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At the London Design Festival, Via Dan Rubinstein of Surface

We at Sight Unseen are very busy people. We have babies to nurse (congratulations, Jill!), articles to write for other publications, subjects to spend hours and hours interviewing for this publication, and designers to hassle about finishing their submissions for our still top-secret online shop, set to launch in a little over a month (trust us, it's going to be good). Thus, we sometimes don't have the chance to attend events like the London Design Festival, even as we cringe with regret watching invitations roll in for Established & Sons and Phillips de Pury dinners, friends' exhibition openings, and dozens more chances to take the pulse of one of our favorite local design scenes. When that happens, we reach out to folks we trust and ask them to report back on whatever highs, lows, and drunken blurs they may have witnessed on the ground. Here, Dan Rubinstein, the intrepid editor of Surface magazine — both Jill and I are contributing editors — shares some of the details and moments he was privy to during last week's LDF, which he somehow managed to take time out of his own busy schedule to attend. As for us, you know what they say: There's always next year.
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What inspired your Batucada series? “Music and cans. In Brazil, people in the favelas play instruments made of tin and aluminum pots, and ‘batucada’ is the percussion sound made by beating them. The process interested me in general because Brazil recycles 98% of its aluminum — it’s a record. The cans are collected by hand by people who collect trash in the street. It’s a crazy system but it works very well. The factory that spins the aluminum for me uses recycled metal.”

Brunno Jahara, Product Designer

If you think about it in the context of design, Brazil is a lot like America: A vast, relatively young country with a tiny cadre of contemporary designers struggling both to step out of the long shadow of their mid-century forebears, and to create objects in a near-industrial vacuum. But you won’t hear Brazilian designer Brunno Jahara complaining — having lived in dozens of European countries, worked under Jaime Hayon at Fabrica, and run a freelance business from Amsterdam before moving back to São Paulo a few years ago, he credits his native country as being the catalyst for his newfound success. “In Brazil I have all the freedom I didn’t have in Europe, because there’s a whole historical background over there that holds you to making things in a certain way,” says the 32-year-old.
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For "Achille is Watching Us," Krzykowski and Lorusso collected personal objects from 32 different European and American designers, displaying them in the ground-floor storefront of a small historical building in Milan where the marble used to make the Duomo was once polished. Each item was accompanied by a story written by the designer about how they had acquired it and why they had hung onto it. Fifteen of those stories are posted in the following slides.

Achille is Watching Us

There were thousands of exhibitions going on in Milan two weeks ago, when the annual furniture fair took over the city, stuffing its subway cars and panini shops full of hungover design tourists. But in terms of sheer number of designers represented per square foot, one emerged a clear winner: “Achille is Watching Us,” for which the young designer and journalist Matylda Krzykowski and architect Marco Gabriele Lorusso managed to corral no less than 32 marquis names — Nacho Carbonell, Peter Marigold, and Bless among them — into an empty shopfront no larger than the average New Yorker’s bedroom. That’s because the pair, after being offered the space for free by the building’s wealthy and culturally savvy owner, decided not to show any design inside it all. Instead, they asked the talents Krzykowski had befriended through her blog, Mat&Me, to each contribute one small personal belonging and tell the story behind it. “Milan is so commercial — it’s about retailing and selling,” Krzykowski explains. “You get so caught up in looking at what’s new that you get lost in it. This year we decided to turn it around, to look at the things that are really important.”
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A view of the house — with Ramakers at work at the dining table — from the so-called “winter room.” It has a fireplace and a few of the couple's dozens of themed bookshelves, including one full of hundreds of travel guides. The clock on the wall is an antique, from the ’20s.

Renny Ramakers, Director of Droog

First-time travelers to Amsterdam — perceptive ones, anyway — need only to spend a day navigating its cobbled streets to notice what makes the experience so singular. The buildings are old and narrow, and many seem perilously cockeyed. With their decorative facades and fanciful gables, they resemble oversized gingerbread houses. And when you walk by them, you witness a sight even more peculiar than all of the above: an unobstructed view straight into the living rooms and kitchens of the people who live inside, who refrain from hanging curtains even at ground level. As a locally based friend explained to me on a recent visit, the Dutch may value privacy just as much as the rest of us, but they also take a certain pride in proving they have nothing to hide. This was the thought running through my mind the day that Renny Ramakers, co-founder and director of the influential Dutch design laboratory Droog, let me wander around inside her home unsupervised, snapping hundreds of voyeuristic photos of her possessions while she worked calmly away at her dining table.
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“I have always been fascinated by the lively Icelandic cultural scene as well as its geographical uniqueness,” Vendramin writes in her project description, echoing our sentiments. “It is in the Icelandic landscape, in fact, that many artists like Katrin Sigurdardottir, Ragnar Kjartansson, or Olafur Eliasson find the inspiration to create.”

