The 2023 American Design Hot List, Part II

This week we announced our 11th annual American Design Hot List, Sight Unseen’s editorial award for the names to know now in American design. We’re devoting an entire week to interviews with this year’s honorees — get to know the second group of Hot List designers here (including Little Wing Lee, whose graphic rug for the most recent Black Folks in Design exhibition is pictured above).

Dan John Anderson

Yucca Valley, California;
Having spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest, Anderson relocated to the desert in 2012, moving to Joshua Tree, California, where he apprenticed in the studios of artists Andrea Zittel and Alma Allen. In his solo practice, he combines the best of those artists — Zittel’s expansiveness with Allen’s sense of proportion and scale — making monolithic, hand-turned sculptures and objects from native woods like pine, cedar, and oak, often patched with butterfly joints like some kind of High Desert Nakashima. It’s trendy right now to make rough-hewn sculptures using tools like a chain saw, lathe, grinders, and chisels, but Anderson was one of the first — and best — of this generation to do so. 

What is American design to you, and what excites you about it?

American design is a lot of things, I suppose that’s what excites me about it — kind of anything goes in the proverbial melting pot. My work mostly stems from a more folk/craft, material-based tradition, but I love to see things get mixed up — raw and refined, industrial and primitive, neutral and colorful, old, new, etc. Variety makes for a more engaging conversation; new combinations and different contexts spark new feelings which go back into the pot and around we go.

What are your plans and highlights for the upcoming year?

I’m working towards another experiential installation out here in the desert as a kind of continuation of a couple similar projects that I did here over the last few years. The first was High Desert Dinner in 2020, an installation of sculptures, furniture, and tablewares made with help from friends in this community to facilitate a small series of dinners that we hosted in a remote desert wash adjacent to A-Z West in Joshua Tree. This event marked the 10-year anniversary of my first visit to the desert, and for me, it was a way to celebrate, express gratitude for, and pay respect to this place and my experience of it since. The second such installation was Pink Moon Ruins in 2022. This took place at an historical or maybe legendary location out here that had been left in ruin since a large earthquake struck in 1992.  Here, I installed a series of sculptures which in this context were intended to further evoke a spirit of place. This space was additionally activated by performers and guests, all effectively adding to the continuation and memory of this place. My interest in these kinds of experiential installations is layered. As someone who makes furniture and sculpture, I think that, among other things, these projects give me an opportunity to explore how objects and context can function to facilitate or instigate the unfolding of a more primary and essential part of ourselves. I also appreciate the adventurous spirit involved in these kinds of efforts and what that adds to context, story, and memory. The date of my next installation is still TBD as I am trying to figure out how to fit it in with what else I have coming up.

Recently we finished a larger series of work with friend and architect Linda Taalman as part of her overhaul of the Chandon Winery in Napa. We made a couple dozen various scale and unique pieces that figure prominently throughout the ambitious project. Unfortunately no photos just yet, but we’ll be able to share soon.

I just had a small collection of work with The Future Perfect at Design Miami, and I have a piece up at The Blunk Space in Point Reyes for the 100 Hooks show. I just shipped another small collection of work to The Future Perfect in New York and one up to Spartan Shop in Portland.

In the studio, we’re currently working on an entry door for Play Mountain in Tokyo — old growth redwood salvaged from a barn near Sacramento that is getting sculpted and will include a few little cast glass windows and cast bronze door handles.

In early April, I have a smaller solo show with SCP in London. Later in April, we have a traveling group show that I have put together with my friends at Curators Cube in Tokyo. It will be a collection of work from three Japan-based artists — Kazunori Hamana, Yukiko Kuroda, and Yu Kobayashi — and then two American artists, myself and Ido Yoshimoto. This collection of work will first be installed and exhibited at A-Z West in Joshua Tree and then will travel north, where, two weeks later, it will be installed and exhibited at Salmon Creek Farm in Albion, CA. Later in the fall of 2024, I will have a solo show at Sogetsu Plaza in Tokyo with Curators Cube.

In addition, I have a number of commissions in the works, as well as some exciting professional possibilities percolating. Through all of this is also the expansion of our studio, which is a big project in and of itself, but much needed as it will allow for more space, greater means, and greater potential.

And always, there is our house — still chipping away, but getting closer.

What inspires or informs your work in general? 

I want to make things that furnish the landscape of our subconscious. I’m driven by a sense of exploration and inspired by the people, places, and moments along the way. I also find inspiration in doing the work and I’m motivated by feeling more than thought. Engaging nature and collaborating with raw material tend to point me in a good direction.

