If you've been to one of her fashion presentations or received one of her elaborate invitations in the mail, you might be surprised to hear graphic designer and art director Roanne Adams describe her business as "not the edgiest design firm." This, after all, is a woman who's so well known for her career-launching work for emerging fashion stars like Abigail Lorick and Timo Weiland that brands often come crawling to her for infusions of downtown cool. Yet if she's managed to turn RoAndCo into one of the most up-and-coming boutique firms in New York at the moment, it's because her little-known clients like Rachael Ray and Zappos have just as much respect for her work as folks like TenOverSix do, which has a lot to do with Adams's instinctive approach to design: Rather than competing to be the most avant-garde kid on the block, she prefers putting new twists on familiar ideas from the past, researching a brand's history or creating narratives around those who don't have one. Her inspirations, as enumerated in the pages of our book Paper View and elaborated on here, run to the likes of Guy Bourdin and '70s advertising icons. "I''ve always been more into Paul Rand and Herb Lubalin than contemporary designers," Adams says.
Despina Curtis is in her early 30s, and yet when she talks about her college days, it sounds a bit like one of those stories your grandparents tell about having to walk shoeless through the snow to get to school every day. Curtis studied printed textile design at the University of Manchester, and it was only when she left that the program’s first-year students were beginning to use digital design and printing tools — she had to do everything analog, even when it came to her eventual focus on huge 6-by-6-foot canvases layered with painting and screenprints. And yet, unlike hyperbolic ancestral poverty tales, hers had an obvious upside: All that drawing and hands-on work primed her for her current career as a stylist for the likes of Wallpaper and Casa Da Abitare.
The Beyoğlu district is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Istanbul, but for centuries, it’s been the Turkish cultural capital's most modern quarter as well. Beyoğlu got telephone lines, electricity, and a funicular early on; new technologies, fashion, and the arts have always flourished there. So it's fitting that the creative firm helping to spearhead the growth of modern design in Turkey has all but grown up on Beyoğlu’s cobbled streets. Headed by Seyhan Özdemir and Sefer Çağlar — an architect and interior designer who met as students in the late 1990s — Autoban is housed in a half-baroque, mid-19th-century Italianate building, but inside, the studio is almost seamlessly modern: high-ceilinged and open plan, lined with white marble and fixtureless white cabinets. The only nod to the past comes in the form of old wooden sills that unfurl around the windows of the partners’ offices.
If you ever have the privilege of chatting up Jade Lai, who owns the bicoastal cult fashion emporium Creatures of Comfort, don't be surprised if she tells you that, after returning from a trip to Morocco last year with no less than 15 carpets in tow, she was struck by the notion that she could totally see herself in the rug business. And when this is followed by the revelation that she’s looking to expand the Creatures of Comfort brand to encompass food, or that she’s been taking pottery classes, or that she hopes to run a bed and breakfast sometime soon, resist the urge to raise an eyebrow — these may sound like the ramblings of a dilettante, but make no mistake, Lai is both hyper-creative and legitimately driven. Consider, for example, the year she spent working as a product developer for Esprit in her native Hong Kong: She took the job after having graduated with an architecture degree, freelanced as a graphic designer, and started her own stationery line in L.A., but proceeded to become so good at it that she could eventually identify a fabric’s contents by touch alone — a useful skill for someone who now designs Creatures of Comfort’s in-house fashion line, and one that would certainly come in handy for any aspiring carpet slinger.
A lot of designers call themselves multidisciplinary, but they’ve got nothing on Renata Abbade. A former stylist for magazines like Purple and fashion brands like VPL, the São Paulo–born, Los Angeles–based designer has spent the better part of the last decade involved in a wonderfully weird array of activities: creating a cult jewelry line in ceramics, dancing on stage at Lollapalooza with the Brazilian band CSS, starring in a series of self-produced dance and workout videos (including one for CSS, in which she wore masks depicting each of the band members’ faces), designing terrariums, landscapes, rugs, tapestries, and fabrics, DJing down in Brazil, and performing with a semi-fictitious band called High Waisted. She refers to herself both as a freestylist and a fashion artist, but in truth, what she’s often creating amounts to something more like performance art, where she is the subject, channeling personal interests and experiences into new and different media. “To me, it feels like I’m only doing one thing, even if I’m involved in a lot of different things,” says Abbade. “Like with the terrariums, it’s basically styling with plants instead of clothes, and land instead of people.”
