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!’”
Davis and Lee chose the name Ladies & Gentlemen for its vaguely generic quality, hoping it would give them license to stay flexible as makers. First, they designed new objects inspired by vintage ones, like their cake servers and doily rug. Next, they moved on to small, minimalist-yet-cutesy pieces: the chalkboard piggy bank, the candlesticks shaped like houses. And then last year, as part of Sight Unseen’s Noho Design District event, they launched Natural Selection, their first series of furniture, and a rather sophisticated one at that. What ties their burgeoning portfolio together, says Davis, is “simplicity, playfulness, and an exploration of materials” that extends to the couple’s live/work studio, which is lined with shelves full of wood blocks and scraps of leather. “Having those around as we’re trying to think of an idea always feeds what the object will feel like in the end,” Davis says. “That’s a big part of our work—that directness of what we can do with this block of wood to make it an object?”
We asked Davis and Lee to show us those shelves, and all the other inspirations and ideas that will inform their work as it continues to develop — likely, they say, into more furniture and more designer collaborations, starting with a new line of lamps for a forthcoming Seattle-based lighting brand called Standard Socket. Get to know them better in the slideshow at right, then be sure to visit their home on the Sight Unseen shop, where they’ve just launched an amazing series of splatter-paint bowls.
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.
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.”
Australian wine capital Adelaide has a population of 1.3 million, putting it on par with Dallas or San Diego. But as native Daniel To sees it, it’s a big city with a small-town mentality — one that nearly consigned him and his wife Emma Aiston to a life designing laundry lines. “We met at the University of South Australia, where our design program was heavily engineering based and suited to what’s required for the city's industry,” explains To. “Adelaide has three main manufacturing companies: one making garden sheds, one light switches, and a third clothes-drying lines.” Rather than learning about mid-century modern, Memphis, or the Bauhaus — all of which would later inform their work as the independent studio Daniel Emma — the pair were taught to perfect their technical-drawing skills and gear up to become cogs in the local wheel. Just as they were starting their final projects in 2006, though, they had a kind of mutual awakening.