Anyone familiar with the work of Los Angeles ceramicist Ben Medansky would be surprised to learn that, when he was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, his work was actually colorful, spanning the full spectrum of glaze hues. But after he graduated and went to work for a succession of other artists — among them the Haas brothers, who hired him to set up and run their in-house ceramics shop, and Peter Shire, for whom he spent a sweaty summer splatter-painting dishware — he decided he needed to find his own signature style, so he abandoned color entirely upon setting up his own studio in 2012 and started by focusing exclusively on form. The strong, graphic shapes he’s been creating since, all in earthy orange stoneware peeking out from under a speckled-white glaze, have become instantly recognizable in the contemporary ceramics scene.
When describing their sensibility, Arianna Lelli Mami and Chiara Di Pinto of the Milan-based Studiopepe invoke the versatility of classic white shirt: “You can wear it anytime, to go to the supermarket or to a soirée. The same is for design. Good design — whether a masterpiece or anonymous — goes with everything.” Their evocative aesthetic, though, is anything but simple. “Eclecticism and curiosity” are important starting points for them, and their output is rich with visual references, ranging from the harmony of classical forms to the glamour of Italian cinema in the ‘60s. But they don’t merely quote their source material, they transform it.
Lots of people on Instagram tend to stop us dead in our tracks as we slavishly scroll through our feed, but Peter Nencini has been one of those arresting image-makers since before the app even existed. An illustrator by training, Nencini did away with the confines of pen and paper after graduating from London’s Royal College of Art in the 1990s and today creates everything from typefaces to ad-hoc sculptures. A keen photographer, he has always recorded the stages of his process, first with a point-and-shoot and now with his iPhone, and has long been the proprietor of one of our favorite inspiration blogs. So when I suggested he walk me through 8 Things for Sight Unseen, the stipulation was that it had to be images from his Instagram, and we’d be digging into his thoughts on the app. He asked me to choose the shots, and then he explained them: That is how it went down.
“It was a weird thing for a kid growing up in a Baptist family to collect,” says Andy Coolquitt of the whiskey bottles that formed his earliest stockpile. “I was interested in the beautiful, sculptural shapes of the bottles and the graphic design of the labels. It was something we didn’t have in our house, so it was a bit exotic. I had them displayed in this little cave-like space off the garage.” The now Austin-based artist was raised in Mesquite, Texas, in what he describes as a “bland, boring suburban existence,” with little “interest in visual culture.” Rebellion came in the form of “having a whole lot of stuff around me and letting that stuff dictate my aesthetic.” Since then, Coolquitt has literally turned obsessive scavenging into an art form. Metal pipes and tubing, plastic lighters, aluminum cans — these are just a few of the found materials he repurposes and transforms, setting them up in conversation with each other and giving them a life-like, almost human quality.
Having graduated from fashion school in Dusseldorf, Reality Studio founder Svenja Specht still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life, so she decided to study product design. (Her thesis project was a designy tampon dispenser, which she presented to the class in the university bathroom.) In the midst of those studies — during which she also interned for Jean-Marie Massaud in Paris — she took classes in photography and graphic design, the latter of which she practiced for four years at ad agencies in Beijing after finishing school for good. “I wanted to see and learn as much as possible,” she says of that time. But having had all of those experiences, she recalls, it was New Year’s Eve of 2000-2001 when “it came to me suddenly, just like that, that I needed to go back to fashion somehow.” And so she packed up, moved to Berlin, got a job as a trend forecaster, and three years later launched a clothing line that was every bit as eclectic as her own background, if not moreso.
Each spring when we head to Milan, there are two must-see stops on our agenda that aren’t strictly part of the furniture fair circuit. The first is lunch at the no-frills Latteria, where we gorge ourselves on raw artichokes and lemony pasta with chili peppers. The second is the COS flagship on Corso Venezia, where we’ve been known to spend hours stocking up on the kind of simple, directional wardrobe staples that are the London-based brand’s bread and butter. For years, COS has been the secret weapon of pretty much every design-world tastemaker we know, and it’s become an excellent source as well for keeping up with what’s new in art and design, what with its print magazine from the people behind Fantastic Man and its blog highlighting work by talents like Chen Chen & Kai Williams, Charlie Schuck, and Julian Renault. When we heard COS was finally coming to America — stores in New York and L.A. are forthcoming this fall, and an e-commerce site is already up and running — we were thrilled. To celebrate the launch in its inimitable fashion, COS recently launched a project called “50 Things: A Collection of Things We Love From America,” which includes a mix of Sight Unseen regulars (Bec Brittain, Doug Johnston), amazing new discoveries (we’re obsessing over Utah’s Daniel Everett), and odes to some of the country's most beautiful examples of architecture and natural phenomena.
