — were living in a cramped apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant with a third roommate, sharing a studio space in even farther-out Brooklyn, and commuting nearly four hours to a woodworking shop in Westhampton, Massachusetts, where Oyler had apprenticed for two years before grad school. But rather than chafing against such strictures of space, the two worked with them, creating pieces that were easily transportable and could be effortlessly placed in any small space: side chairs with smaller-than-usual footprints, glass-and-blackened-steel lamps with hand-blown shades hardly bigger than the bulbs, even a stripped-down toilet paper holder that doesn’t consist of much more than a brass cylinder that mounts directly into the wall.
That was earlier this year. But as of two months ago, the couple and their Border Collie mix had picked up and moved full-time to that shop tucked away in the woods of western Massachusetts, where the glut of space has proved exciting and almost a bit overwhelming. “It’s a 2,000-square-foot shop that’s like state-of-the-art for 1940,” laughs Oyler. “We’ve got every single old industrial machine you would need, and everything is huge — a 36-inch bandsaw, a 24-inch joiner, two forklifts — but it’s not a CNC-type situation.” The two are adjusting slowly to country life — and returning frequently to a friends’ 8×10 guest bedroom in the city — but the benefits have already shown themselves. “We never had a bed because I didn’t have room to make one,” says Oyler. “Now I’m installing one tomorrow.”
Favorite design object: “Hands down, the rubber band. It’s simple, versatile, and useful in so many different situations.”
If you had an unlimited budget for a single piece, what would you make? “We’ve always wanted to outfit a whole bar. Pete is from Kentucky, so a bourbon bar would just be a dream.”
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be? “You know, there really isn’t anything else we could be. Starting a small business, being a young designer in America — these are not easy paths to take. We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing if there were a Plan B.”
What’s your next project? “We’re excited to be working with Misha Kahn on a series of vases. Pete was Misha’s T.A. at RISD, the two have been playing Words With Friends ever since.”
If you were familiar only with Uhuru’s work, it would be enough to surmise that the Brooklyn-based furniture designers are experts at creating something beautiful from practically nothing. (The formal term for this, we’re told, is up-cycling.) In the half-decade since RISD grads Jason Horvath and Bill Hilgendorf have been designing their own line, they’ve produced chairs from Kentucky bourbon barrels, loungers from the Ipe wood planks of a demolished Coney Island boardwalk, and scrapwood stools so stylish they were recently picked to decorate the café at New York’s SANAA-designed New Museum. But while it's true Uhuru are a resourceful bunch, step into their sprawling Red Hook studio and any assumptions you might have about their bootstraps process all but disappear.
Brian Eno is playing, green tea is brewing, and there are half-finished projects and prototypes stacked up ’round the place. I could be in any East London live-work space. But as I talk more to my hosts — Marc Bell and Robin Grasby of the emerging London design firm International — I realize there’s something simple that sets these two Northumbria grads apart from the thousands of hip creatives populating this corner of the city. They started the studio a year or so back, with the intention of doing something a little out of fashion in the design world: “Our approach is quite commercial,” admits Grasby. “We are looking to create a mass-produced product.” Yes, he’s used the c-word — and it wasn’t crafted. By opting for production, rather than taking advantage of London’s buoyant collectors’ market, the two are aware they’re taking a tougher route. Bell puts it plainly: “Rather than shapes we enjoy making or colors we like, our designs really are function-led.” Their work always seems to boil down to intended use, and at this stage they aren’t interested in seeing their pieces in galleries. But while there have only been a handful of designs released to date, International have been getting the right kind of attention.
The first thing people marvel at when they see the furniture of the young duo Sebastian Herkner and Reinhard Dienes is its industrial, institutional cool — bare wood against metal against richly colored glass, in shapes evoking old spotlights and torches and desk chairs. The second thing is how these hip, talented designers — whose first collection this year caught the eye of Wallpaper, DAMn, and Monocle — landed in Frankfurt, a middling city of 650,000 without a glimmer of Berlin’s cachet.