DesignMarch 2011 in Reykjavik

What Iceland may lack in sunshine — getting, on average, less than half the amount of rays New Yorkers enjoy annually — it easily compensates for in natural beauty. When it's light outside, the landscape is an almost otherworldly sight, with blackened crags of lava softened by bright heaps of moss and glaciers melting into never-ending expanses of steel-blue sea. When it's dark, there's a symphony of northern lights to behold. With all of that visual stimulation surrounding them it's no wonder Icelanders are aesthetically gifted, with a fashion sense that rivals Stockholm's in its cacophany of colors and textures and a community of designers that needn't look further than their own backyards for inspiration. When Sight Unseen was invited to Reykjavik this past weekend to attend the opening of Iceland's third annual DesignMarch festival, that was precisely what struck us most: Whether the work we saw directly referenced the country's landscape and culture or just told a story about its current state of affairs — as with one designer we met who had to shutter her architecture practice after the bank crash and start anew — the show felt like a singularly local celebration.
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Geodes: Yes, geodes are trendy right now, but this is one instance where I’ve liked them since I was a child more because I was a nerd than a trendsetter. When I was young I collected rocks, and I had a purple geode I loved to just pick up and stare at. (I also had a rock tumbler, and I tried to grow crystals from a box a few times, too.) Now I have new geodes, and one set into a pendant that I found in a crappy rock shop in Barcelona for 3 Euros. I highly endorse decorating with them — plants are not the only things that can bring a natural element indoors.

Monica Khemsurov, Co-Editor

In honor of Sight Unseen's first anniversary, we, the editors, decided to turn the lens on ourselves, revealing what inspires us as writers about and champions of design and art. If you're an especially devoted reader of Sight Unseen, you might have noticed that Monica — who spent her childhood putting bugs under a kiddie microscope and was at the head of her high-school calculus class — often tends towards subjects inspired by geometry and science, while Jill — whose love for color and pattern likely began with an uncommonly large novelty earring collection — favors maximalist, throw-every-color-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks types. We were interested to see how those formative experiences would play out in a documention of our own reference points. Here's a closer look at eight of Monica's editor's picks.
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Mexico: “With the fruit on the table, this is like a color still life,” says van Eijk. “I’m intrigued by them. The Settings project I did for the Zuiderzee museum was really about setting and still lives. And this was just standing on the street somewhere, not designed at all, like a coincidence. Maybe no one thought about it looking nice. If you really designed it or styled it, it would never look as special as this. Then you almost start thinking, is it good to be a designer? Isn’t it nicer if there are no designers in the world? It’s interesting if you can keep this kind of intuitive thinking in your work, and try not to direct everything, but to let coincidence play a role. It’s really hard to achieve; you have to put a lot of effort into making something effortless.”

Kiki and Joost’s World Travels

When Kiki van Eijk and Joost van Bleiswijk were invited this year to each create a series based on the collections at the Zuiderzee Museum, an art and history center in a former port region in the north of Holland, they got to do what they’re known for doing best: looking backwards to research archetypal objects from the past — in this case old Dutch ironing boards, apothecary pots, and shipping trunks — then reinterpreting them using new shapes and luxe materials. What most people don’t realize, though, is that the couple are equally obsessed with looking outwards, having backpacked their way through far-flung countries together each year since they graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven, photographing intriguing uses of color, pattern, texture, and technique along the way.
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From left, on an IKO WAKA big dot paper print: Rattan Takraw ball, nabeshiki trivet, vintage pink streamer, glazed dish from Hagi, IKO IKO hand-cast bronze bangle, nabeshiki trivet. “I had been looking for something everyone in Japan used, the kind of thing you’d see on everyone’s table. All the houses we went to had these woven trivets, which are only made in Okinawa. I saw them at department stores, so I don’t think they’re seen as these highly prized craft objects. It’s more that people use them, and they happen to be a cool design. But everyone does recognize that they always come from Okinawa, which is an idea we’ve lost in America. While our objects may be designed here, we always know they’re from another place, which takes away that regional or local feel.”