Every creative scene has an unseen hand, the type of person who seems to know everyone, touch everything, and generally act as the glue holding it all together, all while falling just below the radar of the average outside observer. In the Seattle design world, Charlie Schuck fits that profile to a tee. A photographer and the proprietor of the former brick and mortar storefront Object — which he filled with commissions by designers from around the Pacific Northwest — he not only produces stunning product shots for locals like Totokaelo, Iacoli & McAllister, Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, and Filson, he also curates exhibitions, like the recent pop-up Future This Now and an upcoming museum survey of regional talents. He's so committed to his role, in fact, that when we approached him about doing a story on his own work, he came back with the idea to do a photo essay on everyone else's: "A still life series of personal items that speak to the influences of Seattle creatives," he says. "Objects from those who produce objects."
According to Canadian curator Michael Klein, when people think of art in Vancouver, they think of photo-conceptualism. When they think of Winnipeg, it’s the Royal Art Lodge, the drawing collective founded in 1996 that launched the careers of talents like Marcel Dzama. But Toronto, on the other hand, resists such classifications — it’s one of the most diverse cities in the world, says Klein, and the same can be said for its art scene. So why do we automatically associate the city with the kind of clever, minimalist conceptual work that Klein shows at MKG127, the gallery he founded there in 2007? Blame the artist Micah Lexier — we covered his amazing A to B installation on Sight Unseen in 2010, and then proceeded to fall down the MKG rabbit hole, marveling both at the subtle, obsessive-compulsive thrills that characterize many of the works shown there and at the weird cohesiveness of Klein’s vision.
When Jonathan Nesci was 23 — with a one-year-old at home, and working as a forklift operator at FedEx in Chicago while attending night school for 3-D drafting at a community college — one of his coworkers gave him a fateful nudge: “He knew I wanted to design furniture, and he was like, ‘You can do it!!’,” recalls Nesci, now 31. And so he cold-emailed Richard Wright, founder of the eponymous Chicago auction house, and promoted the heck out of himself until he landed a job managing Wright’s restoration department, where he stayed for five years before founding his own studio in early 2012. As he tells it, his cheerleader at FedEx deserves substantial credit for inspiring him to take the leap that changed his life. But to know Nesci is to realize that no matter what happened, the results would have been the same — he was destined to be a designer.
In 2002, when the Barnes Foundation announced a plan to move from its original location in Merion, Pennsylvania, to nicer, big-time architect–designed digs in Philadelphia, there was a bit of an uproar. How, devotees of the collection wondered, could anything ever replicate the obsessiveness with which Alfred C. Barnes — the quirky early 20th-century art enthusiast who amassed the collection — originally arranged things? When the new building, designed by Tsien & Williams, opened last year, those people breathed a sigh of relief at its apparent fidelity (every room is the same dimension as its counterpart in Merion, and everything was reinstalled to one-sixteenth of an inch.) But here’s something even more freeing: visiting the Barnes as we did, knowing next to nothing about the whole endeavor and therefore being able to judge the collection on its own merits. The verdict? We both fell kind of in love with the place.
Just walking into Bodega Gallery in Philadelphia’s Old City and being greeted by one of its five cool, young founders — or browsing its online archive of past exhibitions, which is peppered with names like Sam Falls and Travess Smalley — you could easily file it alongside similar edgy, high-brow art establishments in cities like L.A., New York, or Paris. And then you find yourself conversing with a few of said cool, young founders (all of them artists themselves and graduates of Hampshire College), and you hear them say things like “stuff is for sale if people want to buy it, but that’s not the driving force,” or “this is just a space — everything happens around it, and nothing happens at it,” and you realize that the economics of a place like Philly can be even more freeing for projects like this than you’d imagined. Bodega really is just a space, one that's run by Elyse Derosia, Ariela Kuh, Lydia Okrent, James Pettengill, and Eric Veit, but where it feels like almost anything could happen.
Katrin Greiling’s work as a designer has taken her to the deserts of the UAE and further east still to the jungles of Indonesia. The Munich native’s designs often have Nordic bones, but they’re made by hand in small workshops thousands of miles away. Her work as a photographer — an intended hobby that has morphed into a career — is also in high demand. But what makes the mind of this multi-disciplinary, globetrotting creative tick?