This week we announced the 2014 American Design Hot List, Sight Unseen’s unapologetically subjective annual editorial award for the 25 names to know now in American design. We’re devoting an entire week to interviews with this year’s honorees — get to know the next five Hot List designers here, then hop on over to our Pinterest and our Instagram for even more coverage.

Karl Zahn1KarlZahn2

Karl Zahn

A onetime designer of wooden toys for Areaware and a designer at Lindsey Adelman’s studio, Zahn came into his own this spring with a stunning collection of kinetic, sculptural pieces for Matter

What is American design to you, and what excites you about it?
I think American design is in the middle of rediscovering itself right now. We have a history of ingenuity and a very definite modernist aesthetic, but we haven’t moved much beyond that until now. Thanks to the Internet and the world becoming a seemingly smaller place, global design has been heavily influencing the American design scene and I think we are now making waves in return. It is an exciting time to be involved in the community because we are starting to establish again what that American design aesthetic actually is. There are so many talented designers, chipping away at what that word means and proving that we can hold our own on the global stage. We are setting the foundations of a new, really intriguing formal language that is still rooted in American ingenuity and the prowess that we have inherited. And I think the world is ready for some honest, classic, and ultimately beautiful work.

What are your plans and highlights for the upcoming year?
This past design week I had an opportunity to show some work which I would consider far more sculptural than design. But the process of making for the sake of experimentation and solely for beauty was so very enlightening and fun. I made it a point not to make anything with a purpose but of course found myself tinkering with some basic products along the way. Now that the experiment has been shown, and based on the reactions that the work has received, I feel more comfortable pushing some of those products further and I am planning on showing another collection of experiments for this coming design week. 

What inspires your work in general?
I think this past year has helped to push me into a different place than I was expecting creatively. Where I used to be fascinated with connections and the cleanliness of intersecting materials, I am finding that the very point of contact is far more interesting than the whole. That place where two surfaces meet, or where moving lines pass one another, or where the visual weight of one thing begins to affect another: It’s a sort of metaphorical chiaroscuro playing with light and heft rather than light and dark.

The show that I had in May was primarily about balance and movement, and I think finding this place had a lot to do with that direction. While it’s easy to think of a wood joint holding a chair leg together as being a connection, it’s much more difficult and ethereal to consider a large massive body balancing precariously on the tip of a small needle. These are both solid connections, but one is so seemingly precarious that it adds an emotive quality that I think I was missing. My inspiration now is to take this curiosity and try to play in different directions and applications.

This experiment has been visually exciting but there’s also the tremendous feeling that you get when you first set something you’ve made into motion. It’s the evil villain wringing his hands facing the camera saying “the plan worked perfectly” feeling. When you first give a sculpture a little shove and it proceeds to dance on its own, it makes you proud and it never fails to teach you something. Making things move is hard. Allowing them to do what they want is also hard. But embracing what they want to do and encouraging them to do it better is humbling and exciting. It’s like you’re having a conversation with the piece. And I would much rather ask the square peg if it wants to fit through the round hole than get a bigger hammer.
Chiaro_1 revolver-black-silo

Leon Ransmeier

New York,
Unlike many of the designers on this list, Ransmeier primarily produces his beautifully minimalist, ultra-functional work through big-name manufacturers like Herman Miller, Hay, and Mattiazzi. 

What is American design to you, and what excites you about it?
One of the greatest pleasures for me is making objects that almost anybody anywhere in the world could know how to use — hopefully they might even enjoy using them. I believe there is a universal, human understanding of form and meaning that transcends nationality, American or otherwise. When people speak about “design,” the focus is often on furniture and interior objects, but who decides where “design culture” starts and stops? In my opinion, if we are talking about design, we should also include film sets, sports equipment, sneakers and airplanes, just to name a few.

Regarding furniture design, in the U.S. we don’t have the tradition of small family-owned producers of modern goods, and instead the market is dominated by a few large companies. There were a number of years — too many years — where people’s well-being was placed second to profit, and quantity sold trumped quality of life. Entrepreneurship and utility were ingrained in American culture from the beginning, as well as innovation and invention, all of which are still a source of cultural pride in the United States. America helped to pioneer industrial manufacturing on a truly massive scale. Enter the Calvinist frugality that was also embedded into American culture from the outset, and one can begin to hypothesize why the appetite for low cost products is still a dominant force in American consumerism.

