Here at Sight Unseen, we tend to pride ourselves on the timeless nature of so many of our features. But if you look back at the first time we covered Jamie Iacoli and Brian McAllister, way back in 2010, the article is almost laughably out-of-date. For one, we called Seattle a city that’s “not exactly famous for its flourishing industrial design scene” — which is, of course, the premise behind this entire week. And as for Iacoli & McAllister? Back then, they were better known for powder-coated shop tools and cake pedestals than for the beautifully lightweight and sophisticated furniture that has become their signature (and they hadn’t even begun to make jewelry!). They were so very green back then — only having recently found vendors and retailers to make and sell their work — whereas now they’re like the éminence grise of the Seattle design scene, so entrenched in its visual identity that you can’t remember a time when they weren’t there.
What hasn’t changed? When we interviewed them in 2010, the onetime couple had broken up but were still living together. Today, they’re still broken up and living together, though in the intervening years they spent three years living apart. “We were living separately but we had two different studio spaces,” Iacoli remembers. “A dirty production facility where we made everything and a clean inspirational studio where we would design stuff. We got to the point where Brian was always in the production studio and I was always in the clean studio and we never saw each other. It was hard for us to schedule being inspired and doing design work.”
So the two did something most exes would never dream of: They got a townhouse in Capitol Hill that’s big enough for the both of them (plus Iacoli’s dog, Sidney). “We thought if we lived together, we would pass each other in our free time — one of us would be working on something and the other would be going out the door and we could have a quick conversation about our design work,” says Iacoli. And while the arrangement may prove to be short-lived, so far it’s working, not least because the two filled the house (to shockingly un-matchy effect) with furniture of their own design. “A friend said to us, ‘That’s the greatest thing about you guys living together,’” Iacoli laughs. “‘You didn’t have to make any decisions about stuff.’”
It’s hard enough to be a young American designer. The lack of government funding means that prototypes must often be self-financed, and the difficulty in working with most European manufacturers means that young design studios frequently end up handling their own production as well. Now try doing it all in Seattle, a city that’s not exactly famous for its flourishing industrial design scene. “When we started working together a few years ago, we felt really removed from the world that might be interested in what we wanted to do,” says Jamie Iacoli, one half of the Seattle-based design couple Iacoli & McAllister, who have become known over the last year or so for a pared-down industrial aesthetic that’s matched with a supreme gift for color — think wrenches powder-coated in bright magenta or wire-frame pendant lights in emergency orange or cyan. “The thing that’s weird about Seattle is that because it’s so laid back, you get people who talk and don’t do. There’s no pressure to create, in part because no one here is buying.”
People always ask us about the American design scene, and for the longest time, inquiring after American design was just shorthand for trying to figure out what was happening in New York. It’s not that design wasn’t happening in other places; it just wasn’t happening at a scale and with a voice that would make it cohere into something bigger than itself. But oh, how that’s changed in the last five years. Ask us about American design, and we’ll talk your ear off about the amazing ceramics coming out of Los Angeles, or the interesting material experiments happening in Chicago, or Jonah Takagi, who’s singlehandedly making “D.C. design” happen. But the city we’re really, really excited about right now? Seattle.
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!’”