For the designers behind AvroKo, the New York firm known for its high-concept restaurant interiors, the most personal projects often start out as group obsessions. Lately, apropos of nothing, they’ve been compiling a collection of silent video clips featuring modern furniture or architecture, snipped from movies or pulled from obscure design archives. So far it’s just a game — “a meme floating around the office,” as partner Kristina O’Neal puts it — but the first time the team was so possessed, they began with a bank of photographs and ended up opening a restaurant. After securing several projects in Asia a few years back, they began carefully documenting the bizarre cultural mash-ups they found while on trips out East, from mangled English translations to neon-lit religious altars; in 2008 they opened Double Crown in New York’s East Village as an homage to their Anglo-Asian fascination, with food evoking the 19th-century British occupation of India, China, and Singapore. With a new AvroKo office in Hong Kong fielding projects like the recently opened New York–style eatery Lily in Bloom, their anthropological depository keeps growing.
The approach is unsurprising, considering O’Neal and her cohorts — William Harris, Greg Bradshaw, and Adam Farmerie — commit to concepts so fully and so meticulously in their design practice. They are some of the industry’s greatest storytellers, rigging elaborate interior sets that change with the seasons or modeling midtown steakhouses after old-school Lower East Side butcher shops, complete with slick white tiles, endgrain flooring, and jars of curing liquids lined up over the bar. For Richard Sandoval’s new D.C. Latin-Asian fusion restaurant Zengo, they researched palaces built by dictators in both cultures, subtly weaving recurring tropes from power architecture into the design. One example: “We did a central piece with huge wood beams marching down the space in procession,” O’Neal says. “We created a myth around the idea by using real references.” For the most part, though, their research process is less scientific and more observational and curiosity driven, and the results are not about authenticity but vision.
A glimpse of that process can be seen here. The images in this slideshow, pulled from AvroKo’s collection and mostly culled during their travels, represent O’Neal’s eight favorite realms of Anglo-Asian culture clash.
This story was originally published on November 3, 2009. A year and a half later, Dror Benshetrit unveiled at the New Museum a simple, scalable structural joint system called QuaDror, which just may turn out to be his magnum opus. It takes obvious inspiration from the kinds of toys he shared with Sight Unseen here. // Some furniture expands if you’re having extra dinner guests, or folds if you’re schlepping it to a picnic. But most of it just sits there, content to be rather than do. This drives New York–based designer Dror Benshetrit crazy. “Static freaks me out,” he’s said, and so the Design Academy Eindhoven graduate has spent the entirety of his young career making things that either capture a state of transformation (his progressively shattered series of vases for Rosenthal) or actually transform themselves (the Pick Chair and Folding Sofa that flatten using simple mechanics). When I first saw Dror’s latest project, a trivet for Alessi whose concentric metal arcs are magnetized so they can be reconfigured endlessly — and even, the designer enthusiasticaly suggests, worn as a necklace — I thought: If he can’t even let a trivet sit still then his fascination with movement must be more than a design philosophy, it’s probably coded in his DNA. I was right. Dror has been obsessed with kinetic toys since he was a child.
Someone like JP Williams has enjoyed plenty of validating moments in his 20-year career as a graphic designer: Getting to study under one of his design heros, Paul Rand, at Yale; winning more than 100 awards for projects like his kraft-paper tea packages for Takashimaya; discovering that his collection of baseball cards from 1909 was worth enough to buy his wife and business partner Allison an engagement ring. All well and good, however none of it really compared, he admits, to the feeling of being validated by Martha Stewart.
As design-store owner Dave Alhadeff sees it, there’s a distinction between the kinds of craftspeople he is and isn’t interested in: The latter make objects primarily to show off their manual skills, while the former are motivated by a larger concept, a wish to make tangible some abstract artistic meaning. Carving toothpicks into forest animals? Skills. Carving porcelain into vases so mind-bogglingly intricate they appear to be made by machine? Concept. A subtle difference, but one that helps it seem slightly less absurd to picture Alhadeff — who runs The Future Perfect, one of New York’s most well-respected purveyors of contemporary design — roaming the aisles of a Westchester craft fair, chatting up potters and glassblowers. Concept, he explains, is what builds a bridge between pure craft and design.