After Jean Lee met Dylan Davis while studying industrial design at the University of Washington, and after a string of successful school collaborations led them to start dating, the two of them did a semester abroad together in Rome. “Those were the good times,” laughs Lee. “We saw all these independent studios there, and designers working more as artists, and it was really inspiring for us. That wasn’t happening at all in Seattle.” And so after they graduated in 2005, Lee went on to work for a messenger bag company based in Philadelphia, while Davis joined the team at Henrybuilt. They did a small trade selling vintage finds on Etsy for awhile, and eventually started repurposing those objects into new designs as a hobby. But what finally led them to join forces as Ladies & Gentlemen in 2009 were the first signs that they might be able to find in Seattle what they experienced in Rome after all: Not only had studios like Iacoli & Mcallister and Grain begun to flourish by making and selling their own work, their new coalition Join was gathering together local designers to collaborate and exhibit together. “Jamie Iacoli asked us to contribute to a show, and were like ‘What the hell? Let’s do it!’”
Davis and Lee chose the name Ladies & Gentlemen for its vaguely generic quality, hoping it would give them license to stay flexible as makers. First, they designed new objects inspired by vintage ones, like their cake servers and doily rug. Next, they moved on to small, minimalist-yet-cutesy pieces: the chalkboard piggy bank, the candlesticks shaped like houses. And then last year, as part of Sight Unseen’s Noho Design District event, they launched Natural Selection, their first series of furniture, and a rather sophisticated one at that. What ties their burgeoning portfolio together, says Davis, is “simplicity, playfulness, and an exploration of materials” that extends to the couple’s live/work studio, which is lined with shelves full of wood blocks and scraps of leather. “Having those around as we’re trying to think of an idea always feeds what the object will feel like in the end,” Davis says. “That’s a big part of our work—that directness of what we can do with this block of wood to make it an object?”
We asked Davis and Lee to show us those shelves, and all the other inspirations and ideas that will inform their work as it continues to develop — likely, they say, into more furniture and more designer collaborations, starting with a new line of lamps for a forthcoming Seattle-based lighting brand called Standard Socket. Get to know them better in the slideshow at right, then be sure to visit their home on the Sight Unseen shop, where they’ve just launched an amazing series of splatter-paint bowls.
If you'd expect anyone to spend their days working amidst a snowdrift’s worth of process and ephemera, it’s London designers Doshi Levien. What you see piled atop the shelves and pinned to the walls of the couple’s Shoreditch studio, after all, is the product of two very different yet equally prolific minds working through their own approaches to the same tasks — Nipa Doshi being the Bombay-born lover of handicraft who collages, paints, and draws her way towards ideas from the ground up, and her Scottish husband Jonathan Levien, who spent his childhood in his parents’ toy factory and developed the more exacting methods of an industrial designer, prototyping proclivities and all. While both enjoy surrounding themselves with collected objects like Italian ice cream cups and Chinese pencil boxes, it’s impossible to understate the importance of the couple’s divergent interests to their work’s unique point of view; the designs that made them famous, after all, were daybeds and sofas for Moroso that combined industrially produced furnishings with hand-embroidery and textiles sourced from Indian artisans. It would be a cliché way of characterizing the pair if it weren’t so overwhelmingly true, even by their own admission: “After ten years of working together, I see it as an essential ingredient in what we do, almost a layer in the approach without which it would feel naked,” says Levien.
You can learn a lot about Dutch designer Bernadette Deddens by just looking at her. First there are the shoes, which — depending on the day and the whims of London’s weather — she very well may have made herself. One pair of sandals constructed from $25 worth of pale leather and black cording could be mistaken for Margielas, yet are no less awe-inspiring for the fact that Deddens actually nicked the look from Tommy Hilfiger. After all, who makes their own shoes, anyway? Then there’s her jewelry, which is almost always her design, unless it’s a collaboration with her husband Tetsuo Mukai, with whom she formed Study O Portable two years ago. The jewelry is their way of giving people a form of creative expression that can be carried outside the house and into the wider world, as Deddens so poignantly demonstrates — hence their otherwise peculiar studio name.
The Fundamental Group's designs may be inspired by geometric principles, but the burgeoning Berlin studio owes its existence, at least in an abstract sense, to another realm entirely: physics, ie, the field in which opposites attract. As architecture students at Berlin's University of the Arts back in 2003, Gunnar Rönsch and Stephen Molloy worked as assistants to rival department chairs, which in the world of academia, meant that they were automatically rivals, too. "If you sign up with one, you hate the other," Rönsch explains. "Mine was building construction and detail design, while Stephen's was based on a programmatic approach to structure — my chair basically had to solve all the problems created by his." In time, however, the pair realized the inevitable -- that by joining forces, they'd be stronger. First they became roommates, noticing how smoothly their collaboration on the apartment went, and then they began working together professionally, on projects like a friend's house remodel. Their only other major conflict came when it was time, in 2010, to choose a name for their new company: Rönsch & Molloy, or Molloy & Rönsch? "A mathematician friend of ours was sitting in our kitchen talking about the fundamental group — a term from algebraic topology that describes very complicated 3-D surfaces," says Molloy. "It was the perfect compromise."