Up and Coming
Assembly, Furniture Designers

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.”

Last great exhibition you saw: “‘Franz Erhard Walther, Work as Action’ at Dia: Beacon. It’s always so interesting and inspiring to see works in progress. This exhibit paired process with product but positioned the entire collection as a work in progress, as its success depended on the willingness of its audience to participate.”

Favorite place to shop for materials: “McMaster-Carr.”

If you had an unlimited budget for a single piece, what would you make? “We’ve always wanted to outfit a bar – 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.”


What inspired your Union Coffee Table? [Pete] "In 2011, we were visiting Nora’s mom at her home in upstate New York, about 40 miles outside of Ithaca. I went down to the basement for something and saw a stack of marble slabs leaning against the wall. I couldn’t run back up the stairs to tell Nora fast enough. We later learned that the marble had been recovered from a now-defunct school building in a neighboring town; we also learned that the marble had originally been used as urinal dividers." [Nora] "We immediately started designing the Union Table. The cylindrical blackened steel stretcher is a marriage of elements from other products in our launch collection: the proportions of the Halsey Love Bench and the form of the Right Lamp. The Ash legs provide a counterpoint to the weight of the marble."


What inspires Assembly's work in general? "Our launch collection was inspired by the idea of utility, a quality that was central to the way we lived in New York. But in general, we’re inspired by our environment — what it allows, what it restricts, what needs improvement. For example, living in New York was a great design challenge. We were in this apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant that was so small that standard chairs had too large a footprint. We wondered, 'What's the smallest chair that a standard-size adult could fit in?' That's where the Halsey side chair comes from (above, center). We recently moved our studio to Westhampton, where there's much more space. The work we're currently developing really celebrates this."


Design hero: "Ray and Charles Eames. We really aspire to blend work, life, and play as well as they did which is no small feat." [Pete] "Of all of the inspirational things that Charles Eames said, one has always stuck with me: 'The details are not the details. They make the design.' I think about that nearly every day — that the details, the many micro decisions we make, are part of a much larger picture that work to shape not only our aesthetic experience but our lived experience as well."


Piece you wish you'd made: "Maarten Baas’ Clay Chair. We love this chair, and actually the whole collection; the fan is pretty awesome, too. It’s so imaginative and whimsical and completely functional. So much of design is so serious and we really appreciate how simultaneously playful and formal this collection is."


Favorite everyday object: [Nora] "Pete made this little wooden bowl as an undergrad at the Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it now sits by the stove, holding sea salt. There's a crack in it, which seems to grow daily but the salt is sealing it so none ever falls out. It's perplexing and cool to think about every time we reach for a pinch of salt."


Thing you love most about where you live: "After a combined nearly 15 years in New York, we succumbed to what so many New Yorkers struggle with: We need more space. In our new studio, we have it and we love that we're able to make work, unencumbered by the limitations of too small or shared shops.
Thing you hate most about it: "There are no dog friendly bars. We miss that about Brooklyn."


Last thing you bought on eBay: [Pete] "A Vintage 3/16 Number & Letter Stamp Punch Set. I use these constantly and have been in search of a set smaller than ½” for awhile. They were actually my first and only eBay purchase."


Favorite collection: [Nora] "I have boxes of bagged and tagged feathers, mostly from my hometown. They're such an amazing source for subtle but sophisticated color palettes and the structure of a feather is really incredible when you begin to look at all of the different elements, textures, and connections. Once, Pete brought in a pigeon feather from the street in BedStuy, where we were living and working at the time. This was both hilarious and disgusting to me. The effort was nice but something about a dirty, city bird feather just doesn’t feel so… collectible."


Side project: [Pete] "I'm the co-founder and creative director of Outpost Journal, an annual, nonprofit publication about innovative art, design and community action from cities that are traditionally underexposed beyond their local contexts. Each issue features a single urban location—our first issue focused on Pittsburgh and our latest issue explores Baltimore."


Favorite material to work with: "We love to experiment with different materials and the forms and finishes they can yield. It's an exciting challenge to navigate what each needs to fulfill its utmost potential. Currently, we're working with a lot of molten aluminum and that has been really fun." Shown here, the couple's stackable Hyde candlesticks, made from sandcast aluminum and brass.

Headline: Harice Miller's room makeoverHeadline: Harice Miller'

Breakout piece: [Pete] "Probably the Rip + Tatter chair (above). I started working with cardboard in grad school, and for my thesis I did a couch and a chair that were adult sized. During prototyping, I did a kids' chair for a friend, as a test before I did a 7-foot-long couch. Then when I got out of grad school in 2009, it was tough. There was so little opportunity. But the kids' market was doing okay, and it got picked up by all these cool mom blogs. I think it was a mix of great photography and really good timing."


Fictional character who would own your work: "This is a hard question! The character that comes to mind is Monsieur Hulot from Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle. Monsieur Hulot is perplexed by postwar France’s fascination with technology-driven modernity, consumerism, and efficiency. Within the framework of modernity, Hulot struggles with both uniformity and an absence of human connection. While our work frequently draws from modernism in both form and function, we use materials, production methods, and proportions to establish a unique and very human tone."


Favorite design ritual: "We love that time before and after a project where you have a day or two to organize things – material samples, pens and pencils, putting that leftover pile of miscellaneous screws and nails into their proper containers. It makes the shop feel so tidy, even when it's covered in sawdust."


First thing you ever made: [Pete] "A table, when I was 8 years old. A red milk crate served as the base and the top was a slab of wood I found somewhere in my neighborhood. It was filthy and my mom really didn’t want me to bring it in the house but I insisted." [Nora] "A spaceship my brother and I made to send his stuffed raccoon — named Raccoon — to the moon. It was made from a pair of roller skates and two stools (above)."


Style movement you most identify with: "The interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to design that the Bauhaus promoted is essential to the way that we work, as is the fusion of craft, art and design. At this point in our development and as a small design studio, we are much more concerned with producing high quality products than the potential to mass produce. That said, themes of utility and luxury, usefulness and beauty are a constant in our understanding of why and how we make work."


Most inspiring place you've ever been: "A few years ago, we visited friends in Seattle and had the most extraordinary time. Our friends took us to, among other places, the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island — a 150-acre public garden, a mix of natural woodlands and landscaped gardens — the Koolhaas-designed Seattle Public Library, and Pike Place Market. It was such an awesome adventure, three years later, we often look at the pictures we took on this trip for inspiration."


Favorite Google Image search: “Border Collie Mix Puppies."