Does the world really need another beanbag chair? That was the question that presented itself to the Stockholm-based trio Form Us With Love when they visited the factory of Swedish furniture manufacturer Voice in the summer of 2009. “We were led on a tour of the facilities by the managing director,” they say. “Upon arrival at a production line of beanbags, the director stopped. The facility, once churning out bags by the minute, now stood motionless. Trend and low-quality copies had severely stunted production. The brief was concise — design a piece of furniture that would make the machines run again.” The group — made up of Jonas Pettersson, John Löfgren, and Petrus Palmer, who met as students in the first-year design program at Kalmer University — responded the only way they know how: By stripping the beanbag of its passé, dorm-room connotations, and using a powder-coated wire frame and a sophisticated color palette to recast it not as a piece of childhood ephemera but as a contemporary take on the easy chair, fit for any modern-day living room.
There’s a lot that’s hard for Westerners to understand about Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin, the husband and wife who make up the South African furniture and fashion duo Dokter and Misses. First, there’s the fact that they hail from Johannesburg, a city whose art scene has held sway in the international market for years but whose few industrial designers are hardly household names. Then there are their references, which remain resolutely sub-equatorial: In our interview, we talked about game reserves, braais (the South African term for barbecue), a Nigerian dancehall/reggae musician named Dr. Alban, and an artist who uses the techniques of the Ndebele tribe, from the Mpumalanga region of the country. Perhaps most confounding is their name, which mixes English and Dutch honorifics and calls to mind everything from sci-fi movies to secretaries — and which the two refuse to explain. It’s lucky, then, that their work is so instantly likable and wonderfully easy to grasp.
In the world of retail, there is a tendency towards sameness, a familiarity designed to lull shoppers into a complacent state in which they might begin to feel it’s okay to spend a lot of money. A Zara, anywhere in the world, is immediately identifiable by its gold-toned lighting and rows of shoes lined up haphazardly underneath the clothes; a Marni boutique leaves its mark with swooping stainless-steel rails and elliptical cutouts in the ceilings. As a brand, Marc Jacobs has never been about uniformity, though — this is a fashion designer, after all, who’s gone from the most infamous collection of grunge in history to the luxurious heights of Louis Vuitton — so why should his stores? “There are certain iconic elements that are repeated,” admits Stephan Jaklitsch, the New York–based architect who’s been responsible for Jacobs's bricks-and-mortar for more than 10 years, “but in general, each store relates to its own specific building type, to the city’s specific urban condition, and to the architecture of the individual space. Although they’re identifiably connected, every one of them has a particular feel.”
If there’s one thing that’s defined a Rich, Brilliant, Willing product since the studio’s three members graduated from RISD in 2007 and banded together to make furniture, it’s the idea of the mash-up. In most of their pieces, seemingly disparate materials and odd colors come together in a sort of joyful schizophrenia — a lamp with differently colored, awkwardly placed dowel legs, a wood-and-metal coat rack with copper, steel, and plastic pegs, and even a candle holder crowded with tapers, birthday candles, and fat, number-shaped votives. But a funny thing happened this spring: The trio released a series of cast-glass pendant lights with the Los Angeles–based design company Artecnica that were notable not only for their pretty, industrial aesthetic but for their adherence to a single, monochromatic material. “It’s unusual for any object to made of a single part these days,” says Theo Richardson, who with Charles Brill and Alex Williams makes up the trio, their surnames forming the basis for the studio's cheeky name. “Most of the time, things are glued together, screwed together. But for us, this was going from assemblage work to something that’s made of a single piece.”
The artist William Hundley — known for photographing plumes of fabric hovering enigmatically in mid-air and strange objects balancing atop cheeseburgers — recently began experimenting with self-portraits. Which wouldn't be out of the ordinary, except that Hundley happens to hate letting people know what he looks like, so he obscures the photos of his face with collages of weird body parts and other incongruous images. He’s also been playing with masks, shooting the results of elaborate tribal-inspired face-painting sessions with his fiancée. “There’s this perception that I’m this badass artist who doesn’t give a fuck, this imagined character,” says Hundley, a boyish Texas native who lives deep in the suburbs of Austin. “But I work at a hospital in IT. So that’s why I don’t like putting images of myself or a biography out there — I mean look at me, I’m all-American white-boy looking. It would ruin the illusion.”
In honor of Sight Unseen's first anniversary, we, the editors, decided to turn the lens on ourselves, revealing what inspires us as writers about and champions of design and art. If you're an especially devoted reader of Sight Unseen, you might have noticed that Monica — who spent her childhood putting bugs under a kiddie microscope and was at the head of her high-school calculus class — often tends towards subjects inspired by geometry and science, while Jill — whose love for color and pattern likely began with an uncommonly large novelty earring collection — favors maximalist, throw-every-color-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks types. We were interested to see how those formative experiences would play out in a documention of our own reference points. Here's a closer look at eight of Jill's editor's picks.