The first time we met Misha Kahn, he was slapping gold metallic wallpaper with long-lashed googly eyes onto the walls of a tiny room we’d given to four RISD students at our 2011 Noho Design District showcase. We were never sure quite what to make of the wallpaper — was it technically even “furniture design,” or was it more a piece of Surrealist art? — but we knew from first sight that we loved it. Which is pretty much how we’ve felt about all of the work that’s followed from the Brooklyn-based, Duluth, Minnesota–born designer’s studio, whether it’s a pink bench made from layers of resin and trash, a series of tables that resemble Froebel blocks on acid, or sewn cement pieces that look like the work of a woozy Jeff Koons.
“My process usually starts with a pretty rigid vision, but because I’m manufacturing my own things, something always happens that throws everything off,” Kahn explains. “I actually imagine my designs being these insanely crisp Pop-Art objects. I know they’ll never end up that way but that’s the fun in making them. With the sewn cement pieces, for example, I was just too cheap to buy Plexiglas so I was stretching vinyl over plywood to simulate that finish and there ended up being ripples. In my head they were these rigid geometric shapes but then there were all these kinks and silly surface textures.”
“Silly” is one of Kahn’s favorite words to throw around, and while there is comedy in much of his work — one of his first projects at RISD was a “giant waffle table” — there is also a seriousness of purpose and the infusion of narrative that comes from experience. That might sound ridiculous considering Kahn won’t even be turning 30 any time soon, but he’s crammed as many experiences — both here and abroad — as he can into his short career. There was the year in Belgium when he was 16, travel in the Middle East, a Fulbright scholarship that brought him to Tel Aviv to study shoe design under a Bezalel master, and an internship at a Vietnamese factory where he ended up assisting ex-Moschino creative director Vincent Darré in his eccentric attempts at furniture. Most recently, there was a fellowship at the Creative Glass Center of America in New Jersey, where he made the tinfoil, glass, and resin pieces that debuted tonight at a joint exhibition with his frequent co-conspirator Katie Stout — because oh yeah, did we mention that all of his recent work had been acquired by New York’s prestigious Johnson Trading Gallery?
If Kahn has achieved a certain measure of success in a small amount of time, it’s because he thinks big, both about individual pieces and his career in general. Even in answering the questions for this interview, he would frequently reference his desire to move into the realm of living rooms, log cabins, or palaces (with serious Archizoom vibes). Having such an expanded sense of the future can be good but it can also be a curse, Kahn says. “Like this year, so many exciting things have happened and I’m still like wait, what about the department store? When do I get to open that? There’s always something bigger on the horizon.”
First thing you ever made? “When I was five, I made everyone in my extended family tiny pants that hold pens and turned them into necklaces. They were called pen pants. I also made tons and tons of Claymation films, mostly about the adventures of an otter.”
If you had an unlimited budget for a single piece, what would you make? “I would love to make a whole neon wood grain floor — or a marbled marble palace. Or make a whole log cabin out of trash trees.”
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be? “A plastic surgeon! I could still make the switch in 10 years.”
Favorite Google Image search:
“I think my first step is buying a computer.”
If you have a great design sense, and if you enjoy sending people flowers, you've probably noticed by now that the two don't exactly tend to play well together. Unless you're clued into a place like The Sill, our new favorite Brooklyn-based succulent delivery service, you know your lucky recipient is most likely going to receive their posies in some boring glass trifle that will inevitably end up in the freebie box at his or her next garage sale. That's why when young designers Misha Kahn and Pete Oyler hit up a Salvation Army looking for castoff vessels to experiment with for their latest project, they had absolutely no trouble filling up their cart. It's tough out there for a generic FTD vase, especially one whose emptiness eventually reminds you of a failed relationship or a hospital stay. Kahn and Oyler decided that, just in time for Valentine's Day, they'd take their thrifted castoffs and give them new lives as objets d'art, filling them with colored resin and shattering them in place (hence the name).
"It's not like it's a science," says Brooklyn designer Chen Chen as he's mixing up a batch of cement in the Brooklyn studio he shares with collaborator Kai Tsien Williams, attempting to explain why he can't offer an exact set of measurements for replicating his concrete bookends. They're fitting words to have chosen, though, coming from him: The Shanghai-born, Wyoming-raised designer had two chemists for parents, and yet it seems like his entire practice has revolved around losing control during the design process rather than maintaining it. Since he joined forces earlier this year with Williams — a fellow Pratt grad who also runs the design fabrication business Three Phase Studio — the pair have spent most of their time together choosing offbeat materials like expanding foam and studio scraps and experimenting for weeks to see what kinds of unexpected effects they can elicit from them.
At the Armory Show this past November, Cristina Grajales had an original Jean Royère Polar Bear sofa in her booth, which sold for “half a million in minutes,” she recalls. Grajales has had plenty of experience dealing in 20th-century masterpieces like these — both in her decade-long stint directing 1950 for Delorenzo and at the helm of her 12-year-old eponymous gallery in Soho — and yet her own most cherished piece isn’t some icon of modernism at all. It’s not even a design object, but a 19th-century Naga warrior costume she bought at the Tribal Art Fair, and as a mainstay of the large office and presentation room she keeps behind her gallery, only her clients and artists ever get to see it. Of course it’s they, if any, who understand Grajales’s working methods best; they come to her precisely because she looks at objects “as sculptures, for what they are,” and says she’s “not afraid to put together, say, an 18th-century Portuguese table with a contemporary silver tray.” Which is why we figured a privileged peek inside her back room, captured earlier this year by our trusty photographer Mike Vorrasi, might be the ideal way for our readers to get to know her, too.