Darren Jett

New York,
An interior designer who worked for ASH NYC and Rafael de Cárdenas before striking out on his own in 2020, Jett grew up in rural Tennessee and was an Architectural Digest subscriber by the tender age of 8. Little did he know he’d end up two decades later as host of a breakout YouTube series for that same magazine, in which he dispenses home makeover advice with a mix of practicality and theater, advising one client to douse her bedroom nook in Gucci pink, or encouraging a studio apartment dweller to combine her sofa and bed into one. The thread running through Jett’s work is a sense of high drama — he’s partial to bedroom walls fully covered in velvet drapery, wall-to-wall silk carpeting, beds perched on leather platforms, mirrored backsplashes, murals, and more.

What is American design to you, and what excites you about it?

American design is a feeling of being free and untethered. What that looks like from an aesthetic point of view is entirely up to the creator. To envision your own world, blank slate, is the most exciting thing imaginable. What’s better than being untethered to a history and being able to pick and choose references so freely? Key point is doing your research.

What are your plans and highlights for the upcoming year?

Loads more videos with Architectural Digest. More than anything, I love sharing creative and researched design with a wider audience that perhaps isn’t used to being challenged. The audience loves these videos and glimpses into process, and I believe it’s a result of the void in the market for something provocative and fun. It brings me so much joy.

For projects, we are crossing from one design world into another. Although all of my projects are tied together by seduction and storytelling, the look that is coming up is vastly different than what anyone has seen from me.

We are releasing two projects in the first half of the year that are in keeping with what you’ve seen — both are of a sexy, minimal, bachelor pad aesthetic that is achingly pure. Think stainless steel, carpeting, mirrors, and unabashed sex appeal. It is sort of funny because then the following projects will be like whiplash, a sort of reinvention which excites me terribly.

One is an ode to swinging 1960s London through an Art Nouveau lens for a fabulous young woman in fashion. Think Biba meets layer-upon-layer of passementerie and pattern, irreverent and young. Another home is a Raj-era Indian fantasy come to life, for a young couple from Karnataka, where every wall is either an intricate mosaic or covered in a mural, with floating canopy beds and loads of vibrant antiques textiles. Another is a friend’s house in the Berkshires: Think the countryside but on mushrooms. Lots of Bloomsbury references, and full of exciting color and humor. Very British, and very smart. On top of that, we have projects in the Middle East and Europe which are just coming to our pin-up boards.

What inspires or informs your work in general?

I’m a very curious person, and I won’t stop diving into a world until I know as much as I can about any particular subject. Once I’ve digested and applied it fully to a project, I close that chapter and move on to something of a completely different aesthetic.

I devour biographies and memoirs of people I aspire to be, whether it be in the world of interiors, fashion, entertainment or politics. My design library at home is rather extensive — I buy at least one new book each week. I read most every evening and early morning. Friends’ recommendations for movies. Listening to music that suits each project. David Bowie to Warda. I spend a lot of time at home, but it’s also important to meet people. Anyone from a different creative or business world inspires me — the people in my life who know fashion, cultural history, and commerce keep me curious and full of things to write down and look up.

Travel: I’ve just returned from three insane weeks in Japan, exploring the cities and countryside (equally as important to experience both). Before that was two weeks in Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, and one week in Portugal. I’m hoping for more long journeys in 2024 to places that are just as inspiring and influential to my process.

Quietness and solitude: Those are powerful moments to gain confidence, and the only time when electricity moves from your brain and into the physical realm.

I also have to work with clients who are invested in their lives, who are as curious by research and unforgiving to copy/paste as I am. They must be kind, gentle and open. They become my dearest friends, and they become my ultimate source of inspiration, as they become the main character in the set I am designing, for the movie called their life.

Kim Mupangilaï

New York, @pangilai
From the moment we stepped into Mupangilaï’s Brooklyn brownstone to photograph it for our book, How to Live With Objects, we knew we were working with a next-level talent. Mupangilaï’s sensitivity to texture, material, and the weight of her own cultural upbringing — she was born in Belgium to European and African parents — were already palpable in her living space. Our hunch was confirmed when she released her first-ever furniture collection with Superhouse earlier this year: seven pieces made from traditional Congolese materials like teak, rattan, and banana fiber — our favorite being an armoire whose door resembles an African shield and whose limb-like appendage calls to mind a stiletto — whose delicate, feminine aesthetic couldn’t belong to anyone else. 

What is American design to you, and what excites you about it?

