To hear the story of James and Chelsea Minola — the married couple behind Seattle’s Grain design studio — you begin to wonder how it’s possible their paths didn’t cross even earlier in life. Both grew up in Southern California — James in San Diego, and Chelsea in Los Angeles, where her parents were the owners of a punk rock store at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. In the early ’90s, both families relocated to the Pacific Northwest, and James and Chelsea moved east to Providence, Rhode Island, around the same time to attend RISD — James as an undergrad in engineering and Chelsea as a graduate in industrial design. But the two didn’t meet until they both enrolled in a short course called “Bridging Cultures Through Design,” where they worked first in Providence, tinkering with ideas about weaving, and then for a few weeks in Guatemala, where they learned how to work with talented local artisans. The trip would eventually lead the two friends down the path to marriage but it also introduced them to the way in which their future studio would run.
“We have a studio here on Bainbridge Island where we make some products from start to finish, but we also put a high value on the community of artists, fabricators, and craftspeople that we work with,” says James. “We’re inspired by their skill, and we try and work with people who are more experienced than us at that given craft. We want their expertise, and it’s more about working together to realize the initial concept than strictly enforcing our preconceived notions. In the end, this also reinforces our social sustainability goals as well. We’re able to help support a larger community of artists and craftspeople that is so much bigger and more important than our one little company.”
Luckily, it’s a little company that’s growing bigger every day. The two moved back to Bainbridge Island after graduating, and the company began in 2008 with a simple, ethically produced shower curtain. It’s their “least glamorous product” as Chelsea puts it, but its popularity has helped support the growth of the business, which now includes a collection of furniture and housewares that explores the inherent beauty of natural materials through a mix of traditional craftsmanship and cutting-edge technologies. They’ve been on our radar for a few years now — they were instrumental, with Iacoli & McAllister and Ladies & Gentlemen, in forming JOIN, a loose Seattle-based collective that puts on exhibitions and shows at trade fairs together — but we thought it was high time we sat down and said a proper hello.
What style movement do you most identify with? James: “My favorite movement is what is happening now. I think there is a lot of really beautiful and inspired work happening, and it’s all around us. Just take a look at your site! Independent designers are able to work with tools and in ways that just wasn’t possible several years ago, all while reaching a larger audience. One of the most exciting aspects of design in general is its nowness, and all the creative people pushing the boundaries of what can be made in the present… before it becomes art history. What could be more relevant than work produced by still-living people for still-existing problems by those with the most current sets of skills and knowledge?”
First thing a stranger would say when they saw your work: Chelsea: “I feel like I should have something weird and funny to say after all the trade shows, pop-ups, and meet-the-maker events that we have worked, but I am coming up blank. Strangers often like to give advice, like: ‘This would be great in animal print.'”
Dream place to install your work? Chelsea: “How about the Cooper-Hewitt? That show Design ≠ Art from several years back left a big impression on me. The rooms were laid out with Donald Judd and Richard Tuttle furniture as if the mansion was still a home. It would have to be in spring or early summer so that the opening party could be in the garden!”
If you had an unlimited budget for a single piece, what would you make? Chelsea: “A home for ourselves. One with an ocean view, radiant heat floors, detached studio, and plenty of room for guests. Maybe here in the Northwest or maybe Northern California somewhere. We like the idea of what we call ‘rugged coastal’ and spend plenty of time daydreaming about architecture.”
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be? Chelsea: “I know James’s answer to this. His first answer is probably ski bum. Second: surf bum. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to do something less personal and emotional — to save that part of my life for myself — like finance or accounting. Probably sounds super boring, but I really like spreadsheets and organizing. I always complain about being our bookkeeper, but it is actually pretty satisfying to balance out our accounts.”
James: “I have a lot of interests ranging from writing to theoretical physics… but Chelsea’s right, I’d probably just be some form of outdoorsy lout. My true skill set!”
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!’”
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.
Okay, let's get this out of the way as quickly as possible: Yes, Pauline Deltour spent a few years as a designer in Konstantin Grcic's studio. And yes, Grcic may have made a few strategic phone calls on her behalf, jumpstarting her career once she struck out on her own in 2009. But considering that was four years ago, and the 30-year-old Paris-based talent has since turned out more than a few painfully elegant designs for the likes of Discipline and Kvadrat, we thought it was worth stating for the record that she's become quite the rising star in her own right — not to mention one of design's most promising new female voices. We checked in with Deltour, who describes her practice as aspiring to create "self-evident" objects, to find out what she's been up to lately.