Thankfully, the dark ages of American design are over. I see big business in America placing a much greater focus on good design and sustainability. I am energized by the collaboration with industry on a large scale, and with designing for a consumer base that may not know or care who designed what they use. If design begins with the desire to change something, then I am inspired by designers who are reinventing objects, businesses and services.

Entrepreneurialism is still very American, and the application of inventive passion combined with good principles motivates me. We are seeing more and more young companies producing and distributing their work, and hopefully some of these newer brands will manage to stick around and gather some history.

What are your plans and highlights for the upcoming year?
I just returned from Chicago where I presented one of two objects I have designed for a group show at Volume Gallery. The second object (along with the first) will be shown at Design Miami. Also in December, a collaboration between my studio and the Corning Museum of Glass will be exhibited at the re-opening exhibit Beautiful Users at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. I am currently in Japan, about to begin work on a ceramic project, which will be shown in Milan in 2016. In November, I will be visiting Finland for a two-day glass-blowing workshop with Iittala. We are working on some line extensions to the CHIARO collection with Mattiazzi, set to launch at the Salone in April of 2015. I’m also currently exploring a new project with Herman Miller, which we hope to debut sometime in 2015.  My studio is also designing and developing a very exciting piece of outdoor equipment that I wish I could say more about!

What inspires your work in general?
My work is inspired by a wide spectrum of ideas, but it is informed by use. Use follows form, and finding the form to be used is our work. There is a big difference between an idea and a product. An image or a thought can create passion, but nothing can replace the act of using an object. The design process is often a long and winding road, and for us, there is a certain rhythm between finding inspiration and making. We build everything full scale. Even if they are rough models, the experience gives us a better understanding of the objects we create. This includes ensuring the utility or “usefulness” of an object, but I hope that we are able to go beyond that, and to create something more meaningful. While our fundamental human needs include subsistence and protection, they also include affection, understanding, and freedom. It is the designer’s job to create objects that simultaneously complement these needs.

LUUR Design

We first got to know LUUR’s Christopher Stuart when he penned two books on how to DIY other designers’ furniture; we’ve since come to know him as the maker of an increasingly rich and varied portfolio of his own.

What is American design to you, and what excites you about it?
It’s a revolution! American designers have come together in a relatively short amount of time to place a stake in the ground and make things happen, even when there isn’t a client. As a result, we get to see very raw original works that are purely the voice of the designer. Because so many of us are self-initiating, self-funding, and self-manufacturing, process and material are playing a huge role in the movement. It’s about what we can make on our own or outsource locally. Natural materials and traditional craft techniques are used in combination with modern equipment like CNCs, laser cutters, and 3D printers. To me, this blend of familiar and experimental helps define American design. It’s exciting to be a part of it!

What are your plans and highlights for the upcoming year?
We are currently working hard to launch new products. We have quite a few things in the works ranging from smaller housewares to furniture and lighting. We keep adding more and more equipment to our shop and we are running out of room, so a move might be in our near future! We bounce back and forth between the client side and the self-initiated side. My hope is that these two sides become much closer, allowing each to help the other grow. My goal is that our self-initiated work becomes the example to help steer our client work.

When studying furniture design at school, I took a lot of ceramic classes and I loved the immediacy of clay. It’s a great way to offset how labor-intensive woodworking is. So, we just got a kiln and are working on some pieces, exploring different techniques from slip-casting to hand-building, and tossing in some experimental approaches as well. We hope to have some things to show very soon.

I’m also very interested in the connection between space and objects. As a result, we are growing our firm to include more architecture, interior, and landscape projects. We love it when we have the ability to tell a bigger and more complete story by designing the space and the objects that reside within them.

What inspires your work in general?
Many of the great Modernist architects like Louis Kahn, Carlos Scarpa, Le Corbusier and of course Minimalists like Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt. Not only because of their aesthetic, but because they embraced the materials they worked with. There was evidence of process, and even when the material was unnatural, the results were always honest and straightforward. I think of the late comedian Mitch Hedberg, who, when describing turkey ham or turkey bologna, said, “Somebody needs to tell the turkeys: Man, just be yourself! I already like you, little brother. You do not need to emulate the other animals. You got your own thing going.”