America is a diverse nation, influenced by an influx of people from all corners of the world, and the design scene here is absolutely reflective of that. Different cultural influences and aesthetics have prevailed over the years, so it’s tough to say what’s characteristically American. However, what really excites me about the time we are living in as designers and creatives is that we can merge complex design with practicality even though design can often have the appearance of being non-functional. It’s this playful duality that reiterates the concept of art/design being subjective and allows design to be interpreted however the viewer or user sees fit.

What are your plans and highlights for the upcoming year?

I still find myself in explorative territory when it comes to this new phase in my career, and I definitely feel as though my work has opened a Pandora’s box. I am excited to continue pursuing and evolving. I’ve also been playing with the idea of a book, combining the aesthetic and educational. A dream would be to work on a commission for a museum with a focus on cultural landscape and the notion of cultural appropriation. I believe there is a much larger conversation to be held on both topics within the design context and industry. The educational aspect of design has also been something that has always interested me and I would like to explore that more. Another dream would be to work on commissions for fashion houses that I admire.

What inspires or informs your work in general?

The main inspiration for my work is the cultural landscape. I wanted my body of work to mirror the ambiguity and interpretation of my cultural identity. Therefore, the title of my recent solo show ‘Hue I Am/Hue Am I’ and more so the word ‘HUE’ refers to the aspect of colors and gradation of shades which speak to the attribution of my heritage, the discernment of cross-culture and the dependence of ancestral storytelling. The complexity of each piece in my furniture series reads and reveals parts of my cultural landscape and heritage which coincides with the narrative of the work. There is no one specific message I intended to share with my body of work because interpretation is always subjective. However, I do want to emphasize the complexity of our identities as individuals and the endless lineages that come with that. I hope viewers relate, whether that’s on a cultural level or not, our identities are so unique to us that it naturally evokes conversation.

Little Wing Lee

New York,
Lee first came onto our radar in her role as the design director at Atelier Ace — we still daydream about the sunlit, plant-filled, Rodolfo Dordoni-chairfied sitting room at New York’s now-defunct Sister City hotel — but what really made us sit up and take notice was Lee’s foundation in 2017 of the Black Folks in Design collective, for whom she’s curated two blockbuster exhibitions, most recently at Verso in Tribeca. An international network that spans disciplines, each BFiD exhibition spotlights members of the Black design community but also means to promote the idea that design and aesthetics aren’t simply a luxury but part of everyday life and therefore play a role in social, economic, and racial justice efforts. In her projects arm as Studio & Projects, Lee’s recently wowed us with colorful graphic rugs produced by Odabashian, and she’s currently at work on a large-scale community project in Harlem, alongside Frida Escobedo and Handel Architects. We can’t wait to see what she does next.

What is American design to you, and what excites you about it?

In some ways, the shadow of mid-century design continues to loom long in American design. So much of what is produced is in keeping with or in reaction to it. But I’m most excited about what inspirations can be found before that period. Native American design, the works of enslaved Africans, overlooked Asian Americans, and more. We have such a rich history to draw from. I’m beginning to believe that we may be seeing the envelope opening and that more voices of women, Black folks, and people of color are being recognized as part of the conversations across design disciplines. There is still a lot of work to be done around this, but I do find reason to hope that the American design canon is expanding.

What are your plans and highlights for the upcoming year?

I’m really excited about the scope of things Studio & Projects has to look forward to this year. On the product side, we just launched our light fixture, Cape, which is the first release from our lighting collection in collaboration with RBW. This has been in the works for the past couple of years with additional designs launching in 2024. We are also continuing to expand our rug collection with Odabashian. On the project side, highlights include a just kicked-off exhibit design project, a couple of new residential opportunities, an almost completed restaurant, a new hotel in an amazing historic building, and the opening of Ray Harlem and National Black Theatre. As for Black Folks in Design, coming off the success of our show this Fall we are already formulating new plans for 2024, including working to stage an exhibition abroad. So we have quite a bit on our plate and also feel lucky to get to work on such a variety of projects.

What inspires or informs your work in general? 

I’m a bit of a researcher at heart, so I always love to start and to ground a project by looking at basic things like context, location, and function. Like most designers, I have a library of books and images that I’ll initially draw from, but of course every project is unique in some number of ways which will inevitably lead to additional avenues I’ve yet to explore. Art is a huge inspiration for me in our projects. That could mean a color palette from a painting, the lighting in a photograph, or simply the mood and emotion of a piece. I’m also very much a textures and materials person, so I’ll often draw from my collection of items to provide jumping off points. I’m definitely a bit of a collector of things (high and low) — cast glass, scarves, small bowls, the list goes on. This can create some organizational challenges, but also great inspiration!