Kristin Dickson of L.A.’s Iko Iko

Inside Kristin Dickson’s store Iko Iko in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, there are polka dot shirts and wooden knitting needles, zig-zag coathooks and Mexican moccasins, ceramic urns and jars of jam. There are selections from Dickson’s crystal and vintage-book collections — the latter with titles like “On Weaving” or “On Fiberworks” — plus pieces from her boyfriend Shin Okuda’s furniture line Waka Waka. And as of this month, these items were joined by a haul of objects from a three-week trip the couple took to Okuda’s native Japan, where the fare spanned vintage textiles to traditional trivets to novelties like toothpaste and black Q-tips. It’s a credit to the pair’s curating talents that the shop nevertheless feels like the product of a coherent vision. “I focus on work that balances high design with craft and traditional processes,” says Dickson. “I want it to be a fun exploration of textures, cultural artifacts, utilitarian objects, and beautiful curiosities.”
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The finished chairs. “In the original project, the chairs were all beaten up, so it was nice to fancy them up. But Richard needs to have something consistent if people want to buy a whole set, so these chairs are brand new. I still have a back stock of vintage ones, though, and if I see a cool folding chair, I’ll buy it.”

Tanya Aguiñiga, Textile and Furniture Designer

Los Angeles designer Tanya Aguiñiga already had two studios when she took up a third this summer: the first in the backyard of the Atwater Village bungalow she shares with her husband and two sisters, and the second six blocks away, in a converted industrial-park-turned-artists’-community near the train tracks. But in early July, Aguiñiga picked up and moved her shop 2,000 miles south to the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, for a five-week residency — the first in a project she calls Artists Helping Artisans. “I had gone to Oaxaca and Chiapas in 2007, and there was so much amazing stuff being produced by the women there,” she says. “People aren’t aware of it because the skills aren’t being passed down anymore and because people are scared to travel within Mexico. There’s isn’t enough tourism or income to sustain these crafts.”
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Vintage and hand-crafted jewelry: When I arrived, Lee was wearing an amazing, architectural, mixed-metal cuff, which turned out to be the work of Anndra Neen, the Mexico City–born, New York–based jewelry-making sisters who made their TenOverSix debut last month. (That’s their necklace above as well.) The sisters hand-craft pieces made from copper, brass, and nickel silver at their workshop in Mexico City. “We actually just did shoe collaboration with them, with all of these little metal pieces on the front of the shoe,” Lee says.

Fashion Designer Kristen Lee of TenOverSix

Most people, if given the luxury of a third bedroom in a house they share only with a spouse, might choose to turn it into a guestroom, or a studio, or maybe a study. Kristen Lee, a stylist and co-owner of L.A.’s fashion and design emporium TenOverSix, turned hers into a walk-in closet. Step inside and you’ll discover rolling racks of designer and vintage, scarves tossed carelessly around a dress form, shoes lined up in neat little rows, a steamer in the corner, and accessories spilling out over the dresser. And yet for someone so clearly attuned to and obsessed with fashion, it’s not the clothes you first sense when you enter the Ed Fickett–designed, mid-century, Nichols Canyon home she bought last year with her husband and then “renovated the shit out of,” as she says. It’s the incredible proliferation of art. Stephen Shore, Banksy, Leopold Seyffert, Nan Goldin — and that’s just in the living room.
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Ceramics: "For centuries, British porcelain makers were fascinated with Asian-style ceramics, so it's interesting to see people applying this old idea in new ways," says O'Neal. The artist Brendan Lee Tang, for example, sculpts playful, Manga– and pop-art-inspired armatures around what appear to be traditional Chinese Ming Dynasty vases.

AvroKo’s Anglo-Asian Influences

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.
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A view of Psyrri, an upscale shopping area in the center of Athens. "It used to be full of wholesale centers and metal, wood, and leather workshops. Then in the '90s a lot of artists and designers kept their lofts and studios there," Kotsilelou says. "Now it's super-decadent. This picture is a great example of typical Athens architecture where buildings are extended vertically, one on top of the other."

Greece Is For Lovers in Athens

A disclaimer: Athens can be a beautiful city, with striking juxtapositions between ancient and modern architecture and sunshine on par with Los Angeles. (check out this video for proof). But when seen through the eyes of the young design trio Greece Is For Lovers, who grew up there and now keep a studio at the foot of the Acropolis, the view isn’t quite so rosy.
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