I often look to utilitarian objects for inspiration for the same reasons. Objects like brick grain silos, concrete sewer drains, and even a basic CMU or clay brick all are stripped down to the basics. They look the way they do because of the process and end-use. It seems like the more experience I have, the more I try to think like a child; just trying to have fun and be honest with what I’m doing.

My work is also informed by process — highlighting how something is made, whether by hand or machine. Having my own shop has allowed me to make lots of prototypes and mistakes! “Fail fast” is something my right hand man, James, says all the time. Meaning the faster we fail, the sooner we can find a better solution. Being so close to the build, we get to see where we can modify the design to better fit the process or material.

Misha Kahn

With his penchant for offbeat materials and experimental processes, the Minnesota-born RISD grad Kahn reminds us of a latter-day Gaetano Pesce. 

What is American design to you, and what excites you about it?
America has such a rich aesthetic, but in recent design history I think this has been left by the wayside in lieu of tired European influences. It feels like a lot of designers are turning around and looking more deeply at our own history — both classical American furniture and American folk or craft work. I’m definitely heavily influenced by the kind of making-meets-problem-solving-meets-oddity-energy that goes into a lot of the homebrewed furniture solutions I’ve seen in Minnesota.

What are your plans and highlights for the upcoming year?
Right now I really want a nap! I just finished an intense summer, making a lot of work for the NYC Makers biennial at the Museum of Arts & Design, furnishing a whole floor at Bergdorf’s, and lots of other odd projects like shoes for the fashion label Eckhaus Latta. I also made a ton of lamps for the Bjaarne Melgaard installation in the Whitney Biennial this spring. I have a jewelry show in June at Gallery Loupe, which is a great art jewelry space. I’m making a ton of enormous coil pots and working on a lot of fun commissions, and some big things are happening this year. I’m hoping for a blockbuster documentary film with custom squiggly 3D glasses.

What inspires your work in general?
Basically I’ve been cutting out all the things I don’t enjoy doing in studio and replacing them with new methods I’m coming up with. Glenn Adamson of MAD called something of mine “Instant Craft” in a recent article, and I’m worried that might have made my impatience-turned–craft practice into something too tangible. I’m going on a little road trip with my mom this month to go see a lot of roadside art places that I’ve never seen in person. I’m really interested in people who create their own little worlds in that way, so I’m penciling that in for future inspiration.

Moving Mountains

With its pops of electric blue and its incredible use of mixed materials, Syrette Lew’s debut furniture collection was among the happiest we’ve seen in years.  

What is American design to you, and what excites you about it?
I would say the best way to describe American design is that it’s heterogeneous. Yes, there are pockets of homogeneity but American culture and society is a polyethnic one so there are many styles, movements, ideas being exchanged and mashed up here which is why I find it hard to make generalizations. America also has the advantage of being a relatively young country so our traditions are not as deeply rooted as compared to some other countries. So, if you’re looking to defy convention then this is where you want to be! Who doesn’t find that exciting?

What are your plans and highlights for the upcoming year?
Moving Mountains is excited to announce that we will be joining the Colony showroom this month, which has an outstanding roster: Assembly, Egg Collective, Meg Callahan, and Vonnegut/Kraft to name a few. This will mean that we’ll have a physical presence in Manhattan and select pieces can finally be viewed in person.

I’ve also recently worked on some design-related projects like the Sight Unseen pop-up shop build-out as well as proposals for public art pieces, so I’m looking forward to more opportunities outside of furniture design.

My biggest plan, however, is to focus on growing the business. It’s been a whirlwind couple of months and I feel like my participation in this year’s ICFF in May was strangely like a debutante ball, though I’ve never been to one. I put on my best dress (well, I wore outfits that color-coordinated with my booth), showed off my assets (furniture), and danced with every prospective suitor that came my way (chit-chatted with press, designers, fabricators, retailers, miscellaneous businesses). As a result, some great and different types of opportunities have presented themselves but it’s too soon to say what will pan out yet — so stay tuned!

What inspires your work in general?
My instinct is to make things comfortable and functional so I derive a lot of satisfaction from designing something that people will want to use and enjoy using it. The collection I just debuted at this year’s ICFF and Sight Unseen OFFSITE came out of a very practical question. “What kind of furniture would I want in my home?” I was essentially designing for myself which is the most natural and honest way to go about it. More recently, though, I’ve been interested in designing less functional pieces or loosening the parameters. Not because I think function is any less important than form but because it’s a challenge for me and a strange, new territory to be in.